Vouchers and the GOP

The Republicans' quick fix for education reform doesn't compute. Here's why.

Published May 26, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

When it comes to education reform, all too often, school vouchers and
Republicans go together like soap and water, ham and eggs, dumb and
dumber. Vouchers are another example of how hard it is for the GOP to
grapple with the realities of American life across the lines of
class, sex, race and religion.

At a time when we need to reinvent our educational system, too many
Republicans grab vouchers as their quick-fix way to close the
disparities between the quality of the teaching received by kids at
the bottom and those who are in the middle or upper classes. They
disdain the messy politics of fighting with teachers' unions or the
entrenched bureaucracies of school boards and city halls, and turn to
vouchers as a way to avoid the ugly political battles that reforming
public education for all kids would entail.

What has always amazed me about the voucher approach to education
reform is how few children it would actually help. Republicans are
supposed to be the party of business, those who look upon our version
of free-market capitalism as one of the great boons in the history of
creating, providing and profiting from goods, from the essential to
the frivolous. While I, too, am proud of our version of capitalism --
primarily because the history of our nation is the history of its
ongoing battle to bring together ethics, morality and the profit
motive -- I always wonder why Republicans don't apply the
problem-solving logic of the business world to the issue of education
and school vouchers. Specifically, I don't know why the party of
business seems to have no ability to do math when thinking about
public education.

The trouble
with vouchers,
like all hot air theories, is that those who
support them obviously have no idea what it actually takes to do
anything of significance in the arena of improving the quality of
public education. They rely on the belief that once people start
checking their kids out of the public schools and have other choices,
public school boards will begin shaping up, in order to compete with
the bustling business arriving in the private schools.

The problem is that millions of kids -- many of them white and
affluent -- have packed off to private schools around the country,
with very little reaction from public education. There's no reason to
think that the threat of a comparative handful of poor and minority
kids leaving will cause a state of emergency.

And it would be a comparative handful. That's why I tell Republicans
to do the math: There's no way for private and parochial schools to
absorb the literally millions of students right now struggling in
substandard public schools. Right here in New York, as in many places
across the country, the private and parochial schools are jam-packed
and there are already substantial waiting lists. This is a very good
time to be in the private school business.

Even if people were given vouchers amounting to $25,000 per year for
each of their children, where would those kids go to school? (And
most voucher proposals are much smaller, offering somewhere between
$2,000 and $4,000 per student.) Are we actually supposed to believe
that there would, suddenly, as if from the skies above, appear the
number of schools and teachers to meet the demands imposed by all of
these children? The Republicans have more than a basic math problem
with their vouchers proposal.

In the world of business, planning for change occurs quite
differently. Out there in the vaunted private sector, when one is
supposed to be moving a product toward consumers, business people
don't look up to the heavens for solutions and throw out ideas like
vouchers. They study what works, they test their products, they move
deliberately, they market and then they try to bring good ideas to
scale. Theory is set aside in favor of objective facts arriving from
engagement in the field, not pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.

Similarly, those who really care about improving education for poor
children try to learn from what works and expand it to whole systems.
One such example is the KIPP Academy, a public school that exists in
the educational hellhole of New York's Bronx. The KIPP crew (KIPP
stands for "Knowledge Is Power Program") has been called upon to
oversee curriculums of many states in order to bring them into shape
and to propose new methods of teaching to significantly increase
student achievement.

Why? Because the KIPP Academy has a real track record. Its
achievements are in objective plain sight. KIPP has brought its kids
up to a top-line standard, knocking down the expected high dropout
rates, teenage pregnancy, poor performance and school violence.
Interestingly, there are states in the South and the Southwest that
have hired the KIPP brain trust to reform their public school systems.

Republicans who so love school vouchers should take a lead from those
Southern and Southwestern states. One of them is Texas, whose
Republican governor owes his popularity, in part, to the fact that he
bypassed easy answers like vouchers to do the tough work of reforming
the state's public school system.

George W. Bush may not be a genius, but when it comes to education, he's smarter
than most Republicans -- he did the math on vouchers, and opted to
try to help millions of kids, not the handful who might benefit from

By Stanley Crouch

Stanley Crouch is a New York essayist, poet and jazz critic.

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