The “Opportunity Scholarships” legislated by the General Assembly and approved by the governor are a mistake for several reasons. I support the right of parents to send their children to private schools that are “recognized” by the state, as well as to homeschool their children, but the argument against these vouchers for private school attendance has nothing to do with allowing parents to make alternative arrangements for their children.
The question is whether taxpayer money should be used to support such efforts. The answer is no for several reasons:
• There is already evidence from Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington that public voucher systems are not successful. The educational results have been disappointing, and there have been a number of cases of outright fraud and abuse by private school entrepreneurs who took advantage of the public coffers, much to the detriment of children and their families. We should avoid such unfortunate outcomes in North Carolina.
• The use of public funds would (should) necessitate closer scrutiny of private schools in ways that these schools might not want. There should be full disclosure similar to the case for other publicly supported schools of who is enrolled, the qualifications of teachers, the curriculum being adopted, scores on standardized tests, how monies are being used and the like. Whether such monitoring will actually be implemented is questionable, but like other taxpayers I would insist that it should be.
• Despite arguments to the contrary, the amount of money provided by these vouchers is rarely enough to support a poor child to attend a private school. It will primarily make a difference to those who already can afford attendance or those who need a little extra help to make attendance possible. The Opportunity Scholarships provide a maximum of $4,200. However, the average tuition and fees are $5,000 for a private elementary school and $9,000 for a private secondary school in North Carolina. Some elite private schools charge more than $20,000 per year.
• Private schools are not obligated to take all students, as is basically the case for public schools. These scholarships will intensify the extent to which we already have a two-tiered system of education, one for the well-off (in terms of finances, cultural capital and learning skills) and one for the not well-off. It will serve to widen not narrow the achievement gap about which so many express concern. For those who have seen the movie “Elysium,” you can perhaps picture what kind of world we could be headed for.
• Since many private schools that stand to gain from the vouchers are religious-based, such use of public funds seems in direct conflict with our country’s basic principles regarding the separation of church and state. While public monies are sometimes used to benefit children attending private schools, with regard to bus travel, curriculum materials and the like, they are not typically used to directly help pay for the cost of attendance.
• Most importantly, since the mid-19th century, there has been a consensus that there needs to be a high-quality public education system to provide the understanding, skills and dispositions that are needed for a vibrant democracy as well as a world-class economy. Public monies spent on vouchers exacerbate the economic and other difficulties that our public schools are facing. We need more financial and other support for our public schools, not less.
The intentions of some proponents may be good, but these vouchers will in fact contribute to the devaluing of the public schools that so many of our least advantaged children attend. And then there are others, motivated primarily by ideology and greed, who view “Opportunity Scholarships” as part of an overall effort to undermine the public sphere and marketize all aspects of our lives. Such efforts are intended to weaken a sense of the common good and elevate an extreme form of possessive individualism. Indeed, one might want to “follow the money” of who is financing the campaign for such vouchers to better understand who stands to benefit the most.
“A system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so will it be the latest, of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1818
Kenneth Teitelbaum, Ph.D., is dean of the Donald R. Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.