Letters to the Editor

Vouchers not the way to go

Re Sen. Larry Grooms letter, "Give educational choice to parents," Aug. 31:

Grooms used the term "choice" or "school choice" five times. He used the term "voucher" or "school voucher" not at all. There is a strategic reason for his choice of terminology. Stripped of all its altruistic-sounding rhetoric and unsustainable promises, Grooms' essay is an advocacy piece for a system of education vouchers designed to shift public school funds to private schools and other private options. The redirection of public school funds is the goal of so-called "choice" legislation, but many supporters of that effort persist in using euphemistic and universally appealing (but misleading) language to describe and promote their goal. Take, for example, Grooms' statement that, "School choice helps families afford independent and home school expenses." Actually, "choice" in and of itself would do nothing to pay for any of the costs to which Grooms referred, but funds from public school vouchers would. Furthermore, many of those he seeks to benefit via voucher legislation have already exercised their freedom and made a choice. It is a disingenuous strategy Grooms and others have adopted, but a very politic one from a marketing standpoint, since vouchers are both controversial and of uncertain promise.

A touch of reality and a dose of facts would benefit the school voucher/choice debate in South Carolina. The most recent one I have been exposed to is Diane Ravitch's latest book, " The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education." Ravitch, once part of the U.S. Department of Education in the George H.W. Bush administration, was at one time enamored of voucher-induced choice, but upon further reflection and study now sees them in quite a different light. She begins her discussion of the issue by admitting that she had once been "hopeful, even enthusiastic about the potential benefits of ... choice and markets," but her views changed as she "saw how these ideas were working out in reality."

Ravitch cites studies that indicate that choice and vouchers have not provided the broad and consistent achievement gains outside of public schools that Grooms and others would have us believe are typical of voucher programs. As for the improvement of public schools themselves once vouchers or choice programs were adopted, Ravitch observes that studies show "no persuasive evidence that public school systems that lost students to private schools had improved." The inception of educational vouchers was not prompted by a desire to improve public schools but by a desire to find alternatives to them.

I do not believe that everyone who supports vouchers is anti-public education. But I do think the voucher movement is infused with individuals and organizations hostile to public education per se. Nikki Haley now says that vouchers are no longer her focus, but if she were to become governor, I am certain that she would revert to her old legislative self. She has stated she would sign such a bill. Many among this group see vouchers as a way to gradually defund public education - to starve the beast rather than kill it outright.

But what happens if our public schools are harmed and are existentially weakened by the adoption of vouchers? Is that anything that we need to be seriously concerned about?

My response to that - reflecting precisely my long-held philosophy about the purpose of public education - is captured in this statement by Ravitch: "We must preserve American public education because it is so intimately connected to our concepts of citizenship and democracy and to the promise of American life."

Bottom line: This is not about choice; it is about money.

The writer is a teaching associate at Coastal Carolina University and Horry-Georgetown Technical College and former member of the Conway City Counci.