This is framed by advocates as the individual parents’ share of taxes supporting what is best for their children, rather than a portion of the pool of taxes we all pay into going toward one family’s private school tuition. It also glosses over the fact that vouchers can reduce public school funding without a corresponding reduction in public school expenses.
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An idealized version of the voucher argument could involve, for example, a promising young mathematician from a family that lives below the poverty level receiving a voucher to attend a private academy geared to hone that student’s unique talents in a way a public school might not be equipped to provide.
Persuasive bipartisan cases have been made for this goal, though results have not brought about miracle cures for the education system. According to an Oct. 22 overview in U.S. News & World Report, there is evidence that voucher programs aimed to help low-income students can lead to modest improvement to public schools as a result of the need to compete with private school offerings.
However, according to a 2017 study conducted by the nonprofit Brookings Institute, there’s little evidence that vouchers help individual student performance — in fact, there’s some evidence that students who receive vouchers to attend private schools score worse on tests than they would have if they’d stayed in public school.
The way the voucher argument often unfolds in practice, skipping hand in hand with eyebrow-raising religious objections to public education, has been aptly illustrated in the furor brought by voucher advocates to recent meetings of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors.
Never mind that county governments are not empowered to authorize voucher programs — that’s up to the General Assembly and the governor. One is reminded of the poundings local school boards have received over matters of state history and civics curricula, which local school boards do not set, from believers in a fictional conspiracy to teach “critical race theory.”
The ghost of Scopes
There’s much to admire about groundbreaking Montgomery County GOP Chair Jo Anne Price, the first Black woman to hold that position. Nonetheless, it’s depressing to hear her decry the supposedly anti-Christian teaching of evolution, as if this were some new and alarming institutional attack on Christian faith.
Is the goal to turn back the clock to the days of the infamous 1925 case of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, in which a teacher was prosecuted for illegally teaching evolution in school? (The case made Tennessee a national laughingstock.) Are we on the verge of advocating that the government pay for parents to pull their children from public schools because science books won’t allow for the possibility that the Earth might be flat?
What an embarrassing stance to take in a county where economic development is intricately tied to the advancements in science pioneered at Virginia Tech, among them breakthroughs in biomedical technology.
To avoid going down one of the deepest of all rabbit holes in American culture, we’ll just point out that the idea that the principles of evolution directly contradict the story of Genesis is not a universally held Christian belief.
“Most Christians worldwide,” as represented by statements from the governing bodies of their denominations, “are in fact accepting of biological evolution as being fully compatible with their faith,” states a 2010 article published in Evolution: Education and Outreach. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, while rejecting evolution, acknowledged that “no Conservative Christian should deny there is a process of change that is evident within the animal kingdom. And there is even a process of natural selection that appears at least to be natural.”
Here is an interesting thought experiment: imagine that a state of the art, religious private school has opened in the New River Valley. However, it’s not Christian, but Islamic. In this hypothetical situation, Islamic fundamentalist parents demand vouchers so that when they pull their children from public school to attend this private school instead, the state money follows them.
Would the same voices raised right now in favor of vouchers support this scenario? Of course, should the commonwealth expand the availability of vouchers, then the law would apply equally in such a case.
Squelching speech vs. engaging ideas
Stepping back and looking at the whole picture — advocacy for vouchers, demands that books touching on Black and LGBT issues be removed from library shelves, the angry push to purge classroom discussions of anything that can be labeled or mislabeled as “identity politics” — one cannot help but wonder, who are these grade school students that are so fragile in their mental constitution that they cannot handle even a whiff of a notion that worldviews exist that might contradict what they’ve learned at home?
Can anyone who has attended public school, or even private school, remember such a person existing?
Doubts about the efficacy of building an ideologically conflict-free bubble for children to live in from Kindergarten through college graduation can be aimed at both liberal and conservative activists, though in Southwest Virginia those pushes are overwhelmingly coming from the conservative sector.
In an article published in the August/September issue of Reason, author David French, who strongly supports school choice, warns against banning books from school libraries, writing that such actions teach children that “they should be protected from offensive ideas” rather than learn “how to engage and grapple with concepts they may not like” and that “the response to a challenging thought is to challenge the expression itself rather than the idea.” Ultimately this stunts the ability of budding young citizens to fully participate in democracy.
French also suggests that the voices of students themselves should not be ignored in education debates, a sentiment too rarely expressed.
There are plenty of excellent reasons for parents to pursue private schooling, charter schools and homeschooling.
But asking taxpayers to open their pocketbooks so a child can be shielded from America’s culture of ideas and free speech definitely won’t win over school voucher skeptics.