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Public Education Can Run With the Best

Kozol: Voucher system leaves poor kids in the dust

by Brent Kendall


To highlight its recent Race Relations Week, UNC presented Jonathan Kozol, educational activist and accomplished author (Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace), as the keynote speaker. A Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Kozol was drawn to teaching. He took a job in a challenging district of the Boston public schools and was later fired for reading his class the poetry of Langston Hughes. Convinced of the potential of those students written off by others, he has since devoted his life to helping students who do not have the luxury of ideal learning conditions. Kozol delivered a powerful lecture about US public schools which was informing, inspiring, and quite emotional.

The private sector in public schools

The magnitude of many public education problems has seemingly increased during the last ten years. In response, some have argued that the private sector can help remedy the situation. The most aggressive argument is for the creation of publicly funded school vouchers for use at private institutions. Supporters believe this market-oriented approach provides an element of competition necessary to force public schools to improve. Kozol is firmly opposed to any sort of voucher system, arguing that even with vouchers, poorer families will have a difficult time sending their children to private schools. Consequently, he believes the measure will only increase the gap between the haves and the have-nots while ruining poorer public school districts in the process. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching agrees. In 1992, the foundation thoroughly studied the issue of school choice and concluded that existing school choice plans widened the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged school districts, causing financial peril in the poorest sectors.

One major premise behind voucher support is the belief that private schools provide higher educational quality. Yet, this does not seem to be the case. In a study published in October of 1994, Money magazine concluded that students who attended the best public schools performed better than their private school counterparts. In addition, Money found that the average public school teacher had higher qualifications and that public schools offered more extensive arts and sports programs. With such findings, a voucher program does not seem to be in the public"s best interest. However, the issue still remains a hot topic in some urban areas.

While vouchers are not coming to this area any time soon, another public-private venture is about to become a reality. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools are opening a new elementary school in 1999 and are planning to contract the administrative duties to a private, for-profit firm. Similar programs have seen mixed results around the nation. Local school officials are modeling their version after a successful public-private venture in Wichita, Kansas. If the program proves successful, it merits serious consideration for expansion. However, it seems rather risky to entrust the education of future generations to private firms whose first concern is profit margin. Skeptics can easily point to the mess the private sector has made with America"s health care.

What happens if a for-profit firm finds that the school it runs is not a money maker? Experimental education programs often incorporate alternative teaching methods. After multiple years of exposure to such methods, how will students respond to traditional teaching methods if the school system reverts back to public control? Another issue to consider: school officials will rely heavily on student performance to evaluate the effectiveness of a privately run school. Under this kind of scrutiny, a private administration runs the risk of reducing a student"s to how well he or she scores on a test. A child"s ability and potential cannot be accurately judged in this manner.

Addressing discrepancies in public funding

Public schools, as they currently exist, can educate America"s children. As the Money magazine study illustrates, the best public schools in the United States are doing well. The real challenge lies in bringing the rest up to the same level. The bottom line is these schools need money and lots of it. Kozol is amazed that people still ask, "Does spending increase education quality?" During the lecture, he joked that Congress "throws" money at education while it "allocates" money to the Pentagon and other justified expenditures.

Most sub-standard schools reside in districts with small tax bases. Thus, the school systems have less money to spend per child. Are some children worth more than others? Any citizen who believes in the principles the Unites States was founded upon would answer in the negative. Yet many of these same citizens seem completely unfazed by differences in educational spending. It is absurd to expect a school system that spends thousands less per child to provide an equivalent education to districts with much larger sums of money at their disposal. The nation"s leaders must first bring educational spending to consistent levels before they consider any other measures. Presently, some public schools do not have a fighting chance and many work wonders with very limited resources. Because many under-funded schools are dealing with children facing numerous obstacles like poverty, broken families, and widespread community violence, they actually deserve more money than anyone else.

Until the financial playing field is leveled out, all other initiatives seem premature. This includes President Clinton"s push for national testing standards. It is misguided to subject children with radically different public education backgrounds to one standardized test. And while it"s nice to want every 12 year-old to be able to log onto the internet, the need for books, teachers, and counselors takes precedent.

  Brent Kendall is a UNC-CH graduate currently residing in Carrboro.  

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