The Utah legislature has recently passed a broad-based school voucher bill that may or may not be constitutional and may or may not be subjected to direct public vote. This has been something of a shock to me, given my longstanding roots in the Northeast where, at least perceptually, this was not even on the horizon.
Rather than play my reactionary card aggressively, I’ve been trying to understand more about what motivates this kind of a proposal. I focus on my perceptions of those in favor of vouchers because I have not historically been able to understand them. Certainly I see some anger at government (and teacher’s unions, though this is harder to say out loud for many people), an ethos that rejects legal and administrative solutions to public problems. I see some clear benefit for “entrepreneurs” eager to open new schools and receive government support for their new business (though in light of the first point, I’m left a little confused). I also see frustration with the current state of education, a perception that public schools expose children to morally dubious influences and deliver poor training. I also see, though this will be controversial, some racism, a perception that Latino/Hispanic or Afro-American students are associated with violence, illiteracy, unacceptable sexual practices. The terms used to express this complex racism are “gangs” and “teen pregnancy” and “gun violence” (though Utah has a complex relationship to guns), but in many cases this seems to be a racism born of great fear and anxiety about the fate of one’s children rather than the stereotyped malevolence that we on the Left are sometimes prone to impute to those who express these ideas. As horrible as racism can be, I think that ignoring the fear that underlies it would be equally disastrous, and people have a right to attempt to care for their children as they see fit within certain basic norms.
I also hear language about just deserts and a strong aversion to free riders, people hoping to scam a system. I struggle to understand how language like that, expression of these ideas about personal responsibility and just deserts could possibly apply to children, even if you allow them to inform your social policy toward adults. Surely children should not be cursed to punish their parents.
Note, though, that most of these are arguments in favor of private (ie socioeconomically segregated) schools, not in favor of vouchers (a public subsidy of a private venture) per se. Though I prefer (and attended until college) public schools, I certainly can see reasons that people would want to send their children there or attend them personally.
In favor of vouchers per se, I think I detect a frustration that people are double-paying, that through their property taxes they are funding both private school for their own children and the public school which their children do not attend, like the checkout counter charging you for all your groceries but holding back half of them. Here I find myself much less able to listen sympathetically for moral and religious reasons, in addition to practical considerations.
A voucher proposal says in essence, “I contribute to the education system exclusively (or primarily) so that they will educate my child.” An anti-voucher proposal responds, “We all are responsible for the children of our community, whether we are childless or single, working or retired, have one child or ten. Our commitment to each other and our society requires that every child have a quality education.” It seems to me to boil down to this central dispute, and I have trouble understanding how to reconcile this solution with a Christian moral philosophy (this issue is often tied to the Religious Right, which has funneled a great deal of resources according to prevalent rumors into Utah).
(Incidentally, a voucher system which provided sufficient funding for any desirous person to attend the school of their choice would still be public education, and if properly regulated to avoid fraud, “cherry-picking” and low educational standards, arguably is morally quite different from standard voucher proposals. It would likely be more expensive than the alternatives and would potentially disrupt teachers’ ability to make a living, but it would not be morally suspect in the same way.)