Saving DC's School Vouchers

While all of the attention on Capitol Hill yesterday focused on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on torture and how it is not only immoral and illegal, it doesn’t work. But, down the hall there was another hearing that warranted more attention that it got.

At the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, senators heard testimony about the value of the DC Voucher program that helps underprivileged children in under-performing schools attend private and parochial schools where they have a chance at a better education. Democrats beholden to the teachers’ unions have long-standing hostility to such programs, even though some Democrats have taken on the teachers’ union, including President Obama, on the issue of merit pay. Still, the Democratic-dominated Congress slated the program for extinction, President Obama has called for a compromise, allowing funding for those already in the program through their graduation from high school, but no new enrollees.


At the hearing yesterday, two students at Archbishop Carroll High School testified how the vouchers have changed their lives. A mother of an 8-year old said she her local public school was unsafe and would be devastated if her child had to be pulled from the private school he attends. The principal of Sidwell Friends, where the Obama children go, also attended to speak on behalf of the vouchers.

I do not believe that the federal government has an obligation to the Catholic Church, still less to the well-funded Sidwell Friends, to support religious or other private schools. But, the government does have an obligation to provide an education and as long as they are failing to do so in their own schools, it seems unfair to punish children for their failure. And to be clear, the children to be punished are poor children. Children born into wealth will always find a way to get a good education.

Elections matter, and the unions worked harder than anyone to secure a Democratic Congress. They write checks. They organize groups to knock on doors. They educate their members. They buy ads on television. In addition to all that, their support for social justice has earned them the right to be heard. But, on this issue, they are wrong. I understand why the administration will not pick a fight with them when it is fighting about merit pay. But, the members of the Senate should find a way to maintain this program which helps desperately poor children have a better life.



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8 years 7 months ago
There is another development in DC education which was missed in the hearing - the conversion of a cluster of parochial schools to charter schools.  All poor DC kids won't be without options - quite a few will have church run, non-religious educations under the new scheme.  Without this development, I would agree that the situation is dire - however the situation is not dire. Compromise on the issue of vouchers as a general case is also quite possible, although I doubt the Archbishop would go with it - greatly expand the voucher program and tie the acceptance of vouchers to the unionization of the school - or some other form of teacher collective bargaining or inclusion on the school governing board (with the parents and voting age seniors).  If vouchers meant that the union could expand, I suspect that opposition would evaporate - although support for vouchers might evaporate as well.  Its a dirty little secret in the voucher movement that the problem with schools is believed to be the teachers unions.  I submit to you that the whole voucher effort (as well as NCLB) is a Reagan era attempt to bust the NEA and AFT, rather than to actually improve education for the poor.
8 years 7 months ago
Michael, I think you're right that the DC Voucher program ought to be kept alive. But I think vouchers ought to be allowed in the suburbs and exurbs as well. I live in New Jersey, where property taxes are some of the highest in the nation, principally due to the cost of public education. When parents have to pay between $4000 and $5000 per child for Catholic elementary school education, as I do, it becomes prohibitive to many families. Schools are being closed throughout our diocese, because fewer parents can afford the "luxury" of a Catholic education. Catholic education is about more than "safety" from violence. It's about faith formation in the midst of a cynical society, for which many public school teachers are the cheerleaders. I say this as a person whose father was a public school teacher and who has many other family members who are now or have been public school teachers. As Catholics, we need to revitalize our faith, and I don't see how we can do it without a thriving Catholic school system.


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