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Thinking Conservatively on School Choice
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History has proven that few things are able to unite the social and fiscal wings of American conservatism. There are a handful of exceptions to the rule, however.
Crusading against almost any form of population stabilization most definitely qualifies. Culture warriors claim that all forms of government-backed birth control are either thwarting God’s will or some sort of totalitarian plot. Free traders, meanwhile, say that a larger population means more innovation along with, for business owners, an expansive customer base and lower employee wages.
Whether or not any of these folks have compared countries like Nigeria and El Salvador to ones such as Singapore and Liechtenstein is worth pondering.
Perhaps the only thing more popular than population destabilization is “school choice”. Boasting a fan club that ranges from Mike Huckabee to the late Milton Friedman, this issue has become a staple of Republican policy.
The idea is that if students are taken out of badly performing public schools and sent to better ones, their academic careers will finally reach success, thus solving our national educational crisis. Funding is to be provided by a voucher system compliments of every taxpayer known to any given state’s revenue service.
Acute observers ought to have difficulty seeing because of all the red flags.
School choice will not turn America’s schools into Finland’s and vault American students to the top of the world’s achievement charts. It is impossible for mainly troubled youths in dangerous, let alone substandard, schools to magically become star pupils once they are placed in a better environment.
What is likely to happen is that these youths will drag gifted and well-directed students into a spiral of chaos and destruction. The problems that plague bad schools, most of them located in impoverished urban environments, will simply be exported to safer city neighborhoods or suburbia.
This is because the core problem with failing schools is not the teachers, or even their unions, as many allege. It is not the buildings or the athletic courts or inadequate funding. It is the student body.
In 2013, a most interesting letter appeared among The Baltimore Sun’s typically droll pages. It was written by Dave Miceli, a veteran teacher in the Charm City’s public schools.
“I cannot count the number of students who have physically destroyed property....They have trashed brand new computers, destroyed exit signs, set multiple fires, destroyed many, many lockers, stolen teachers’ school supplies, written their filth on the tops of classroom desks, defecated in bathrooms and stairwells, assaulted teachers (beyond constantly telling them to perform certain impossible acts upon themselves) and refused to do any homework or classwork,” Miceli stated.
His goal was to tell the masses that teachers are not scapegoats for problems caused and perpetuated by the student body. Hopefully more than a few readers gave Miceli’s words the serious consideration they deserve.
Does anybody honestly think that if droves of BCPS students were transferred to successful charter schools - or virtually any private ones - their situation would improve? Would these generally hard-edged teens become college-bound academics in short order just because their surroundings changed?
They would not. What they would probably do, though, is recreate their former environment almost immediately. This would be disastrous for their new classmates.
In the case of private schools, concerned parents pay astronomical sums so their children can be formally educated in a safe, sound setting. Contrary to stereotypes, many private school parents are anything but wealthy. They nickel and dime to the hilt so that their kids might have a better life.
This better life does not leave room for the students which Miceli described.
Importing trouble to areas which have none is not only begging, but pleading for disaster. Using school vouchers so dangerous, self-destructive youths can corrupt the well-being of more productive kids ought to be considered nothing less than child abuse.
This is why starry-eyed center-rightists need to stop dreaming and start thinking. Then, and only then, can the awful truth about “school choice” be understood.
Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at