July 07, 2002
Suburbs v. vouchers

This op-ed piece in the Sunday Chron makes an interesting point about school vouchers and their promise to improve schools, namely that the better schools, usually located in suburbs, have resisted and will resist efforts to take away their autonomy.

People in the suburbs are generally satisfied with their neighborhood schools. They want to protect the physical and financial independence of those schools, as well as suburban property values, which are tied to local school quality (real or perceived). School choice threatens the independence of suburban schools by creating the possibility that outsiders, particularly urban students, will enter them and that local funds will exit them.

When suburbanites perceive a threat to their schools, they fight back -- and usually win. Consider school desegregation and school finance reform. Suburban districts largely succeeded in insulating their schools from the reach of desegregation decrees, which rarely went beyond urban districts or required suburban schools to participate. Consequently, urban school districts were left to experience the costs and benefits of school desegregation, while most suburban schools remained safely on the sidelines.

Suburban school districts have been equally successful in protecting their financial independence. Efforts to equalize school funding have largely failed. Even when funding schemes are reformed, wealthier, suburban districts are usually left free to devote as much of their local resources as they wish to their own schools.

A similar pattern can be seen in school choice plans, almost all of which work to protect the autonomy of suburban schools. Public school choice programs, which include charter schools, rarely require suburban schools to open their doors to students from neighboring districts or to send locally raised revenues to another district.

The Cleveland plan, at issue in the Supreme Court's decision, is an example: Students in Cleveland were given a voucher that could be used in private schools within Cleveland and in any suburban public school that volunteered to accept voucher students. No schools volunteered.

Meanwhile, proposals to expand voucher programs have been defeated time and again, in both legislative arenas and at the ballot box. Those proposals failed not because teachers' unions opposed them but because suburbanites did.

I've never been convinced that we couldn't solve most of our schools' problems by funding the poor schools at the same level as the rich ones. I've also never been convinced that private schools are the answer, as I attended one crappy private school and two outstanding public schools in my childhood. When the Fort Bend and Montgomery County school districts say that they'll find room for kids from the Fourth Ward, then maybe I'll believe that vouchers are about something other than subsidizing religious education.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 07, 2002 to National news