Vouchers: Salvation of Public Education or Continued Ruin for Impoverished Neighborhoods?

I discussed the circumstances of my dismissal with a few of my classes this past fall semester, and one student took the side of the policy that caused my removal as instructor. She is the daughter of a lawyer, and she liked to argue, which I very much appreciated as her instructor of argumentative rhetoric. Her main evidential claim: a school is a business, and schools have to evolve by conforming more toward capitalist norms and current business-office practices.

I argued that a school is not strictly a business, nor should it be, lest it lose its function as a public good. I continue to believe this, but it’s difficult to discount that administrators and educators are leaning toward the idea that a school is indeed a business. In fact, it seems many believe the decline of the American education system happens because schools have not properly catered to the free market entirely.

The Professors is a panel-format TV show (PBS-WYCC on Sunday mornings @ 10:30) that discusses educational issues with educators and administrators based in the Chicago area. The moderator of the show’s March 23rd, 2014, broadcast, Ted Williams III (Kennedy-King College), seemed to agree with the premise that schools should adapt to the capitalist system within which they operate. His assertion involved empowering local parents economically with vouchers, to allow consumers to bring the necessary public funds to schools that work. The idea of choice, a free-market idea, could strengthen Chicago’s school system. He argued that inequality of education might lead to unequal opportunities in the work force for students, and vouchers might allow students in poor neighborhoods with underperforming schools to leave those neighborhoods and permit these students to find a better education.

Chicago’s education problem is based on economic disparity found in the city. Chicago’s Southside has poverty concerns, and fifty public schools have been closed, or threatened with closing their doors. Meanwhile, the Northside has eighty-three overcrowded schools, with stronger economic households and neighborhoods. Northside schools do not have enough classrooms, and the buildings cannot service the overcrowded student populations. Larger class sizes prove too much for teachers to handle, and the individual attention that students need to succeed from their teachers becomes less viable. The concept of a voucher program, in theory, might allow more public funds to flow into these Northside schools, allowing for building new state-of-the-art facilities, adding new classrooms, and hiring more quality teachers. A voucher also costs less for states than traditional public funding per student, potentially creating savings for public school funding (Wang).

Williams based the voucher program argument on results found in my state, Indiana (“Voucher Program”). Vouchers are supposed to allow poor families to escape the poor schools in their neighborhoods, allowing parents to choose better public, private, or charter schools for their children, ideally within driving distance of their homes. In practice, Indiana is finding that more suburban middle-class parents are taking advantage of the voucher program to send their children to expensive private schools, using the voucher as assistance to pay the burdensome tuition costs, which are not entirely covered by the voucher (Wang). In either case, the voucher program seems to endorse a discontinuation of funding for public schools specifically located in poorer neighborhoods.

It was suggested that violence might be most responsible for the exodus from Chicago’s Southside schools and neighborhoods on The Professors panel. Dr. Williams III, who I respect a great deal, cavalierly dismissed this notion, stating that the Southside had a “bad rap” concerning its violent environment. Since he lives on the Southside and nothing worse than a few Michael Jackson tapes were stolen from his car, he seemed to assume violent school environments were an aberration. This seems rather insensitive to me, as if he weren’t able to flip on the local news every now and then to see how many school children are being shot on Chicago’s Southside. The story that still sticks with me is the young boy who was shot because he was trying to shovel snow for a few bucks this past winter…I assume this boy’s mother might discount Williams’ assumption (Rodriguez). At any rate, Williams and I might agree that there is a definitive correlation between poor-performing schools and increasing poverty within Southside neighborhoods. He might not agree that decreased crime and violence might result from improved public education in those impoverished neighborhoods, but I would hope he could be persuaded.

Williams also suggested that the voucher program might allow parents to move out of poor neighborhoods; in fact, he suggested parents should vote with their feet and could move to neighborhoods with better schools, based primarily on available public government programs. A popular notion of today’s teacher is that parents need to get more involved with their children’s education; in fact, it should be the top priority of a parent. Some on the panel assumed that parents would do anything to grant their children a quality education, including moving from these neighborhoods. Williams compared the voucher program to section eight housing, a public program that allows free-market principles to determine family’s living location and circumstance.

These assumptions seem to be dangerous notions, based on ideology that we can see has worked against American neighborhoods. Free-market principles and diminishing public funding are leading to an exodus from once prosperous neighborhoods to so-called better, safer locations. The Southside of Chicago is but one of many areas to which we can point for evidence: Gary, Indiana; Camden, New Jersey; and Detroit, Michigan once thrived economically, but these once-proud cities have been abandoned by all but those who cannot leave (or do not want to leave!). Public services, including education, have nearly dried up in these areas. Residents who remain in these impoverished areas might want to leave, but their economic status might not allow it. Vouchers and section 8 housing are not enough. These remaining families and their children might prefer improved public services instead of the suggestion that they move away from violence and poverty.

Troy LaRaviere, a member of the panel and Principal of Blaine Elementary, located on the Northside of Chicago, agreed. He suggested that parents might want to send their children to the public school located three blocks away, trusting the public institution to provide a quality education. Working parents might need the local public school, as suggestions of transferring schools or moving from households would be an untenable burden. Vouchers might coerce parents to take public funds away from public schools, causing more closures in neighborhoods that do not need more closures.

There are viable alternatives to vouchers. We might relax the constraints of teaching certification for citizens who live in these neighborhoods—philanthropists who want to teach their community, not make a profit—creating professional opportunities in poor neighborhoods, or creating jobs, as politicians like to propagate. We might provide community programs that share best teaching practices with these potential teachers. We could overhaul education budgetary allotments entirely, attempting fairness to all communities for the purpose of improving public education (If our federal tax code needs a complete revision, then education financial reformation should not be as ridiculous as opponents often make it seem.) We might utilize and renovate abandoned facilities within poor neighborhoods, contracting local companies and small businesses. We could disperse funding for neighborhood schools based on need instead of successful test results (see Monday, March 24th’s blog entry, “SAT Testing May Be Detrimental”). We could consider the reduction of gratuitous administrative salaries to create financial incentives for the classroom teacher, where there is a greater need. We could disillusion ourselves of the notion of giving up on impoverished neighborhoods and their schools. We can save and strengthen our public school system, instead of targeting it as a failed experiment.

Dr. Ted Williams III suggests that schools have to address the needs of the American capitalist society in which we live. I would emphatically state that we should oppose capitalistic policies, in order to provide opportunity for impoverished Americans and improve public schooling in their neighborhoods. The capitalist society is mostly responsible for the degradation and impoverishment of neighborhoods, towns, and cities; crippling the public education system further, by supporting vouchers based on capitalist assumptions, is no solution.

Works Cited

“Over-Crowded & Under-Staffed Schools.” The Professors. Public Broadcasting Service. WYCC, Chicago. 23 Mar. 2014. Television.

Rodriguez, Meredith. “Mom: Teen Killed While Earning Money Shoveling Snow.” Chicago Tribune Tribune Interactive, Inc., 10 Feb. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

“Voucher Program.” School Choice Indiana. School Choice, Indiana, 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

Wang, Stephanie. “Indiana Voucher Students Double to Nearly 20,000.” IndyStar Indystar.com, 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

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4 comments

  1. Stupendous article.

    Relaxing teaching certification sounds EXCELLENT (although not likely feasible). As a sophomore, I was competent to teach college-level English composition — but I must wait until I have at least a Master’s degree :/ I think there is room between a two-year degree and a Master’s for other certification.

    So long as property taxes fund education, the issue of low funding for poverty-stricken areas will remain. Further, although not everyone with a voucher is willing or able to relocate in order to capitalize on a better education, methinks this insufficient for preventing others the opportunity.

    Vouchers and Section 8 housing not being enough would certain chafe the resolve of many a politician — and not just those on the “far right.” If some residents prefer “improved public services,” well, isn’t education a public service?

    There also must be a threshold of student to school ration before a school shuts down. One family using a voucher for an outside district school might not necessitate the lack of another student to remain within their district.

    Political will is also a huge issue here, as you know, so there need not be much time spent on it.

    Even though I support the concept of vouchers, it is not always the case that such will be the savior of education. There are a host of issues clogging up the system, and as people wax dissapointed with current structures, alternative options such as certification revamping and community efforts you suggest, open courseware, and less administrative control. Heck, I’m all for reviving the sophist movement, travelling the lands and teaching for nominal fees — but that’s for the higher education crowd 🙂

    1. Hello Ryan. Apologies for the late reply. Thanks for the compliments about the article and your validation of an important topic concerning an improved education system.

      Teaching certification seems a bit fraudulent to me. I have a Master’s degree, and I have taught over sixty sections of college courses, many of which are necessary for potential teachers to receive certification. However, I am prevented from teaching high school courses because I am not certified by my state. In order to teach my high school community, I would have to invest more money into my college, sinking myself further into debt, as graduate degrees and teaching certification do not come cheaply. I would be coerced to abandon the coursework I have designed in favor of assignments, textbook, and pedagogy that would conform more to state testing. I would be told that the decade of teaching experience and abilities are not relevant, that my philanthropy is irrelevant to the discussion, and this is the way things have to be done in education. I know this because I have already been told this by several established teachers and administrators. I am quite in favor of relaxing certification standards for teachers, especially those citizens who have a compulsion to teach their community, those who want to give back, and especially, those who already have competence and experience of teaching…For me, the best analogy I can give for learning to teach involves swimming: throw the potential teacher in the classroom and monitor if they can keep their head above water.

      Your argument for those who elect to use vouchers holds water, I admit. However, your argument for how public funds are used is a bit limited. Education is indeed a public service, and its improvement relies on the necessary taxes our citizens pay. If a community is poor, it stands to reason that there will be less revenue allocated to schools in that community. Vouchers might speed that evacuation of needed public funding.
      Also, two claims are a touch dismissive and defeatist: 1) Political will is necessary to the discussion, and I want to spend a great deal of time and effort generating the political will. 2) Higher education has a long tradition of providing the best pedagogies and policies for high schools down to elementary grades. It’s only in recent times that I have seen colleges distance itself as much from high school prepatory institutions, creating a noticeable gap between colleges and high schools to properly bridge. I think it might be discriminatory to designate any aspect of educational sophistry to solely “the higher education crowd.”

      I am enjoying the Forgetful Philosopher immensely, Ryan. I admit a bit of paternalistic pride when I see your accomplishments, but I know that much of your success can be attributed to your fantastic acumen and agency. Thanks for sharing your presence within my life’s experience.

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