Now that North Carolinians can apply for vouchers, the impulse to think they will save education is a natural reaction to a crisis: Public school systems are failing millions of children. Much of this failing is a direct result of two unprecedented difficulties.
The greatest number of children in poverty the United States has ever seen has been accompanied by unprecedented levels of state and federal micromanagement of public school systems. Dont leave a child with a behind left until its been tested off, a teacher said to me recently.
Instead of mastery of material, there is a mandated teaching to the test and the key ingredient, passion for exploring and learning, is no longer valid because it cannot be measured. Nationally, we are even trying to find metrics to objectify art and music. This is not a joke. One can already hear a Washington bureaucrat muttering: Vincent, your colors are all wrong and your brushstrokes are sloppy!
The truth is, even with the micromanagement, public education still thrives. Our little system has and continues to produce great professors, artists, doctors, lawyers and politicians from all walks of life. No form of education should be blindly endorsed, and I have on occasion suggested to parents with kids struggling in public systems to try local private and charter alternatives. Among them is a tiny religious school that serves kids in poverty.
School vouchers would help these great little schools. But as we celebrate this, we should not forget vouchers have another side. To illustrate that point Id like to tell a story about a kid in our city schools well call David.
Eight years ago while David was in first grade, he watched from the back seat of his car while his father shot his mother. Then his father shot himself.
Two days later a teacher requested that David be placed in her class. She embraced the challenge of teaching a child who had just watched his father execute his mother. Not even the aforementioned religious school, which does a wonderful job with impoverished children, would have taken David. They have policies that mandate school parental involvement. David had no advocates to enroll him in a private, charter or Christian school, much less be involved enough to volunteer at school. Davids only advocates were foresighted school administrators who made the decision to move him to another elementary school where he could have a new start.
The first day David arrived, he sat in the corner in a catatonic state. The teacher placed pillows on the floor so he could lie down and then she slowly melted him with absolute, unconditional love. I couldnt begin to capture the transformation that occurred in David as he received one great teacher after another. Maybe Dostoyevsky or C.S. Lewis could, but let me say he is thriving in high school now.
A few months ago he read a poem to the school board. Having won the regional poetry slam contest, he was on his way to the national poetry slam finals.
David channeled his pain into poetry. Every word he spoke burned into the soul. If there was a dry face in the board room when David finished reading his poem, I didnt see it.
In our city schools, many children have suffered beyond imagination, and obviously there remain significant achievement gaps, but no private school religious or otherwise accepts our most needy kids because of the work and lack of parental involvement. Public schools accept everyone with grace. Vouchers siphon money away from kids like David.
Vouchers will help charter schools and religious schools, but kids like David will undoubtedly lose, and it reverses the message that we, as a people, are looking out for those in the most need. Im not sure thats something to celebrate.
Matt Buys is a member of the Asheville City Board of Education. His opinions are his own.