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School vouchers? Bring 'em on!

by Katie Allison Granju

A few weeks ago, I found myself enthusiastically cheering out loud as I stood at my kitchen sink washing dishes. The news had just come over the radio sitting on my counter that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the city of Cleveland's pioneering school voucher program is, in fact, completely legal.

The Cleveland program provides parents of the city's children in grades K-8 with vouchers of up to $2,250 to send their children to the accredited schools of their choice, be they public, private or parochial. Plaintiffs in the case had argued that Cleveland's voucher program violated the constitutional principle of separation of church and state because parents could choose to spend their vouchers at Catholic or other faith-based schools. According to the Supremes, however, this doesn't pose a problem as long as parents have non-religious school options available as well. This closely watched opinion means that the moment that school choice advocates such as myself have been waiting for is at hand; it's only a matter of time until school systems all over the country start sprouting voucher programs and charter schools of all shapes, sizes, and philosophies. It's about time.

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to say up front that my three children—a rising fifth-grader, a rising second-grader, and a preschooler—all attend private schools in Knoxville. In other words, not only do I believe in school choice, I have exercised it on behalf of my own children. Additionally, of course, I continue to pay taxes to support our generally mediocre and monolithic public school system. Although it isn't always easy for us to pay for the schooling we have chosen for our kids, we have made their education a higher priority than some other items (like vacations, a larger house, or new cars). My three kids' schooling needs are as individual as they are, and as their parents, my husband and I are best able to evaluate the right school, teacher, and educational method for each of them. For example, one of our kids does best in a Montessori classroom, while another needs extra support with math. I have never been able to understand the logic behind matching a particular child to a particular classroom based almost entirely on that child's street address.

In contrast, many of the most outspoken critics of school choice initiatives (Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, and 33 percent of the House Education and Workforce Committee, to name a few) routinely send their own children to the most exclusive private schools in the nation. Studies have shown that public school teachers would overwhelmingly choose private schools for their own kids if given the option, and according to a report last year in the New York Daily News, most of the public officials who determine education policy in New York City send their own children to private schools, including Schools Chancellor Harold Levy, former mayor Rudy Giuliani, and a majority of the members of the city's Board of Education.

Yet these same policy makers are fighting tooth and nail to protect a sys-tem in which less affluent families are literally trapped inside the public schools that happen to be closest to their domiciles, some of which are top-notch and others downright dangerous.

Parents, educators, and others who favor choice and variety within the framework of a publicly financed educational system are hysterically labeled as elitist right-wing nuts who want to see public education abolished altogether. Perhaps it would be useful for those who oppose school choice initiatives to brush up on the history of public education in America. Contrary to the oft-heard assertion that public education is as fundamental to the American way of life as apple pie, and that our system of public education is a culture of meritocracy in which all children have the same educational assets to draw upon, this country's current public educational system and philosophy is a relatively recent construct that arose alongside the industrial age as a result of the need for an orderly workforce. Public schools weren't created in order to meet the needs of kids, but instead to mold them into the employee/consumers who would be willing to stand on the assembly line to build the products that they would then purchase.

As evidenced by the growing body of research indicating that parents who have a choice in where their children go to school and how they are taught are more involved in all areas of their kids' lives, school choice will prove to be an empowering force in the lives of American families. I eagerly await the day when I can use some of the money I pay into the public school system to pay for the schools my children actually attend.

Katie Allison Granju is the author of Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child (Simon and Schuster/1999). Her website is

July 18, 2002 * Vol. 12, No. 29
© 2002 Metro Pulse