Thursday, March 02, 2006

Surface Debate: Vouchers in Virginia Float?

The Washington Post reports about a struggle in Virginia set to unfold. The struggle will be over whether to send students with disabilities to private school on public dollars. The proposed option would make 175,000 students eligible for funding to the tune of the same average amount the state currently spends on their education: $2800.

There are some problems here, and they are not exactly the problems the article quotes. To begin with the obvious. The proposal is a voucher system. Lawmakers know enough not to insert the inflammable term "voucher" into a bill, but a spade is a spade. There's nothing "stealth" about this thing. So any tip-toeing by respondents is merely an effort not to come on too strong.

Second, Alexandria School Board Chairman Mary "Mollie" Danforth's comment about this proposal taking money away from education is only half right, or perhaps not specific enough to mean anything. Payments from the state will technically remain the same, however the localities will lose funding based on reduced attendance. The real concern is likely that since not all student with disabilities will be eligible or even take advantage of such a proposal, schools will have to continue to fund special education at near existing levels. Whether a school educates five or twenty special education students, the school still has to hire personnel and manage curricular adjustments.

For last I've left the most pressing concern that this article fails to address: the hypocrisy of accountability. Sounds harsh doesn’t it. Many of the same folks who advocated heavily for passage of the SOLs in Virginia in the 90s--the most expansive accountability machine the state has ever seen--are now portending to ignore accountability, the very value they fought so hard to establish as rule. When money follows students to private schools the tests we use to measure their achievement, the foundation of accountability under NCLB, do not follow. This in my mind is a much stronger objection than "we'll smash anything that looks or breathes like a voucher at all costs." Why would the same people who believe strongly in accountability, support the federal law and many of its principles, if not its measures, also be willing to sell those principles up river because it's convenient? Maybe it's just another case of market ideology trumping all other values--like decency, fairness, reciprocity, and equity. Market ideas in education don’t have to ignore fairness. We are only limited by our creativity and our commitment. I'm not against giving people opportunities that could improve their lives. And we know that American's adore choice. I am against blind commitment to a side of a debate without engaging that debate at a more fundamental level.


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