School 'Choice' Vouchers and Educational Triage

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- A new language has entered the world of education. Call it "Voucherspeak."

Its proponents speak of "school choice," the ability of parents to pick their children's schools, as a way to bring about educational "excellence" by forcing schools to "compete" with each other, sort of like hamburger franchises, and drive the bad schools "out of business."


The "voucher" visionaries imagine a world in which parents would receive vouchers for the money now spent on their children's public schooling so the poor could shop private and parochial schools as the rich already do.

It is a vision so glorious that support for vouchers has risen dramatically in recent years, perhaps most dramatically among poor black families, even though skeptics fear vouchers might lead to more segregation, isolation and misery for poor minority children.


A recent poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank specializing in black issues, found an astonishing 88 percent of African-Americans favor education choice plans that include public and private schools, with the highest support (95 percent) coming from African-Americans with annual incomes of less than $15,000. A Gallup survey came back with similar results, 77 percent support among blacks.

And Voucherspeak has become a defining litmus-test lingo in the politics of 1992. During the presidential debates President Bush (Phillips Andover, Class of '42) strongly advocated "vouchers," which would allow parents to spend public money on tuition to private or religious schools.

His opponent, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (Hot Springs High School, Class of '64) also favored "choice" and "competition," but limited to public schools. No vouchers.

Who's right? A poll released by the Princeton-based Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching a week before the election shed some light -- and quickly generated political heat. It, too, found a majority of parents of all races liked the idea of school choice, but, given the choice, 70 percent said they would not switch to another school, public or private. Only 28 percent said they would.

In the 13 states that have statewide open enrollment among public schools, fewer than 2 percent of eligible parents take part.

And in Milwaukee, America's only operating public and private school-voucher program so far, fewer than 700 students take part, the study notes.

And most of the parents who do switch schools, according to Carnegie, do so for non-academic reasons. So much for the pursuit of educational excellence.

President Bush's Education Secretary Lamar Alexander quickly fired back a terse 80-word response, saying that Carnegie's assessment of 28 percent (or 12 million children) as "mild" support is "truly astonishing."


"Only a very self-satisfied establishment could so easily dismiss so many parents' wishes," Mr. Alexander huffed. "Would the Berlin Wall still be a good idea if only 28 percent of East Germans wanted out?"

Hardly. But only a very self-satisfied administration could so easily dismiss Carnegie's reality check. Maybe the parents know something Washington's deep thinkers are missing. Maybe vouchers, attractive as they may be for some, have been vastly oversold as a cure for the nation's educational ills.

For one thing, parents don't "choose" private schools so much as private schools choose their students. They reserve the right to screen out the disabled, troublesome or slow learners. The publics cannot.

Sure, government could attach conditions to its vouchers, but wouldn't the same conservatives who call the loudest for vouchers now be the first to howl over government intrusions later?

While vouchers will help some deserving youngsters get a better education, what about the poor kids left behind? Even public-school choice is no bargain if we only take more resources away from underprivileged schools to pump up the performance numbers of a few showcase "magnets."

I think the growing public outcry for vouchers, especially among the poor, reflects a growing frustration over the savage inequalities that result from funding schools almost completely through local property taxes. You buy your school when you buy your house (or rent your apartment), and low-income children suffer the most.


Instead of offering a sensible proposal to make all public schools into "magnets," havens of top-quality education, the voucher visionaries offer a form of triage that rewards those students whose parents have the most resources in money, enthusiasm or knowledge of the system but does next to nothing for the hard-luck cases who need help the most.

I don't think most Americans have given up quite yet on Horace Mann's dream of universal educational opportunity as the bedrock of a democratic, productive and safe society. We can still achieve it. The choice is ours.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.