It may seem odd at first, but the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park reminds me a little of the public school system. They’re both large, semi-uncontrollable consumers who occasionally terrify children. But the similarities end there. Dinosaurs apparently died out when the world refused to support them any longer. However, public schools keep right on kicking, even in the face of growing hostility.
I’m referring to the continuing controversy over vouchers and school choice. Should the government pass on educational funds to parents, allowing them to choose the schools where their children attend? Or should they continue to pour that funding into the public school system?
The voucher idea appears to be growing in favor, with 55 percent of parents support the idea according to one 1997 survey. And educational statistics provide ample fuel for the fire. For example, the Washington Post recently reported that only about 40 percent of students in urban public schools (tested in fourth and eighth grade) were attaining basic skills in reading, math and science. Add to that the fact that many children who attend inner-city schools are poor minorities who can’t afford to move to neighborhoods with better public schools. All told you will find yourself with some pretty good reasons for a schoolchoice voucher program, especially for low-income, inner-city families.
On the other hand, though, some educational leaders respond with the same enthusiasm as Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, who remarked recently that a voucher program would just drain the public schools of resources, “somewhat like a low-grade virus.” Educators like these don’t want to lose money, parental involvement and brighter students to private schools. They believe a voucher program would cause the further deterioration of the public system, and they may be right.
Instead of skimming off the “cream-of-the-crop” and struggling with the rest, the alternative may be just to start over. The American public has been pouring funding into the public school system for decades, without much measurable result. While some schools are better than others, the system as a whole doesn’t seem to serve our children as well as it should.
But if we scrap the whole system and start over, what should be done differently? On the one hand, smaller class sizes or good tutoring personnel can make a big difference. On the other hand, Catholic high schools have a higher percentage of students who finish high school and enroll in college and they do it with relatively large class sizes and low teacher salaries. It seems that class-size, finances, good teachers, self-discipline, parental involvement and high educational standards all play a role but none of these factors is the “whole answer” since different children bloom in different environments. Consequently, it seems that American children need options. Whether the schools are public or private, large or small, they should be versatile enough to accommodate and challenge every child.
Obviously, this diversity usually cannot be provided by a single public or private school. However, if students are offered a selection of specialized schools (public, private or both), along with funding to choose the program that works best for them, this could be attained. After all, that is exactly how our colleges function. Federal money (through Pell grants, etc.) is distributed to students who need it. In turn, those students gravitate toward the schools that serve them best: local community colleges, specialized training programs, Ivy-league institutions or religious colleges.
Huge, meat-eating, ferocious, the Tyrannosaurs had their place, but mankind may have profited more from their extinction than we usually like to admit. Perhaps the public school system, as it currently exists, needs to give way to a new system that offers more choice and more challenges to more students.
John Whitehead is president of The Rutherford Institute. For information call toll-free 1-800-441-FIRE or visit the organization’s website at http://www.rutherford.org/