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Faith and Life commentary: Responding to the school voucher debate

9/22/1999

NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photograph is available.

A UMNS Commentary by the Rev. Phil Wogaman*

Now that Johnny and Mary are back in school, the politicians are busily debating what is to be done to assure quality education.

One of the ideas currently receiving attention is economist Milton Friedman's proposal of school vouchers. First advanced by him in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman's idea is to give parents "vouchers" for a specified amount of money which they can then spend in educating their children in schools of their own choosing. The idea was an expression of Friedman's ideological distaste for government-run institutions, but it has appealed to others for broader reasons.

Indeed, at first glance the voucher idea has much to commend it. Poor parents might have the same freedom that others do to place their children in high quality private schools. Parents would have greater freedom to educate their children in religiously-based schools. Poor quality schools, facing new competition, would have to "shape up" or close their doors. Whole layers of bureaucracy might be eliminated. Those of us who do not share Friedman's more extremely individualistic economic philosophy may still be tempted by the idea.

But we might want to pause before taking such a big leap. Indeed, this idea is hardly conservative. Conservatives, after all, don't want to change or abandon institutions unless something better is clearly in prospect. The American public school system has been around for more than 150 years, intimately linked to the nation's economic life and its democratic political institutions. There are those who would say, sweepingly, that it has "failed." Usually that point is argued on the basis of test results (which can be inconclusive) or social problems (largely encountered in a number of urban settings). But taken as a whole, the American public school system has been remarkably successful. It has helped produce a highly literate population and the most prosperous economy in the world.

The voucher idea, unless accompanied by much higher educational expenditures, would withdraw resources from the very schools that need them most. At the same time, it would foster the illusion that parents would be able to choose any school. Schools would still be free to reject applicants, and many of the best schools could be expected to screen out the less gifted. American education might be even more fragmented between the "haves" and the "have-nots."

For these and other reasons the country surely will not want to rush into so radical a departure from what is, on the whole, still a pretty good educational system. (Interestingly, while media attention has led many people to lose confidence in the system as a whole, they rate their own local schools much higher! That is a little like public opinion polls in which people express dislike for Congress while approving their own representatives.)

But the debate itself can be a healthy reminder that education is everybody's business. The best schools, public and private, are the ones in which parents and other concerned people are deeply involved. I hope churches will not rush into the voucher panacea in the hope that it will increase the religious content in instruction. There is room for church-based schools in America, but some of those schools have fostered a much narrower form of education and increased social and religious segregation in a pluralistic country where children need to learn how to relate to others who are very different from themselves.

Rather than leaping in the voucher direction, churches might better encourage and support the public schools. How? By encouraging able young people to become teachers as a real vocation. By insisting that the public provide adequate funding to attract good teachers and reduce class size. By enlisting more people to help out as tutors in the more difficult school settings. By supplementing the public schools with really first-rate religious education programs. By resisting the negative stereotypes.

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*Wogaman, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, is a seminary professor of Christian ethics and author. He is a clergy member of the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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