What Do You Think?
NYC Needs School Choice Vouchers
Give school choice a chance
by Jonathan Cipriani, Washington Square News,
A few years ago I participated in a very worthy volunteer program called Mentoring USA. You may have heard of it - college students, older adults or anyone else who wants to get involved can become a "youth mentor" for underprivileged public school students.
I was paired up with a boy in a public middle school on the east side of Manhattan. I met with him after school about once a week to help with homework or just talk about whatever we felt like talking about. He was a bright kid, but in spite of his obvious potential, he was struggling to stay motivated to keep up with his work. And although his teachers, the ones that I met anyway, were well-intentioned, dedicated people, visiting with him week after week quickly led me to realize that his school environment, which was chaotic at times, was not optimizing his chances for success.
Flash back to a few weeks ago, when New York City officials had to recall error-riddled elementary-school math textbooks after they had been sent to teachers. Among the various mistakes was the fairly obvious (at least, it should have been obvious) misspelling of the word "fourth" on the cover of a fourth-grade manual.
While it may be unfair to look at these snapshots as wholly representative of the quality of New York City public education, even the most ardent defenders of our public schools must admit that we are not doing everything we can for our students. The liberal approach to our education woes, which is to throw more and more money at our schools and hope for results, has clearly failed. According to the Heritage Foundation though, per-pupil education spending in America has nearly doubled in the last 30 years, American students continue to lag behind many of their foreign peers in math and science.
Fortunately, a new Bush administration proposal could bring hope to the families of poorer public-school students, like the boy I used to mentor, by allowing them to take advantage of the types of high-end private schools that wealthy Upper West Side liberals select for their own children. The New York Sun reported that NYC is considered a "strong contender" for federal funding to implement a school voucher program, which would give money to parents of public school students to help them afford private school tuition.
The city has already experimented with other forms of school choice, such as charter schools, that have been wildly popular with parents. A school voucher program would be a great new opportunity to expand school choices even further, and with the funding coming from the federal government rather than the city education budget, there would be no excuses about the city's inability to pay for it.
I asked Dr. Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at the Steinhardt School of Education and one of the nation's foremost experts on education, whether she thought the city should take up the school voucher funding offer. "I would say yes," Ravitch said via e-mail. "Catholic schools [in NYC] are closing because poor families can't afford them. If a few thousand children are able to attend Catholic schools with federally funded vouchers, it is no loss to the public schools."
Not only would it not be a loss to the public schools, but research by Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby shows that public schools can actually improve when they are made to compete with school vouchers and charter schools.
So who opposes school vouchers? Unfortunately, most of the opposition comes from self-styled "progressives." Despite all their professed sympathy for the plight of lower-income Americans, they react to the idea of allowing those Americans a greater say in their own children's education as vampires react to a cross. It is an article of faith for many opponents of school choice that the private sector cannot provide for anything better than the government. That includes education (statistics be damned), and if some students have to remain trapped in failing public schools so this point of pride can be maintained, then so be it.
Fortunately, this attitude is beginning to change. In light of the success of school choice programs around the country, even some prominent liberal politicians like Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California are beginning to think vouchers may not be such a bad idea, after all.
Officeholders frequently say that they're enacting this or that law "for the children." Most of the time, that's just rhetoric. But in the case of school vouchers, New York City has a rare opportunity to actually do the right thing, not just for our children, but for individual liberty as well. This is a win-win that we just can't afford to pass up. •