Voucher experiments might shake up an unsatisfactory status quo California and Michigan will vote next Tuesday on two very different school voucher schemes. Opponents say both plans carry risks. We agree. But being a public school student in a poor urban district in this country also carries risks -- risks that are well-known, quantifiable and persistent over decades. That scandalous fact leaves us reluctant to dismiss out of hand those states that seek to give such students more options.
Voucher plans come in many forms, but in essence they call for the government to fund K-12 education not only through public school systems but also through parents, who may choose a public or private school of their liking. Nondiscrimination should be a condition for schools to participate. As under Florida's new law, students could be given the freedom to opt out of religious practices in parochial schools. And the argument about fly-by-night schools suggests that poor parents are less able than others to discern whether their children are learning; presumably schools that succeeded would be schools that survived.
But the larger answer is a question: compared to what? Poor black students already attend de facto segregated schools and in many cases already are being left behind. In one Michigan district, only 20 percent graduate from high school, according to the Detroit News. In Detroit itself, 63 percent of parents cited violence as the greatest problem their children face in school. Detroit officials say they're reforming their schools, and let's hope they succeed. But inner-city school reform has been going on for just about as long as inner-city school failure. Most voucher opponents wouldn't, and don't, tolerate such conditions for their children; they won't wait a generation to see whether reform succeeds. They choose private schools or settle in better school districts -- where public schools often are doing a pretty good job. Then they argue that enterprising students left behind shouldn't be allowed similarly to escape, because it would be unfair to the rest. Michigan offers vouchers of $3,300 only to students in districts that are failing -- where one-third or more of students never graduate. Other districts could opt into the program. Per-pupil funding in public schools would be held constant.
The measure is supported by the Catholic Church and many pastors of churches in poor neighborhoods. Teachers' unions, the ACLU and many civil rights groups oppose it. Polls suggest the opponents will carry the day. That would be too bad. Is $3,300 enough? Would the poorest be left behind? Would students end up learning even less in private schools? We don't know, and it's safe to assume that no proposed experiment will prove flawless. But we do know the status quo. To the many children losing out in the current system, some state-by-state experimentation might offer relief. -- Washington Post
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