Wednesday, February 16, 2005

COLUMN -- Vouchers throw light on public education

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:00 AM |  

Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2005

The battle lines are drawn in the debate over the educational access grant legislation. Proposed by Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, the legislation would grant low-income families in St. Paul and Minneapolis up to $4,600 of tuition aid at accredited private schools, including religiously affiliated schools.

While there is skirmishing around details of the proposed legislation, the main battle is a philosophical contest of two issues. The first is the nature of "public" education; the second, state constitutionality of tuition funding at religious schools.

These issues were prevalent themes in the debate between Hann and Sen. Steve Kelly, DFL-Hopkins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, on MPR's "Midday" program on Feb. 9. This column addresses the first issue — the nature of public education. Next Wednesday's column will discuss the constitutional issue.

During the debate, Hann repeatedly returned to the point that the voucher debate is ultimately about to whom schools are accountable — parents and students or the state and (the argument goes) taxpayers. Kelly was equally dogged on the accountability issue, arguing that parental accountability was not the only consideration for public education; the benefit to society of education was equally important.

Hann's argument is familiar to readers of this column. "Public" education is education in the public interest and not necessarily defined by any specific delivery system of skills and knowledge. An educated population is essential for democracy to function, but Hann lays no claim to being the arbiter of the content of that education. The state, he contends, has no authority to dictate private school curriculum as a consequence of the proposed legislation.

The benefit to society of education is the diversity of ideas that evolves from a diversity of educational options. The more choice the better, Hann says. Ultimately, he argues, parents are the arbiters of the education they want their children to receive, and schools are ultimately accountable to parents. The Hann/Buesgens legislation simply extends the opportunity to choose private education to low-income families for whom it is now out of reach. At one point in the MPR debate, Hann defined the debate with the question "Whose interest is primary — kids and education or a school system protecting its revenue stream?"

Kelly was shockingly candid in his response. He stated that parents need to step back and realize that public education is not just about the parent or the child. Public education is what is good for all citizens. The effect is that Minnesota is a more prosperous state because of public education.

Kelly accused Hann of wanting to narrow public education to just the parent and student and leave out the broader benefits to society. He said that in a public system, all schools must be subject to "accountability mechanisms." All students must be measured to ensure that schools are accountable. He said the proposed legislation would give money to private schools but not hold them to the same level of accountability as public schools.

An editorial on these pages put the issue this way: "The focus for school improvement policy should be on what's best for kids and what's fair and constructive for the whole civil society. The drive for vouchers blurs the vital focus on effective choice, accountability for results and compliance with new federal requirements."

On one level, this position reflects good stewardship of public funds. On another it's more sinister. As the editorial implies, "effective choice" is defined by the state, measured by the state and complies to state requirements. "What's best for the kids" is what the state says "is best for the kids."

Kelly's state-centric position of state-defined "accountability mechanisms" imposed on those without the means to opt out of the system contrasts with Hann's family-focused position of parent-defined accountability promoting a diversity of educational options for a greater number of children. While critics generate heat by demonizing vouchers, the Hann/Buesgens bill throws light on the nature of education and other fundamental questions.

Do Minnesotans have more faith in bureaucrats to make basic decisions about their lives than they do in their own judgment? Does the "collective good" necessarily mean that individuals must subjugate their dreams to their neighbors' desires? Does single-system education conforming to state-imposed standards create the independent-minded citizens a democracy requires to survive?

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, can a gelding still remain fruitful?