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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Rick Scott’s School Voucher Plan Threatens the Viability of Public Education

Published Wednesday, December 15, 2010 3:00 am in the Bradenton Times

by Dennis Maley

BRADENTON – On Rick Scott's recent pre-take-office tour, Floridians got a peek at what issues his administration's agenda will be likely to favor. The results ranged from confusing to frightening, especially since the opposition party will be virtually powerless to stop him. Provided Scott’s initiatives are supported by the Republican majority in the legislature, he will have the opportunity to make broad and sweeping changes and seems intent to do just that.

Among Scott's most troubling assertions was an idea he floated about giving school vouchers to practically any student that wanted one. No governor has ever publicly contemplated such widespread use of vouchers and such a move would be a change to the very foundation of how we view and deliver public education.

As with any political movement, I tend to look at who is pushing it, how it fits into their core ideology and what stands to be gained. In this spirit, the most troubling part about vouchers is that they seem to be most strongly favored by those who do not really believe in government funding of education in the first place. That's not to say that all supporters of such programs wish to abolish public education. Nonetheless, I still think that it is instructive to examine why those who do wish public education to suffer such a fate view vouchers as a vehicle toward that end.

Superficially, vouchers can be seen as a tool to level the playing field. If I am poor, I likely live in a less than desirable school district because of the ways schools are funded. A voucher, it would seem, might allow me the opportunity to pay for a private school alternative that is otherwise out of reach. The argument is that if my school is failing me, rather than sending that school my share of the funding, give my family the vote of confidence to decide whether I stay there (and they continue to get the money) or enroll me in a private school and use it toward the tuition.

While that might seem fair enough, one only need contemplate the broader impact of such a policy to understand why it is flawed. By giving students and their parents a chance to "opt out" of their district (and take funding with them), vouchers put already struggling schools on life support. What's wrong with that you ask? Maybe the worst schools should be thinned from the herd. Well, that's well and good until you consider what happens as more students take flight toward private, for-profit schools. Increased demand will drive up price, and costs will swell, especially if they want to keep their competitive edge by maintaining low class-size ratios.

As these schools become more costly and admissions more competitive, it will be those same lower income students that are at a disadvantage. They can return (with their voucher) to the public schools, which will have now become even worse off due to all of the critical funding they will have lost. Many of them probably have closed or were consolidated and students might also have to travel farther to get to public schools, which have now become severely overcrowded and even more underfunded.

The increased funding and demand for private schools will have also created an incentive (and means) to recruit away the best public school teachers. As one activist pointed out, public schools could also suffer a massive "drain brain" when ensuing layoffs jettison younger, more recently educated, but untenured teachers, further challenging that system.

The voucher program has then effectively allowed the wealthiest citizens to opt out of the public education system altogether, which for most of them is what this is all about. Their private argument goes something like this: "If I'm already paying thirty grand a year to send Chip to boarding school, why are my property tax dollars going toward that lousy public school that I already pay to keep him out of?"

Of course the answer is that the entire society benefits from educating our youth. Chip's father had likely profited many times either through productive employees that worked for his business after being educated in a public school or by working for a company himself that may have been started by a public school graduate or someone who was the product of some other massive government investment in education, like say the G.I. Bill.

Early in our history, America differentiated itself from its Western European counterparts by bucking the notion that a quality primary education belonged solely to the wealthy elite. As a result, we produced generations of educated and skilled citizens that drove productivity and helped us become the most bountiful nation on Earth with the greatest economic parity this world has ever known.

After a half century of broadening the wealth gap and decimating the middle class, there are many people who would prefer a return to near feudal conditions, when religion, educational disadvantages and abject poverty were used to more easily control the lower classes. A massive expansion in vouchers would be a giant step in that direction and it should be no surprise that billionaire members of the ruling class (like Scott) are lending their support.

Our educational system is the foundation of our society. Access to a quality public education is at the cornerstone of what it means to be an American, and it is in these challenging times that we should be doubling down on that investment and striving toward an economic rebirth by preparing all of our students to be on the cutting edge of new technologies that will drive the economy of the 21st century. We have a choice – prepare students for the challenges they will face, or dumb them down for a life of serfdom, in service to those lucky few born into opportunity. I know what the elitists want, but what about you?


  1. We certainly hope that Scott threatens the government school system. It has given the world the worst performing school system in light of the massive amounts of money spent. The US ranks with third world nations in K-12 performance. The sad fact is that the public education system was designed to create gullible workers for business who can't think for themselves. In addition, the teachers Union essentially controls the Democratic party and run the system to benefit themselves rather than teach the kids (just look at the bloated pension of any teacher). Why should not the public be allowed to decide where and how they spend their won tax dollars especially given the demonstrated incompetence of our education bureaucrats

  2. I hear what you are saying but ask yourself why the school system is struggling. I'll tell you why, it's because the powers-that-be have eroded discipline, decided to push kids through without skills, teach for one test and have gutted the teaching of trades, skills and the arts putting all cildren regardless of desire, ability or aptitude into a one size fits all curriculum but these aren't calls that teachers or teachers unions made.

    I am a member of our local union and i have issues with them but my main issue is they don't do anything.

    Finally for over a decade here in Florida our education bureaucrats have been republicans.