Thursday, March 5, 2009

Vouchers in DC schools

The debate about vouchers in schools is taking an interesting turn in Washington, DC. The District currently has a voucher program, which was started at the behest of a Republican, back when they were in power in Congress. Now that Democrats are back in power, they would like to end it. Except one Democrat, but one very important Democrat in this debate: Arne Duncan, Obama's Secretary of Education. He's in favor of letting kids stay in schools that they are already attending. As someone who attended elementary schools in three states, I'm strongly in favor of continuity.

I'm also one of the only Democrats in favor of vouchers. I'm a big fan of public education. My mother taught elementary school, my brother teaches high school English, and my public high school education in suburban Detroit was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

But I'm also a fan of innovation. One reason my high school education was so good was that I was in a program called "Flex" (short for Flexible Scheduling) that allowed teachers a great deal of freedom to teach unusual topics in interesting ways. We watched movies like "Ran" and "The Seventh Seal." I actually graduated from high school with a better knowledge of foreign film than American movies.

I am also of the opinion that we already have an incredibly successful voucher program in this country. It's just that we have it at the college level. Think about it: the Federal government subsidizes private higher education in a number of ways: Pell grants, student loans, grants from the NEH, NIH, etc. For me, there is very little difference between Pell grants and vouchers. Both of them are payments from the government that allow students to study at private schools. Pell grants are basically vouchers for college students. The only difference between Pell grants and vouchers is the age of the student.

One argument against vouchers is that they subsidize religious education. But a fair number of colleges and universities in this country are religious in nature, and we have no issues subsidizing those. Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Boston College are all Jesuit. There are dozens more, associated with a wide variety of religions.

So I say we keep vouchers. Americans are constantly complaining about the state of our educational system. But our higher educational system is the envy of the world. We have a great model for how vouchers can work to encourage innovation and promote excellence in education. We just haven't realized it yet.

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