Public Schools, Private Schools, Special Needs And Voucher Systems

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(c) Copyright 2002, Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

For many years there has been growing frustration throughout America with large public school systems. They often seem highly bureaucratic and unresponsive. People seeking educational programs that are unusual, experimental, or based on religion have created private schools. Thus, individual churches or neighborhood groups of parents might create individual “alternative” schools, like “North Shore Country Day School” or “Sacred Hearts School for Girls” or “Hongwanji Middle School.” Some large groups of churches have created large private school systems, like the one operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. There are also private schools scattered throughout America and other countries that are unified by a commitment to a specific educational philosophy, such as the Montessori schools.

Some large cities have public tax supported schools for special purposes, such as a school for the deaf, or a vocational training school for students interested in automobile repair or culinary arts, or the famous New York School for the Arts. The oldest public high school in America is Boston Latin School, established in 1635 (one year before Harvard College) by the Town of Boston to provide a classical education. In modern times Boston Latin has used English, but has been the premiere public high school in Boston for college preparatory students who can pass a rigorous entrance exam and maintain exceptionally high levels of academic performance. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some public high schools have created sub schools within their walls for students who frequently have disciplinary problems and need a different style of teaching or classroom management.

The main difference between public schools and private schools is who pays the bills. Public schools are funded from taxes -- money extracted by force of law from all income earners or property owners, regardless whether they have school-age children or are sending their children to private schools. Private schools are supported by the voluntary contributions of parents or philanthropists.

Sometimes parents whose children attend private schools object to paying taxes to support the public schools. They argue that they are already paying the costs of their children’s education, and should not be forced to pay for a public school system which they do not use. However, even people without children also pay for the public schools. Public schools serve a public purpose by ensuring that all children regardless of parental income can receive a free basic education that meets certain standards, so it can be hoped they will become productive adults whose work will benefit everyone. A democratic political system and capitalist economic system are helped when every child has an individual right to rise to whatever level his abilities will take him, regardless whether his parents are poor. That’s why wealthy captains of industry like Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, and more recently Bill Gates gave enormous donations to public libraries and public schools.

Children with handicaps are entitled to a free public education which meets their individual needs. That’s because all children are regarded as having social and legal rights apart from their parents. Children with handicaps may have parents whose income is too low to afford the special education they need to become productive citizens or to achieve whatever limited potential they may have. But parents who demand special kinds of education for their children are expected to pay for private schooling when the services they demand are regarded as voluntary, unusual, or above and beyond what society can be expected to provide. Education beyond a certain level, or for special private purposes such as to satisfy religious or stylistic preferences, is regarded as a luxury which parents should pay for. Thus education operates somewhat like medical insurance, providing basic coverage for ordinary and necessary procedures but regarding experimental or cosmetic procedures as private luxuries.

For about 50 years there has been increasing interest in a voucher system for public education. The idea is that parents would be given a voucher representing the normal per-pupil expenditure for a public school student, and parents could then choose the school to which to deliver their child and their voucher. Parents could choose a private school or a public one; and in either case the voucher money would go to the school (Presumably some schools might charge a higher tuition, with parents making up the difference). The voucher system would blur the distinction between public and private schools. It would blur the distinction between ordinary and necessary basic education to be paid for with tax dollars, vs. luxury education for private purposes to be paid for with private funds. But it might stimulate competition for excellence, so that “good schools” which deliver a good education and meet the demands of choosy parents would succeed; while “bad schools” overburdened with bureaucracy and outmoded curricula and methods would eventually be driven out of business because parents would no longer send their children to such schools.

Part of the worry about the voucher system has been that it might produce a lowering of the standards of the public school system, or might even destroy public education as a level playing field promoting social mobility for children from immigrant or poverty-stricken families. Money would be drained out of the traditional public school system, since a limited pool of tax dollars must now be divided among a larger group of students, including students who previously would have paid their own way in luxurious private schools. Thus, the number of dollars given in the voucher might not be enough to send a child to a good quality school, and low income parents would get stuck sending their children to poor quality schools while high income parents could afford to supplement the vouchers with private cash. But that’s the way the current system works anyway, without vouchers. Wealthy children get a better education if their parents care enough to use their wealth to pay high tuitions at fancy private schools. Supporters of the voucher system point out that children from poor households would now have a chance to attend better schools than they can currently afford, and that freedom of choice, even if limited by poverty, is better than no choice at all.

A more significant worry about the voucher system is that it might produce a racial or ethnic balkanization of society. The theory is that racist parents might send their children only to schools which are entirely of their own race; whereas under the current system parents are required to send their children to racially integrated public schools. However, it generally turns out that most private schools even without public tax vouchers are already racially integrated. Wealthy parents seem to value having a mixture of races, and some of the wealthiest private schools go out of their way to provide scholarships to disadvantaged minorities in order to provide a racially mixed student body desired by the wealthy parents. And aside from such voluntary “affirmative action” programs, anti discrimination laws could certainly be made a part of any large-scale voucher programs for public education.