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Vouchers Are a Scam

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Here we go again.

In her most recent HuffPost piece, Michelle Rhee poses the rhetorical question, "How can I ask parents to accept less than I'd want for my kids?" She then goes on to make the same old tired arguments for school vouchers, most of which are simply different iterations of this shallow emotional ploy: "If public schools are lousy we must give the poor families the same opportunities that the rich folks in private schools have. It's only fair." And Ms. Rhee is not alone in this voucher resurgence; Indiana just passed what will arguably be the nation's most comprehensive voucher program.

Full disclosure: I am the head of a private school and yes there are, in fact, rich folks who send their children here. There are also plenty of poor folks. They don't need vouchers. We, and nearly all other private schools, offer a great deal of financial aid -- in our case, $3.5 million per year. Ironically, as America's public schools have become re-segregated, racially and economically, America's private schools have become more diverse, racially and economically.

Full disclosure #2: I am deeply ambivalent about leading a private school. I love what we do for kids, but I recognize the privilege we enjoy and don't take it for granted. My school identifies as a private school with a public purpose, a mission we imperfectly, but sincerely, pursue every day.

But Ms. Rhee's missive intentionally avoids some very glaring problems, leading one to suspect her motivation and the motivation of other conservatives who press for vouchers and school choice.

Problem #1 is that vouchers as Ms. Rhee proposes them are essentially meaningless. Nearly all private schools are currently fully enrolled or over-enrolled. However sincerely eager we might be to accept earnest young folks with vouchers in hand, we have no seats for them. Private schools also have, for better or worse, selective admissions processes. It is disingenuous to lead the public to believe you can walk to your local private school with a voucher and sign up.

Problem #2 is that private schools are very expensive. New York City private schools, for example, charge $35,000 -- $40,000 per year. It's not because we are elitist and exclusive. It's because it costs that much in this crazy city to provide an engaging education with small classes and great teachers. Every child in New York City should have a $35,000 education. In light of this reality, vouchers would do very little to give any additional "poor" families access to private education. If a politician like Ms. Rhee offers $35,000 vouchers in places like New York City -- well, let's talk. What vouchers might do, is allow reasonably affluent families a bit of relief in their tuition paying obligations, but it is fundamentally dishonest to propose that voucher schemes would really give poor families the same choices as rich families.

Problems #1 and #2 make voucher proposals absurd on their face, at least as they apply to the broad world of private schools.

But, problems #1 and #2 lead to a different set of possibilities, which may reveal the true motivations of voucher advocates.

The one set of private schools for whom voucher programs make sense is religious schools. It is naïve to deny that most voucher advocates are endorsing public funding of religious institutions, particularly Catholic schools. In places where voucher programs are in place, more than 90 percent of the vouchers are used for religious schools. In many ways, conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, have been insidiously and persistently hacking away at the wall separating church and state. This is just one piece of a much larger campaign to bring religion into the public sphere (or to bring the public into the religious sphere!)

The other possibility, in light of problem #1 and problem #2, is that voucher advocates believe that a crop of new private, for profit schools will arise to meet the demand if and when voucher programs proliferate. This might indeed happen and would, over time, achieve what Ms. Rhee denies as her objective: The dismantling of public education as we know it in service of a new, privatized industry.

Either of these more honest possibilities should frighten good citizens. It is at some peril that we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked into publicly funding religious education or become complicit in the creation of a chaotic system of private, for-profit schools. Those are the real potential outcomes.

"Providing poor kids with the same opportunities as rich kids" is just manipulative propaganda.