As proponents of school choice hail these breakthroughs, public school partisans quake - and their arguments for shoring up the public school wall grow more illogical and self-serving.
Days before the Wisconsin decision, Chicago's Board of Education president said vouchers would encourage "providers (of education) . . . that are out just to make a buck. They'll have uncertified teachers, uncertified facilities." How much does his board pay for certified teachers? Does he read the test scores? The reports of rapes and shootings in certified city schools?
Harry Weinberg, superintendent of the San Diego County public schools, also worries that parents will fall prey to no-account private education purveyors. He asks in Education Week, "If a private school spends public money foolishly, to whom can taxpayers complain?" He forgets parents can withdraw children if the school doesn't shape up.
Another of his concerns: "Unregulated private schools would be free to promote their particular religious, social, or ethnic agendas at the expense of our democratic traditions." At the core of these traditions is freedom to choose one's own agenda. Choice allows parents who wish to do so to reject the public school agenda, which - at taxpayer expense - often substitutes counseling for education and teaches values many believe to be in conflict with the family, morality and free enterprise.
Like many educators, Weinberg wants private school teachers licensed like public school teachers to ensure "a level playing field." State licensing has helped make U.S. public schools the world's worst. Leveling private school teachers would level private schools.
Another version of the argument that private schools must be accountable to the state if they get tax money comes from Frank Kemerer, education law professor at the University of North Texas. Writing in Education Week, he doubts "taxpayers will accept . . . the unregulated expenditure of large amounts of public money" in private schools, suggesting that if taxes fund private school choice, heavy government regulation must follow.
This seemingly logical argument has led some private schools to declare they would refuse vouchers. Yet there's no legal basis for claims that choice would end private education qua private education, according to attorney William Ball, an expert on public aid to private schools. He says that aid given directly to parents isn't an institutional subsidy to schools and so won't entail "burdensome regulations of private schools."
Choice opponents also raise the specter of state-supported religion. ''Separation of church and state," or "Remember the establishment clause," they warn. Article One says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
If giving students state money to pay for religious schools amounts to ''establishment of religion," we've been guilty for decades. Some of the millions educated under the GI Bill chose religious colleges or even seminaries. Graduates of religious colleges teach in public schools. Public school teachers take graduate courses at religious institutions, paying tuition with tax money. Is it equitable to deny the same right to their students?
A favorite anti-choice argument is that private schools seem better only
because parents who choose them are more caring, or - from a letter in the Washington Times - because their students have more "basic intelligence and testing ability overall." The writer ignores those children public schools label "disabled," who succeed when placed in private schools.
He says private schools have "smaller classes and frequently more idyllic atmosphere." Nonsense. Except for a few costly private schools, most - including Roman Catholic schools that teach poor children in inner cities - have larger classes than public schools. Their secret isn't "idyllic atmosphere," but willingness to maintain order and stress academic learning.
Despite strident union opposition to choice, many teachers support it. Some teachers, frustrated by lax discipline policy and the psycho-social programs that now pass for public education, leave the profession. Others gladly switch to private school teaching, accepting lower pay and benefits so they can truly educate children. Several studies show that public school teachers often send their own children to private schools.
Some opponents take the moral high ground, claiming choice denies equal education for all students. They say some parents would make poor choices. True, but even their children couldn't be worse off than they are today in chaotic, no-learn public schools.
We all lose when everyone is forced to accept government decisions for fear of "inequalities" if people make their own. After suffering this egalitarian insanity for 70 years, the people of the former U.S.S.R. know it's a fraud. It's sad to see public school defenders trotting out the same argument, trying to ensure millions of U.S. children an equally bad education.
Some public school defenders, misled by this perverse logic, really do care about children. Others don't. They stand the some-children-will-be- shortchanged argument on its head, complaining that private schools will take their good students, leaving the "worst" in public schools. Aside from exposing public educators' view that the public should serve them, and not vice-versa, this argument is meaningless. First, parents of failing students are as apt to flee public schools as are other parents. Second, many private schools accept all comers. Many, like Marva Collins' school, take pride in succeeding with children public schools have given up on.
Finally, opponents of choice betray their desperation by admitting that today's public schools couldn't compete in a free market. Reacting to the Wisconsin decision, a teachers union spokesperson says, "The precedent would start and just snowball." Despite the inevitable challenges ahead, the snowball could turn into an avalanche capable of demolishing an already weakened public school wall.
Since Day One of the choice movement we've heard laments that "Choice will destroy public schools!" It sounds more convincing every year - a ringing indictment of public schools, no different from "if we take down the wall, they'll all leave." There's no better argument for dismantling the wall that denies millions of U.S. children and their parents the freedom to choose good education at reasonable cost.