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Whither on Vouchers?

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With news of the Indiana Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in favor of that state's expansive voucher program - one in which interested families send their children to private schools with public dollars - it's only a matter of time before more states follow suit and widen a central front in the ongoing battle to expand our national experiment in school choice.

In the end, is this a good or a bad development for American families? And will it help or hinder our ongoing efforts to guarantee every child a high-quality public education?

Even in a field as polarizing as K-12 school reform, you'd be hard pressed to find a more polarizing pair of questions. Indeed, Americans couldn't be farther apart on this issue. And that's not likely to change anytime soon.

Ever since the United States Supreme Court first weighed in on the issue back in 2001, proponents of vouchers have hailed them as a way to empower families who had previously lacked choices about where to send their children to school. And opponents have viewed them as a wolf in sheep's clothing that will only expedite the privatization of public education.

In Indiana, the program's appeal is clear - in just its second year of operation, participation has jumped 140% and impacted nearly 10,000 schoolchildren. And despite the fact that a majority of the participating private schools are Sectarian, the state court ruled that because state funds "do not directly benefit religious schools but rather directly benefit lower-income families with school children," there are no First Amendment concerns.

Indiana's decision, combined with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling, moves the debate over vouchers past the question of whether they're constitutional (for now). What remains unanswered is whether they're good for the nation.

Indeed, the central question -- one we largely ignore -- concerns what kind of nation we want to be going forward, and what role public education in particular, and K-12 education in general, will play. In short, what kind of system do we need to learn to live with our deepest differences?

As the First Amendment Center's Charles Haynes points out, "Americans asked a similar question in the 19th century -- and answered it with the founding of public schools. Facing a flood of immigration, the urgent task was to build one nation out of many diverse peoples and cultures. True, the "unity" that resulted was often at the expense of diversity. But with all of its flaws and limitations, the success of the American experiment -- E Pluribus Unum -- is due in no small measure to the work of public schools.

"Today," Haynes continues, "in the interest of fairness and justice, we must create a unity that is in the interest of our diversity. Can that be best achieved if most Americans attend public schools? Or is our national interest better served if most of our children are educated in a wide variety of religious and secular schools?"

As a step toward answering that question, those of us who are public education's staunchest defenders must be willing to ask ourselves how to reconcile the historic inequities of public education in ways that deepen, not diminish, our commitment to uphold the principle of liberty for all. And those of us who believe public education should be dismantled must be willing to contemplate the long-range consequences of a set of policies that, in practice, expand liberty for some, and fall far short of equality for all.

In the end, perhaps a hybrid system of schools - some district, some charter, and some private - is the best chance we have to provide the greatest number of high-quality options for the greatest number of families. This solution won't be as perfect as, say, standardizing the funding formula for every school in America (as other countries have done). But we shouldn't ignore the possibilities - or the perils - of school choice just because we've never done it this way before.

The challenge here is we have competing values, and no easy way to reconcile them. Public education is the only institution in America guaranteed to reach 90% of every succeeding generation, and the only place with a mission to prepare people for responsible citizenship in a democracy. Public education has been the foundational engine driving our country's growth, prosperity and sense of possibility. And thus far our system of public schools has provided a recipe that is incomplete, and that has left too many children - most of them poor, black and brown - on the outside looking in.

I don't see how one can argue with the idea that all families should have good choices about where to send their children to school. I also don't see how we can just assume that school choice, left to its own devices, will create a rising tide that lifts all boats.

What is the third way? How can we maintain our commitment to high-quality free education and reimagine the way we can do so more effectively?

Follow Sam on Twitter.


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