For more than 150 years, however, publicly administered schools have had a monopoly on public funding. The general acceptance of this practice began to shift slightly with the publication in 1983 of A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Like a fire bell in the night, this report, by the federally sponsored National Commission on Excellence in Education, warned that a rising tide of mediocrity was eroding the nation’s schools and threatening our very future as a nation and a people.
The 36-page booklet avoided saying explicitly that it was talking about public schools, but that was clear. Well before 1983, a series of studies had shown that Catholic schools were more successful than public schools, especially in educating lower income students.
Ever since A Nation At Risk rattled faith in public education, successive presidents, along with Congress, state legislatures and big-city mayors, have vowed to speed up the school reform movement. Two strategies have seemed particularly promising, because they provide alternatives to failing schools. These are voucher programs and the special brand of self-governed public schools known as charter schools. Both these innovative forms were hit by sharp blows last month.
Voucher programs make it possible for poor families whose children are marooned in wretched public schools to pay the tuition in good nonpublic schools, including religious schools. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld just such a program in Cleveland, Ohio.
Since 1999, Florida has had a carefully tailored voucher program for disadvantaged students. On Aug. 16 a Florida appeals court, while professing sympathy for children trapped in sub-standard schools, ruled that the state’s constitution forbids the use of these vouchers for attendance at a church-related school. That decision is currently being appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
Charter schools are more numerous than voucher programs, since they cannot be accused of offending against the First Amendment. The first charter school was set up in 1991; there are now approximately 3,000 of them in 38 states, with a total enrollment of about 800,000.
Former President Bill Clinton, who likes voucher programs as much as vampires like holy water, was fond of charter schools. And they are an element in what President George W. Bush calls his blueprint for school reform. The American Federation of Teachers claims to be friendly to the charter concept; but with friends like that, the movement needs no enemies. Last month, the A.F.T. announced that it had analyzed a Department of Education assessment of 6,000 fourth graders in 167 charter schools and had found that these children trail their counterparts in regular public schools in reading and math.
So what? The charter school experiment is relatively young, and, as U.S. Secretary of Education Ron Paige points out, charter schools are schools for dropouts. They deserve time to prove themselves. To be sure, they should be closed if they are failures, but so should conventional public schools that fail.
In any case, both voucher programs and charter schools are limited and temporary measures of reform. To borrow a phrase from New York City’s former Mayor Edward I. Koch, these devices embody the bologna approachchange by one small slice after another.
What U.S. schools need now is a quantum leap, a real transformation. For instance, some 30 states have constitutional amendments like Florida’s that ban financial aid to religious schools. Those bans could be erased just as, under federal prodding, legally enforced racial segregation was abolished.
A peaceful revolution could be accomplished if the United States followed the example of many other democracies, including the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia, and provided substantial support for all lower schools, public and private. As Archbishop Messmer would have said, all these schools make good citizens.
The education law that President Bush signed in January 2002 is nicely called the No Child Left Behind Act. That admirable purpose will best be attained, however, if no school that meets reasonable standards for performance is left behind.