The Nation's Stake in Public Schools


Most of the arguments concerning school-voucher proposals have become almost commonplace.

For the proponents: The choice that the voucher would give parents in selecting schools for their children; the incentive that a market system would give the moribund public system -- now often called "the government schools" by voucher advocates -- to break out of their inertia and to break the power of the bureaucracies and unions that now devour their resources; the additional investment parents would have in their children's education if, in fact, they had the power to pick their schools.

For the opponents: The money it would drain from the public system; the lack of control over how tax money would be spent in those private schools, whether operated by Muslims, Moonies, Queer Nation or the Flat Earth Society; the subsidy that it provides for the rich in those schools, especially secondary schools, that charge far more than the $2,600 yearly that (under a California proposal) the voucher would provide; the lack of real options for the large number of children not within walking distance of any alternative.

But there is a deeper issue as well, for this is something that goes well beyond schooling to democracy itself, and it's getting almost no attention at all.

One doesn't have to string together quotes from Jefferson, Horace Mann and John Dewey to understand that public schools -- the common school -- have been the paramount institutions in bringing Americans from different classes and backgrounds together, in Americanizing immigrants, in fostering both the common culture and the mutual understanding essential to life in a diverse society.

Of course it didn't always happen, and certainly isn't always happening now. For much of their history, many of our schools were segregated by race and sometimes by class; in many places they are segregated today. But not always. Nor does it diminish the importance of the ideal.

The moment a state votes for vouchers -- meaning it's willing to use tax money to subsidize abandonment of public schools -- it votes to repudiate that ideal.

It sounds almost maudlin to say such things these days, for appeals to the common purpose and common culture seem to find few enthusiasts, as if most of us had already given up. But it's precisely at a time like this, when there are so few other institutions that bring us together as Americans -- no compulsory military service, no transcendent national symbols, in some parts of America not even a common language -- that we can least afford to abandon the ideal.

It's understandable that the proponents would not mention such is- sues. Their appeal, after all, is to the private impulse -- often defensible enough -- to escape to something better, safer, more challenging, more responsive to one's own needs. The essence of their case is the private agenda. But the opponents of vouchers -- the school boards and school employee unions, the PTAs -- don't mention the social issues either.

Their arguments against the voucher talk about how the proposal "strips the neediest students of a fair chance to become strong citizens." Why don't they say that it reduces such chances for ALL students and thus drains from the whole society one of the sources of its democratic strength?

They talk about how voucher-supported private schools "need not teach full courses," but fail to point out that a common curriculum with common ideals -- particularly in history, civics and literature -- is an essential educational principle in a society that wants to hold together. That's especially true in democratic societies, which cannot coerce assent and which depend on voluntary allegiance to their objectives.

It is all simple, trite stuff, cliches from the civics books of another era. Why does it seem so foreign, so easy to ignore now? Why isn't it a bigger element in the debate?

Voucher advocates assert that the existing public system is far more undemocratic than the "choice" alternative because it forces most children to attend one particular school, and sit in one particular class, regardless of its quality. But even that argument deals only with the personal liberties side of the issue, not with the increasingly difficult task of protecting the common culture and fostering a common citizenship.

Who, in short, speaks not just for the consumers, but for the country?

Peter Schrag is a columnist for McClatchy newspapers.

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