05/14/2013 03:23 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

School Reform or Tuition Vouchers?

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Seventeen states offer vouchers to pay the tuition for students to attend elementary, middle and high schools that are NOT their normal local public schools. This accelerating trend has paralleled recent years' declining public opinion regarding the quality of public schools.

The following statements are not figments of my imagination or the paranoia of a lifelong educator; they come from either The New York Times or from Education Week. Neither publication is a right wing conspiracy aiming to undermine public education or teacher unions. The stories attached to these captions convey the state of public education (the data) or the mood of the country (the polls).

1. 44 percent of public supports vouchers to attend private or religious schools
2. states shifting aid for schools to the families: vouchers on the rise
3. middle-class students (not only those in poverty) lag in international study
4. Gallup poll: 39 percent respond to having confidence in public k-12 schools, lowest ever
5. 4.3 million jobs have disappeared for high school graduates and those without a high school diploma

I know -- concern about the public schools is not new to the 21st century. For example, the 1983 Carnegie report entitled "A Nation at Risk" dropped the gauntlet in concluding: "if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

But, there is now a spreading sense among the public, business leaders and public officials alike that America is losing its competitive advantage and, therefore, losing its ability to influence the world and protect its own national security interests. Public schools must improve or else!

The once unheard-of notion of forsaking the public schools in favor of each family being given public money to use to have their children attend either a public or private/religious school is cascading as state after state approves legislation in one form or another.

Voucher advocates will claim that using public money to support non-public schools is a good thing for the public schools since it increases parent involvement and injects healthy competition into staid, ineffective government-run schools.

While acknowledging that parent involvement and competition would certainly be a positive, others of us fear the unintended consequences of voucher programs. Of greatest concern is the reality that young people will become segregated, albeit by parent choice, into schools that serve only those children who are like themselves whether it's by race, religion or ethnicity. Homogeneity in a child's earliest years limits the necessary experiences one needs to understand the larger world.

But, it's almost impossible to argue that parents should be forced to keep their kids in a failing public school solely because they lack the money to pay private school tuition while the wealthy escape failing schools due to the thickness of their wallets.

Though there are many reasons for our faltering schools, perhaps the most significant is that in those countries in which students outperform our kids there is a centralized education system whereas our system is as decentralized as it can get with several layers of decision making-federal departments, state agencies and local school boards, each with its own priorities. And, each layer has its multiple constituencies fighting to protect their turf.

It's inconceivable to expect greater centralization at a time of efforts to limit government. Therefore, other ways must be found to improve public education. Unfortunately, education reform's track record is dismal; yet, the status quo is deadly.

So, do we move forward with improving the quality of the public schools or, alternately, invite their demise?