The Liberal Left’s School Choice Lesson: “Choose…..Our Way”

“Choice.” It is the favorite condiment of the Liberal Left. They sprinkle it on everything from pregnancy to freedom of speech, but they only sprinkle it on their favorite dishes, not on those plates they find distasteful.

The Children Are Trapped

Celebrities and entertainers cried “freedom of speech” when they chose to speak out against the Iraq war, but they roasted Dr. Laura Schlessinger when she chose to speak out against the gay lifestyle. Bring a plate that they find distasteful to the table, and you will be hit with lies, half-truths, distortions, emotional outbursts, societal outrage buttons, and wailing pouts worthy of any Broadway stage. Nowhere is this more evident than in the school choice debate, where the needs of our children take a back seat to political agendas, special interests, and philosophical spins.

The so-called School Choice “Debate” centers on whether or not the local and national government should expand the educational options of low income parents by eliminating tuition cost as a deciding factor for given randomly selected students. This would be done through a system of vouchers, tax credits, or scholarships which would be awarded through a lottery to pre-qualified, low-income students. Such a system would not advocate parochial or private education over public education, but would merely allow these to compete, equally and freely, in the educational marketplace. The net result would be an increase in overall parental choice as to their child's education.

The marketplace would still not be completely open and fair, since this system could not help all low-income students, but at least it would provide a chance for some of these students to enhance their educational options. Advocates of school choice vouchers argue that such choice already exists for middle- and upper-class families, who choose their educational path by where they live or what they pay for their education. It is the low-income family, however, who does not have that luxury of choice. Unable to live in areas with excellent public schools or unable to pay private and parochial school tuitions, low-income parents have no choice at all when it comes to where their children will go to school. While it is true that we cannot abandon the troubled public school systems and should work to improve them, it is equally true that many low-income children who want to learn safely are trapped in these troubled schools and have no way out without the ray of hope provided by school choice programs.

All We Are Saying is Give Choice a Chance

The opponents of school choice argue that it is not the role of the government or taxpayers to give parents that educational option. They contend that public schools already eliminate tuition as a factor in education and thereby are the sum and limit of the government's and, therefore, the taxpayer's, role in educational options. This side contends that providing an external, government and taxpayer supported system would ultimately destroy the public school system which is a vital and necessary part of our country.

Furthermore, they contend that such relief is a violation of constitutional separation of church and state in that it can indirectly promote religious beliefs if parents choose the send their children to a religious school. Lastly, they contend that such programs foster segregation, which society should try to eliminate, not spread. These school choice opponents argue that the benefits of such voucher systems have been inconclusive and that such systems are therefore not worth the damage and risk which they would impose on an already troubled public school system.

The real choice here is whether to give such school choice programs a chance or not. Each side comes to the table armed with research which backs its position. Proponents point to studies in Charlotte, Dayton, Milwaukee, New York and Washington as well as experiences in Ohio and Florida which show significant achievement and improvement in students helped by such programs. They cite evidence from other countries that such school choice programs not only do not destroy the public school systems where they are implemented, but actually improve overall education by fostering competition to attract students, providing a more open and cooperative educational environment, and eliminating the gap between private and public teacher salaries. They further cite evidence which shows that students who benefit from voucher programs end up being more tolerant of diverse views and more respectful of others. They cite evidence that there is greater teacher job satisfaction in systems which include expanded school choice. Finally, they cite the example of the San Juan Diego High School, where students intern in companies in return for the companies paying 60% of the students' tuition.

Opponents refer to these studies and other research as “inconclusive”, “mixed”, or “unknown”. They proclaim a litany of educational and societal disasters which will befall our nation should such programs become widespread, including the death of public education, increased segregation, harmful mingling of church and state, and the birth of KKK and Nazi schools seeking public support. Each and every one of the opponents' claims and arguments has been contradicted or at least weakened by studies and evidence in foreign countries where such school choice programs exist, yet these opponents insist on their claims, evidence, rhetoric and warnings.

Experience has shown that judicial and legislative decisions are often made in the light of research and experiences, making the review and evaluation of the above studies and evidence even more significant. Where a position is shown to be absolutely contradicted or greatly weakened by the prevailing evidence and research, that position should be rejected by the legislature and courts. However, where there is considerable evidence supporting a position, it is the duty of the legislature and courts to give that position a chance to prove itself with sufficient, extensive, and thorough research and trials. If school choice programs are given that chance and fail, then ignoring or modifying them would be justified, but the opponents of school choice do not want to give such programs a chance precisely because they suspect (and fear) that these programs will work and the call for them will only strengthen.

The greatest irony and tragedy of this school choice debate is that those most affected by this situation, the children, are merely pawns in this battle. While there are exceptions — some outstanding public schools — the bulk of public education at all levels is a dangerous, inefficient, broken-down, mismanaged, misguided disaster, which even its strongest defenders admit needs repair and reform. Any true advocate of educational reform would approve of a three-sided reform strategy encompassing improving the public schools themselves, seeking legislative and judicial policies and programs which really put children first, and enhancing the overall educational marketplace through increased, parental choice and school competition. Given such a situation, one might ask what are the real reasons behind the Liberal Left's staunch opposition to school choice and vouchers.

A Callous and Cruel Manipulation

While the Liberal Left claims that it is fighting for the children and for public education when it fights school choice with tooth and claw, the real reason is that the Liberal Left hierarchy believes that such programs would weaken, not the schools or public education, but their political power and support base. One need only look at how powerful and influential the teachers' unions have become and how strongly they support the Democratic Party in dollars and sweat. The present system limits the competition public schools face, creating an educational monopoly where they can maintain a stranglehold on educational policy. The unions have greatly benefited from such a system. Given such power and influence, these unions can bestow their support on politicians they favor and who can promote their policies and interests in turn. Since most unions leaders tend to favor liberal policies, it is the Democratic Party which has been blessed with their favor and therefore defends union interests and wants to keep things as they are in the educational marketplace. As the educational policies of the last Democratic administration and of most Democratic leaders demonstrate, school choice is not their flavor of the month.

It is tragic that the education and future of our children is being impacted by corrupt, biased and deceptive political agendas. While arguing for a woman's right to choose an abortion, this side wants to limit parents' right to choose their children's education; while fighting for free speech against the war in Iraq, this side has tried to limit the free speech of those who favor school choice. But now we are hit with one last slap: while comparing school choice with racial segregation, this side has favored the creation of a gay high school in New York City which even many gay activists protest increases segregation and harms their cause; while arguing against using taxpayer money to provide parental choice, this side has used taxpayer money to expand that gay high school in a city facing a major budget problem on the basis that it “expands the choice” of gay and transgender students! This is the hypocrisy which stains this crucial debate and slows school reform.

Howard Fuller and Kaleem Caie of The National Center for Policy Analysis have pointed out that, “[p]arents of every income level and ethnic background deserve the freedom to choose the best education available for their children. But millions of children remain trapped in failing, dangerous schools. Bringing hope to these children and their parents begins with dispelling the many myths the education establishment has continued to perpetuate about school choice and its impact on public education.”

According to The National Center, public schools are essentially government monopolies shielded from the need to innovate in order to compete and from the forces of supply and demand. Despite the fact that 90% of Americans believe that parents should be able to choose their child's school, the educational establishment and union leaders have led many to believe that school choice would be an educational curse, and not a blessing. When these forces cry “save our children!” they really mean “save our pockets!”.

Those who sincerely see children and the poor as people to help and not tools to manipulate and exploit for political power and money must ask themselves if we want to maintain an educational marketplace where a child's skin color or the affluence of her parents determine where that child learns. In a democratic society which purports to value freedom, free competition, and personal integrity, this debate should not even exist.

References and Suggested Readings

Fuller, Howard and Kaileem Caie.”Ten Myths about School Choice: Answering

the Campaign against School Vouchers” National Center For Policy Analysis, Dec 18, 2001

Frontline “The Battle over School Choice”, PBS 2000

Kasten, Robert W. and Gregory Fossedal. “Teachers Unions and School

Choice in Countries that have both.” Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, Washington DC, 1996

”School Choice Would Break Union’s Education Monopoly”, National Center

for Policy Analysis, August 1996.

The American Educator, February, 1996.

Vedder, Richard. “School Vouchers to the Rescue or to the Ruin?” Washington Times, August 18, 1996

© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange

Gabriel Garnica is a licensed attorney and educator with over 20 years teaching experience at the college, business school, and middle school levels. He has a BA in Psychology from St. John's University in New York and a J.D. from The New York University School of Law. Mr. Garnica writes extensively on spiritual and educational issues and conducts seminars on time management, leadership, and personal development.

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