This essay has a total of 2616 words and 10 pages.


Private School Vouchers Proposals to use private school vouchers, a marketplace strategy,
as a mechanism by which to improve the general quality of public education have produced a
lively debate. Frequently, that debate has degenerated into a disagreement about whether
public schools are as good as private schools or whether a given private school is better
than a certain neighborhood public school. Other issues raised in these discussions
include the appropriate use of public funds, the role of competition in improving public
education, and the right of parents to choose a school for their children. Although these
issues are of interest, they are not the fundamental questions which must be raised about
the future of public schools in a democracy. Two Core Issues In their rush to the
marketplace, the proponents of private school choice supported by public funds have chosen
to ignore two core issues. First, the advocates of private school choice studiously avoid
any discussion of the relationship between public schools and the common or public good in
a democracy. As an example, the Governor of Wisconsin asserts that "any school that serves
the public is a public school" and should therefore receive public funds through a voucher
system. There is no recognition in this proposal of the distinct and unique purpose of
public education in serving the public good. This rhetorical sleight-of-hand does not mean
that a private school of choice becomes a public school in purpose simply by so defining
it. The claim is merely a device to divert public funds for private purposes. The failure
to recognize that public schools have a central responsibility in a democratic society is
further evidenced by the work of John Chubb and Terry Moe , who argue that improving the
efficiency and quality of public education will require the replacement of democratic
governance by market mechanisms. The authors state, "The most basic cause of ineffective
performance among the nation's public schools is their subordination to public authority.
... The school's most fundamental problems are rooted in the institutions of democratic
control by which they are governed". Chubb and Moe deny the historic purposes of public
schools when they reject the idea that educational policy should be directed by a common
vision or purpose. They assert, "It should be apparent that schools have no immutable or
transcendent purpose. ... What they are supposed to be doing depends on who controls them
and what these controllers want them to do". The Thompson proposal for Wisconsin's schools
embraces this belief system it is a denial of the fundamental role of public education in
affirming the public good. A second issue which remains unexamined in the rush to the
marketplace concerns the claims offered in defense of private school choice. Choice is
offered as a "lesson learned" rather than a proposition to be examined. Advocates of
private school choice have ignored its history. Despite the claims made for a market-based
school restructuring strategy, the history of choice does not support the claims of its
proponents. A Declaration of Crisis Willingness to abandon strong support for public
schools and to turn to marketplace solutions is driven by a crisis rhetoric. This
rhetoric, which suggests that public education is failing, is not only misleading, it is
dangerous because it may erode public confidence in the very institutions on which our
capacity for a democratic response depends. Criticism of public education has continued
unabated since the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983. Stimulated in large part by
new international economic realities, by a domestic economy based on traditional
production models, and by changing domestic demographics, the critics have sought
solutions to these challenging problems by turning to schools and educators. The data
cited by critics of public schools were accepted at face value until the late 1980's.
However, since then, a variety of research reports have revealed that much of the
criticism has been simplistic and has distorted and misrepresented the conditions of
public education. The credibility of the crisis-in-education claim, in fact, rests not on
immutable evidence of school failure but, rather, on a linkage which has been established
by critics between education and other social problems such as violent crime, drug use,
family instability, and economic uncertainty. Although schools are not charged directly
with creating these problems, the public is turning to public education for solutions to
broad and complex social conditions. This occurred in the 1950's in response to the
Russian scientific and military challenge, in the 1960's in response to the challenge of
racial segregation, and again in the 1980's in response to the challenges of international
economic competition and changing social circumstances. Economic interests have emerged
during the last decade as vocal and persistent advocates of school change. These critics
have framed the issue in terms of economic competitiveness, job creation, profit, and
preparation for the work place. The purpose of public education has been redefined by
economic interests so as to put schools in the service of capitalism rather than
democracy. They are not the same. This dramatic reframing of educational purpose has gone
relatively unchallenged in the dialogue about school improvement. What does it mean to put
schools in the service of an economic philosophy rather than in the service of democracy,
a political and social philosophy? To define students as merely economic beings is to deny
them their basic and essential humanity and is to render our political freedom subservient
to the interests of those whose purpose is profit. What, then, is the role of the school
in a political democracy where, for the moment, the dominant economic interests remain
consolidated in large corporate structures? The answer is to be found in an examination of
what it means to educate for the public good. The Public Good The growing public sentiment
that government has failed and is doomed to fail when it attempts to develop collective
solutions to broad social problems is a measure of the success of economic interests over
the past fifteen years in redefining the public good. Public good is increasingly defined
and measured by the extent to which private interests are allowed to extend the reach of
the marketplace. Although choice, as a general principle, is worth protecting, "its
effectiveness in addressing social problems depends on its being used in the context of
confident and legitimate government authority, not as an alternative to such authority".
Lost in the crisis quality of the debate about private school choice is an understanding
that public schools are not merely service providers. Public schools are not merely places
where the individual's or the society's economic needs are met. Public schools have a
special status as producers of values, perspectives, knowledge, and skills which are
fundamental to community. Historically, this public function was widely celebrated. More
recently, with the emergence of marketplace and consumer analogies, individual customer
satisfaction, rather than the public good, has become a primary consideration.
Individualism, the promise of individual freedom and personal happiness, has been a
central tenet of the American dream and is fundamental in American society. The danger we
face is that individualism, as exemplified by private school choice, may further isolate
Americans from each other and undermine the conditions of freedom. Kelly summarizes this
sentiment: "Hopes for short-term gains have largely eclipsed any sense of long-range
national goals or principles. It is thus small wonder no one can agree on how to 'fix'
systems of public education - which by their very nature are future oriented". The
question, 'Education for what?' crystallizes the issue of public good. A fundamental
tension exists between two polarities. On the one hand, education for democracy views
education as fundamental, with the responsibility of transmitting values and skills which
sustain democracy. In a democracy citizens play two roles: as informed, intelligent
arbiters of issues and as protectors of values. While a democracy may be viewed as an open
forum of values, not all values are equal. A few are central: respect for minority
opinions, freedom of expression, and allegiance to reason over unreason. On the other
hand, education for economic interest views education as a dependent variable. In this
view, education's success is judged by whether it satisfies marketplace needs thus, the
marketplace determines the nature of schooling. Economic interests are narrowly
personalized with little commitment to the collective or broad public good. The question,
Does education work? is answered only in terms of personal, family or corporate economic
success. This tension, between an America where individuals are perceived as creating the
good economic life for themselves and an America where citizens possess the right and duty
of self governance, not as individuals, but as a community, is at the heart of the debate
about private school choice. At its core, the debate is about the extent to which
knowledge or access to knowledge is privileged. The effects of privilege are most apparent
in the disparities of resources available to wealthy and poor school districts which
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