The Worth of School Vouchers and Local Control

Free Congress Foundation | Paul M. Weyrich | Nov. 15, 2007

Yesterday I wrote a column on the need to eliminate No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the massive federal program President George W. Bush signed into law in 2002 to overhaul America’s public schools and raise the standards for American education. That column was critical of NCLB because the program has failed to produce any significant achievement in public schools and is little more than a bloated national bureaucracy throwing money at states and local school districts. I urged Congress to phase out NCLB immediately, not to re-authorize it.

The elimination of NCLB would be a significant step toward returning control of education to its proper place—local school districts. But the problem of poor public education remains in many areas of the country. No single solution will solve this problem. There are so many factors contributing to the decline of American education that one needs a multi-part solution to restore high standards in public schools.

Teachers unions have a negative impact upon schools by creating an inflexible, often ideological, power bloc resistant to change, criticism or the diminution of their power. Their intransigence leads to the propagation of ideological or substandard curricula, poor teaching methods and the inability of local school districts to fire inadequately performing teachers. Therefore, it would be wise to eliminate teachers unions.

Another solution would be to revitalize and strengthen curricula, which, in general, have become less rigorous over the past few decades. This is due to the decline of education for teachers themselves, many of whom now major in “education” as opposed to the specific subject they will teach. It is also the result of the self-esteem movement and the push to equalize outcomes so that no one feels badly about his or her poor performance.

Then there is the issue of school choice. Nearly all parents pay taxes and their taxes support public schools. Yet parents are required by district boundaries to send their children to a specific public school, regardless of whether the school is failing. Many parents cannot afford to pay both their taxes and the cost of private school education, so their children are trapped in lousy public schools.

What needs to occur is the abolition of the monopoly that public schools have over education. Monopolies never benefit the consumer; they benefit those who control the monopoly. In this case those who control the monopoly include teachers unions, education bureaucrats and public school administrators. The consumer who is harmed by the monopoly is the parent and child.

Parents should be able to send their children to whichever school they desire — be it public, private or charter — using their tax dollars in the form of vouchers. If public schools were forced to compete in a marketplace that included private and charter schools there would be a quick improvement in their performance. Parents would pull their children from failing schools and place them in those with high standards and good teachers. Schools which fail to meet parents’ criteria and consequently see a rapid decline in their population would be forced to make necessary changes to compete with better schools or close.

As in any system, there are potential problems with vouchers — namely, that by allowing public dollars into private schools in the form of vouchers, public officials would insist on exercising some form of control over what is taught in private schools (i.e., religious instruction). If done at the local level, however, protections for private and religious education could be codified before the voucher program begins and the threat to religious instruction would be eliminated.

Overall, school-choice vouchers should be seriously considered and implemented at the local level. They would force schools to compete and improve. They would make parents much more active in their children’s education. (Parental passivity and inattention is currently a significant problem). Local communities themselves likely would be more active in education. They also could be designed to include specific safeguards for private schools and prevent interference in religious instruction.

Vouchers, along with other serious reforms, have the potential drastically to improve American education. Some states already are using vouchers and have met with good results. It will take courage and determination to resist the bureaucrats and teachers unions who want to maintain the status quo but it could be done.

. . . more