Saturday, October 1, 2011

The End Justifies the Means

At least that was the position taken by one pro-voucher supporter at a debate today in Trenton sponsored by the Delaware Valley chapter of Americans United (AU) for Separation of Church and State.

Keith Benson of "Save Our Children" argued that if state-funded Catholic schools perform better than public schools, the constitutional implications don't matter.

Three advocates from the pro-voucher community were invited, although one canceled at the last minute. Joining Mr. Benson was Carm Catanese, a retired business executive who now runs Citizens for Effective Schools in Princeton.

On the side of public schools were John Bartram of AU, Ed Barocas of the ACLU, and  Dr. Walter Farrell, Jr. of UNC - Chapel Hill and the National Educational Policy Center.

I arrived at the debate predisposed against vouchers, and after I carefully listened to both sides, my position solidified.

While the two sides had major differences, the debate was conducted cordially. Except for the statement by a pro-voucher speaker equating today’s public school environment with “genocide”, there was a minimum of rancor.

The pro-voucher advocates cited tons of statistics without connecting the dots. Certainly crime and poverty in urban districts contribute to low school performance, but the speakers were unable to convince me that vouchers would be a panacea to solve these problems. They appealed to the audience using emotional arguments and photos of underprivileged kids, probably because the law and facts are not on their side.

The three speakers in favor of strengthening public schools each took a slightly different approach. Ed Barocas reminded us that the New Jersey Constitution specifically states “No person...shall be obligated to pay...taxes...for the maintenance of any...ministry”. That clause is clearly violated by voucher programs which take taxpayer money to fund religious schools. John Bartram pointed out how survey after survey shows that vouchers do not produce better results. Professor Farrell, the only educator on the panel, concurred and also pointed out that in most cases schools that accept vouchers can cherry pick their students, eject the difficult ones, and don’t always accommodate kids with special needs. Consequently, voucher-supported schools should have better results even though studies show they rarely exceed the performance of public schools.  

Voucher-funded private schools also are exempt from many of the mandates public schools face, such as anti-bullying programs. Farrell also touched on the big business of for-profit private education, the backing of hedge fund managers in this game, and the real costs of some of the alleged “success” stories such as Harlem Children’s Zone.

All the panelists agreed that there is room for improvement in our public schools. How we get there is where they differ. One side uses solid statistics and stays within the bounds of the State and Federal Constitutions. The other dismisses the law and uses emotional arguments and unproven approaches to promote a system which they claim will be better, but in the long run enriches the private school operators at the expense of our kids and the taxpayers.

Barocas, Bartram, Farrell

Benson, Catanese

1 comment:

  1. Enriches the private school owners?

    "NJEA spent $6.6 million on anti-Christie ads last year". For a liberal, you sure have a tough time identifying who is rich and who isn't.