In late January, Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick donned their yellow scarves and took to the capitol steps to champion school vouchers, a cause also beloved by billionaire Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos and the President.
Voucher advocates believe that the solution to problems in public education is to “let the money follow the kid”; I believe they are wrong.
Put simply, voucher programs take money out of public school coffers and funnel it to private or religious schools. The last portion – state funds supporting religious schools – sticks in the craw of those seeking that clear, bright line between church and state.
That’s fair, but that’s not my primary complaint. Others insist that data does not show that private or religious schools produce better educational outcomes for students. While true, this is also not my primary complaint.
Finally, anyone with an eye on the dollars will tell you that no current voucher program covers the full price of average private school tuition, which means vouchers serve families that can ALMOST pay for private education and exclude those families with no disposable income to divert to education.
Vouchers offer discounts to families of privilege; they do not serve underprivileged students. This all seems to me entirely true and pernicious and vile, but it is also not my primary complaint.
My primary complaint is that voucher advocates begin with the implicit presupposition that our public school system is broken beyond repair, that the only real answer is to hop in that escape pod and head for the nearest desert planet. Anywhere, they believe, has to be better than this.
I, a public school educator for 20 years, roundly reject this bitterly cynical premise.
I believe that any public school can be improved by thoughtful, empowered educators who work together in service of students.
Voucher advocates would have you believe the light in public schools has been extinguished; I see it burning every day.
I see it in my co-workers, who work during passing periods to make their lessons more effective second period than they were first.
I see it in my students: engaged, thoughtful citizens working as hard or harder than anyone I know.
I see it in my own children, proud public school kids themselves, who come home each day excited to share their new learning.
I see it in every one of us who still works for that light bulb moment, that perfect moment when a student realizes herself capable of things she always thought were impossible.
Now, let us not mince words: though the President insists educators work in a system “flush with cash”, no one who has set foot in a Texas public school would agree.
The challenges we face are myriad. They require creative solutions, the hard work of dedicated and well-trained professionals, teacher growth models that produce meaningful results, and, yes, cash. Lots and lots of cash.
Teachers are not missionaries feeding themselves on zeal alone; those light bulbs over students’ heads don’t power our classrooms. We need staff, supplies, training, and updated technology. We need specialized equipment to support our welding, auto mechanics, cosmetology, and engineering programs.
We need competitive salaries to draw the nation’s brightest into the profession and professional development dollars to help them improve every year. None of those things are free.
Taking money out of the public school system is not a solution; it is at best a cynical attack on a system in which I still strongly believe.
Yes, we have challenges.
Voucher advocates believe my fellow educators and I cannot meet those challenges; I know that they are wrong.
Chris Gardner is a long-time Hays CISD high school teacher.