John Kane, professor emeritus from Regis University, wrote an eloquent guest post in the Colorado Independent today. In it, he tries to thread the needle between the current discourse around vouchers and to establish a case for vouchers that are somehow different. The problem is that vouchers have far too many consequences to be a viable option.
Like John Kane, I too was raised Catholic, and attended a Catholic high school for my first two years before my parents’ divorce made the cost of tuition too much on my mother’s income. Like Mr. Kane, my blue-collar parents paid their share of local taxes to support public schools as well as scrimped and saved to send me to a private school. Indeed, I received an excellent education while there that aligned with liberal college preparatory courses, and generally light on the catechism than one might suppose. But then again, that was a choice that I made with my parents. I could have gone (and eventually did go) to the local public high school and received a good education there.
Growing up in the Boston area, where over 60% of the population was Catholic in the early 80’s (they still claim it’s above 50%, but many are not practicing, and local parishes are closing and consolidating across the Archdiocese). Every neighborhood in the working class city I grew up in had a local parish, and served the local community, so there was a natural alignment with kids going to Catholic schools in a virtually homogeneous community. It certainly was a different time and place.
Now, as then, private schools do not have the capacity, resources or requirement to address most special education needs. The art and science of providing students with IEPs and 504s a quality education has evolved greatly, but the onus of responsibility still remains with public schools who are obliged to provide these resources. More to the point, public schools are mandated to provide an education for every student, regardless of their race, creed, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic circumstances, or disability. That isn’t the case for private schools who can select (and exclude) students based on any number of criteria including religious affiliation or gender. This is my biggest objection to supporting any voucher scheme — my public tax dollars should not be allowed to support any school that will not allow any student to pursue an education if they choose. Indeed, there are cases where students have been denied entrance or expelled from private schools because of personal identity. That seems like a contradiction, particularly by the teachings of the Church I grew up in (and by Pope Francis’ message today).
Over the last three decades, the tenor of discourse has changed dramatically with respect to accountability and transparency within public education. In Colorado, all public schools are beholden to SB-191, and to the federal government’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability requirements. None of these apply to private academic institutions. In fact, there are no testing requirements sans what may be necessary for post-secondary application requirements. Without the same level of rigor for academic accountability and financial transparency in how my tax dollars will be used, I cannot support any voucher scheme.
The last reason for my opposition to vouchers of any kind is that it creates what amounts to an unjust subsidy for families who can well afford the tuition, and does too little for those who are financially less able to afford to matriculate at a private school. To the Church’s credit, other scholarships and financial assistance may be available, but that was true even before the notion of vouchers. But it does something far more insidious that I would hope that the Church wouldn’t want to happen: Any voucher scheme intentionally dilutes resources from public schools, particularly for students at greater disadvantage and need. Regardless if we consider backpack funding mechanisms that assume that dollars follow the students, there other considerations for resources (teachers, curriculum, supports) that will be diminished under the pretext of “choice.”
I sincerely applaud John Kane’s critique of the Colorado’s Catholic Bishops. I agree with his assessment that they were inappropriately engaged in the political process, and demonstrated less-than-altruistic motives far from the teachings of the Church. I fully agree that current voucher schemes are nothing more than social vehicles for creating a segregated two-tiered education system in Colorado and the rest of the United States. Nevertheless, his view that families who choose to attend private, religious academic institutions are somehow being double-taxed is inaccurate. Our tax dollars benefit the public regardless of whether they use the funded resources or not. For example, some of the taxes I pay go toward public transportation. I’m in a position where I can afford to drive to my destination (despite the internal guilt of being less than carbon neutral). However, the entire community benefits from it. Likewise, a portion of my taxes funds public education, which is an investment in our communities across the state and the district I live in. I choose to take advantage of this investment that is available to every child (not to mention the other benefits that public schools provide through home values, and attracting businesses to my communities). I can choose to find and pay for other options like a private school for my kids, much in the same way I can choose to send them to any public or charter school in the state. The key word is choice. Moreover, it’s far more complex to selectively choose which private schools should receive public funding without opening the door for every religious or private interest, regardless of intent or level of indoctrination. With that, I challenge the notion that any kind of voucher is necessary or desired.