The citizens of Louisiana, through their elected representatives, have chosen to fund educational opportunity for students primarily through traditional public schools. In addition, in situations where those public schools prove to be insufficient, they have offered to a small percentage of parents the opportunity to try an alternative-a private school experience at taxpayer expense (at least partially). But the Louisiana Supreme Court recently held the portion of the voucher law that took funding from public schools to give to parents for use at private schools invalid under the state constitution. Following this setback, the legislature was confronted with the task of finding alternative funding for the voucher program.
Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the Louisiana voucher program, it appears the state Supreme Court did its job, construing the statute strictly, and recognizing that it is the legislature who is responsible for changing the funding mechanism of the state's schooling options, not the court's. But to make an already difficult situation even more so, the U.S. Department of Justice is now engaged in a law suit against the State of Louisiana in an attempt to restrict or stop the voucher program. The justification for DOJ's position is stated as an attempt to enforce compliance with decades-old desegregation orders. While there may be some technical legal merit to the argument, I find myself skeptical that Justice cares more about integration than it does about protecting the interests of the public education lobby. Notably, the beneficiaries of these voucher programs are by statutory requirement poor, and stuck in failing schools, and are de facto overwhelmingly minority. Moreover, in the absence of evidence of de jure discrimination, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held racial balancing per se in K-12 schools to be unconstitutional. Thankfully, the discrimination that led to the decades-old desegregation orders in Louisiana is a thing of the past, and DOJ invoking them now seems a cynical move.
The DOJ, coupled with teacher union lawsuits, are not the only threats to Louisiana's voucher program, however. Political advocates of public schools are on the attack as well, sometimes advancing reasonable arguments, though not especially convincing ones, in my view. But a recent piece in Slate by Allison Benedict showed the ugly side of the anti-voucher movement. The title of the article itself (If You Send Your Kid to a Private School, You are a Bad Person: a manifesto) is almost a caricature. But sadly, the author seems to be in earnest. In the Public Discourse, Tollefsen lampooned the Benedict article, making some good points in the process. But having limited space, he left out a few things that his perceptive intellect would have doubtless treated were he addressing the topic at length. I'll try to fill a couple of gaps.
First, Tollefsen rightly notes that Benedict suggests that parents sacrifice their own children to failing public schools for some alleged benefit that might accrue to future generations. But Benedict's underlying assumption is an even more dangerous one-that the individual ought to subordinate oneself, and one's children, to the state, however destructive the arm of the state requiring sacrifice may be to those children. She baldly asserts that to do otherwise makes one "bad." This idea conflicts directly with the enlightenment principle that organized society exists to protect inherent rights of persons; persons do not exist to protect the interests of organized society. The U.S. Supreme Court, in more enlightened times, honored this principle:
"The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State."
While Benedict, to give her some credit, concedes that she prefers moral arm-twisting to government force in this case, she does so while admitting she is not an educational policy wonk. Though I didn't brag to the cool kids in high school that I wanted to become one, I kind of am. At least I'm enough of one to recognize that in addition to her passionate plea to parents to force their children to take one for the team, Benedict seems to have gone out of her way to undercut her own thesis. She intentionally highlights her own ignorance, complete with illuminating examples, and attributes this state to her attendance of "crappy" public schools. In addition to her self-diagnosed lack of knowledge, she might have noted the gap in her preparation regarding the use of vulgar, scatological references to people she is trying to win over to her side. Perhaps a more values-centered private school could have helped her there. A better educational experience might also have helped her understand that the relationship between her public school experience and her ignorance does not necessarily imply causation.
But despite her self-professed ignorance and judgmental character, Benedict does offer reassurance. She wants the reader to know that she is "doing fine" in spite of it. In his piece referenced above, Tollefsen does a good job convincing us that Benedict is not, in fact, doing fine. But if we assume for the sake of argument that she is, her argument for universal public schooling loses all force. She wants everyone to send their children to public schools so that they will all insist that public schools be improved. But based on her own narrative, why should her readers care? If one can do "just fine" after attending a bad public school, why should any additional resources be expended to improve them? Why should anyone sacrifice their own children for some speculative future improvement?
However bad the public school Benedict attended, I am guessing it was not as bad as some of the shockingly dishonest, ineffective, and dangerous public schools attended by some would-be beneficiaries of voucher systems. I am willing to bet I could easily find many public schools to which she would not willingly send any child she loves, or even marginally values. Perhaps I'm wrong on this point, but I hope not.