To Voucher or Not, I Cannot Say

I’ve always been opinionated. Opinions are my bread and butter after all. Mention an issue and I sprint to one side or the other of the barricades. I can change my mind. I do change my mind but only with a lot of clanking and heaving and sawing of metal bars. I know this is not my most appealing trait. In my line of work the deep pit of self-righteousness always yawns. Sometimes I fall in. That’s why the issue of school vouchers finds me so cautious. I am confounded.

Last week the Daily News listed the names of some prominent people who send their own children to private schools and then oppose the same opportunities for those who cannot afford it. Hypocrites all. Two of my girls went to Horace Mann School for Nursery Years and then spent the next 13 grades at the Brearley School. Our rebel daughter who didn’t go to Brearley-because at age 5 she told the admissions director that she was about to play the part of Heidi in the new Hollywood version of the movie-went to St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s and then to the United Nations International School.

I wanted small classes, achieving classmates, great teachers for my children. I wanted them challenged and encouraged. I wanted them to do well on their S.A.T.’s. I wanted up-to-date science labs and I wanted my children to know and be known by the adults in their life. I didn’t want mediocre minds to come near theirs. I didn’t want their time wasted in learning programs that could not be calibrated to their achievements and their lags. I didn’t want them to stand in lines coming and going from recess. None of this is very original of me. I wanted what every parent wants. We couldn’t exactly afford it but we paid the bills anyway.

So I feel really queasy about opposing the voucher idea for someone else’s child. The problem is that I’m sentimentally attached to the way the public schools used to be-the way they worked for my husband’s generation. He went to public school in Flatbush and on to James Madison. You went to class. You learned to become an American, drew pictures of pumpkin pies, wrote Valentine cards, pledged allegiance. You had bad teachers and crowded classrooms but you learned anyway and won scholarships to college and became anything you wanted, doctor, lawyer, judge, banker, and you sent your own children to private schools. That’s the way it worked for some people. It just doesn’t work anymore.

Obviously if we give out vouchers we weaken the public schools. The brighter pupils with the hipper parents will disappear from the system. The parochial schools will grow in numbers and strength, making religious identity and fractiousness even more a part of the American scene. We will have many times more black power schools, Muslim schools, Protestant schools, Yeshivas, Saint this and Saint that, and we will hardly know each other any more. The voucher system is not just an attack on public schools, it is an attack on the public space, the communal dream of a welcoming America that blurred difference while respecting it.

But what can you do with a system that can’t keep a chancellor, allows rotten principals to pass their days in a bureaucratic haze, can’t hire or fire teachers without a congressional act, and allows classrooms to grow so full that individual children languish with boredom or neglect? As a country we have (at least in our cities) allowed the public schools, with the exceptions of special gifted and blessed sites, to grow shabby, shallow, ineffective. It’s not right but it’s what’s there. We have not had the communal will to make these schools good enough. We have not put enough money into them to keep them from leaking. We haven’t kept the class size small enough or paid teachers enough to attract the better ones. We let our public schools run down like our public toilets. There seems to be no political will to fix them or to fix the problems of the children who enter those schools already behind in vocabulary, abstract thinking skills, emotional maturity.

Our idea of fixing is to turn something private so the rest of us can wash our hands of the problem, so that the market will do what we have not. I doubt it’s going to work. How do you discount a child or mark down his value or shred the inventory? The private schools will throw out the most difficult students who will be back in the public school now depleted even further of funds or attention. The better private schools will charge more than the vouchers will give parents, and very soon we will see a situation in which all children do not have equal opportunity to attend a good school-just like today.

But that said, who am I to raise my voice in favor of the public school? I cannot ask another mother to send her child to a 35-kid class with metal detectors at the front door. I cannot ask that some other parent be a foot soldier in our war for a democratic, diverse society.

The traditional liberal well-meant position is to support the teacher’s union, the people’s schools. The honest position in the light of reality is to wince and shut up. Unless we had the political power to really transform the schools as well as the living conditions of their students in our inner cities we really can’t be for the status quo, the shrug of the shoulder, the huge dropout rates of high school students, the poor score.

The public says it’s interested in education. But is it really? Is this just some code word for “I want you (Mr. Pollster,) to think I’m a nice person”? If we as a country really cared we could do something. It wouldn’t have come to such a pass. I know and you know that we watch our own backs and not much more; that means me, too.

We are such a rich nation. Every day new millionaires walk into the local Mercedes-Benz dealer. Why couldn’t we have an equivalent of a Marshall Plan for our inner cities, schools included? Why couldn’t we have Head Start classes for every new mother and infant so every child plays on an almost equal field? We’ll spend decades fighting over the voucher cure and then have to mop up the disasters that predictably enough will follow.

I’m sick of hearing politicians on all sides mouthing education platitudes, trying to convince us they care, they’ll do something. I’ve lived long enough to know that we don’t have the imagination or the commitment to other people’s children to make real changes. All we’ll have is rhetoric, sickening rhetoric along the campaign trail.

I’m staying out of the to-voucher-or-not-to-voucher argument because my own hands are not clean and I see no rain clouds on the horizon. We’re in for a long drought, so many seedlings just won’t make it.