At least for me I find myself shaking my head a lot these days when I read the news. (Just a note for reference, I don’t watch television news. I do listen to NPR, though, and some of those stories leave me shaking my head, too.)
It’s bad enough that we can’t pass even a gun registration law through Congress, especially knowing that a substantial majority of people in this country favor some sort of registration law. I shake my head at the idiocy of Paul Ryan’s budget plan – and if he is a GOP intellectual heavyweight …
But those stories don’t bother as much as this one in The New York Times. The recent article reported that 17 states offer some sort of school voucher program to allow students to use state money to attend other than public schools. Georgia, for example, places few restrictions on the money, which means that families can use the money to send their children to religious schools.
I know there are public schools that are failing and that children should not have to attend them. Admittedly, if I were living in a district with a failing school and I wanted my children to get a decent education, I’d probably think school vouchers are not such a bad idea. However, when we take public money and give it to private schools which have no accountability to public education, we’re doing nothing to change the situation in the public schools.
The reality is that the track record for alternative schools, such as charters, which have arisen in response to the failings of the public schools in some areas, is mixed at best. A study done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University in 2009 showed charter schools performance based upon education gains varied by location. While there were charter students outperformed their peers in traditional public school settings in some locations, they also did worse in others. Essentially, charter schools did not significantly outperform traditional public schools. The report concluded that charter schools are not faring as well as their public school counterparts.
We can do better with our public education, but we’re going about it in the most bizarre way. Rather than trying to find ways to support public education, we seek to punish it. We pass legislation to divert money away from our public schools through vouchers or we authorize charter schools, which spreads what little money we allocate a bit more thinly. We want to test children as a way to measure their learning and use the results to reward or punish faculty and staff, which leads to narrowing the curriculum to the test.
Public education’s struggle and failings have a distinct correlation to poverty, but somehow we don’t really want to acknowledge that. Why don’t we map failing schools with various measures of poverty? I think the correlation would be too obvious, and goodness! we would be forced to address poverty.
The push towards education vouchers is another sign that the common good just doesn’t have the value in our nation as it once did. That’s what really makes me shake my head.
Public education has traditionally been understood as a fundamental building block to create a strong community. Quality education would be available to all children regardless of economic background, race (Brown vs. Board of Education), ethnicity, and physical ability. It was where a diverse population of children could learn the academics and learn to navigate the social conventions in order to live together in community with each other as adults. Public education was and is a great example of the common good.
But these vouchers are a sign that the common good is breaking down. While we’ve always had private schools where people could send their children for an education, that education came out of the family’s resources. When the state provides money to help families send their children to other schools outside of the public system, the state is implicitly divorcing itself from its own public obligation.
One of the gospel’s overriding message is the necessity for the public good. We’re all part of the same community and we’re to care for each other. We’re to support each other.
When we sustain the common good, we all prosper. True, some may prosper more if they don’t contribute to or help support the common good, but prosperity is more than what one owns. I often say that the measure of true wealth is not how much one has, but how much one gives away. The reality is a strong community needs a strong commitment to the common good. A strong community creates a general feeling of prosperity and ownership of the community’s institutions. Everyone, regardless of wealth, will feel better off and feel more secure.
When the state, though, undermines itself by offering education vouchers to spend with little or no restrictions (and little or no accountability), the state’s leadership has abdicated its responsibility and role to ensure the common good.
This is really bad.