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School Voucher Demands Skyrockets

Big education news this morning from Louisiana:

More than 10,000 students have applied for state vouchers to attend private or parochial schools rather than troubled public schools, which is well above initial estimates, officials said Wednesday.

“It is fair to say that the number exceeds the numbers that were anticipated at the outset,” state Superintendent of Education John White told reporters.

White said families will be notified of school assignments in about two weeks, and after a possible lottery when demand exceeds classroom supply.

In addition, private and parochial schools that have proposed huge enrollment increases fueled by the state-financed vouchers — some of which have been the subject of news stories — will face scrutiny before they are approved, White said.

He said those decisions will try to strike a balance between parental demand for classroom seats and the need for schools to grow responsibly.

All the activity stems from legislation pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, and approved by the Legislature in April.

Under the new law, students who attend public schools rated C, D or F by the state, and who meet income requirements, can apply for vouchers that are supposed to finance tuition and mandatory fees at about 125 private and parochial schools that are offering slots.

The state expected 2,000 additional students to apply for a voucher. In the event, 8,000 did. There is clearly huge demand for this program.

Leaving aside questions of the program’s constitutionality (which is going to be decided by a court), it’s worth thinking about the potential social effect. Let me put my cards on the table: I support the program, with serious reservations. What swayed me was the opinion of a friend at the legislature who follows this stuff closely, and who isn’t crazy about the voucher law, but who said that the condition of so many Louisiana public schools is so deplorable, and so resistant to reform, that this radical experiment is worth trying.

My conviction, based on talking over the years to public school teachers in Louisiana and elsewhere that I’ve lived, is that the No. 1 obstacle to effective public education is not lack of money (as many liberals would say), nor teacher’s unions (as many conservatives would say), but the personal, family culture of students. This is not something that any legislature can reform. The state cannot order parents to raise disciplined children who care about their studies. The state cannot command parents to stay together, to support their children, to turn off the TV, and so forth. On my previous blog, I wrote about a teacher friend in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who went into teaching idealistically (he is quite liberal), but who, after three years, concluded that he and his wife needed to do whatever they could to keep their young daughter out of public school, or at least sell their house and move to a better school district. It wasn’t the teaching; it was the chaotic and destructive culture of the students, most of whom came from poor and working-class homes. He felt less an educator than a babysitter. I have heard that from other teachers.

The point is, the main problem with public schools is … the public.

Consider that you are a parent of a child in a failing public school, and that you are desperate to rescue your child. Consider that one of these voucher schools is the only option you have. You and other parents who have no money for private school, but who work to instill discipline and good study habits among your children, may be grateful to get your kids out of the “ghetto” of dysfunctional culture that impedes their education in their public school. Believe me, I wouldn’t want to send my kid to a school that viewed the Book of Genesis as a science text, but you’d better believe I’d choose that school if it had good order conducive to learning over a public school that did not, if those were the only options I had. You probably would too.

On what grounds is it right to condemn to a crummy education kids who come from families without the resources to buy their way out of bad schools (“bad” = schools where the disordered culture of students compromises the educational process)? This is one problem vouchers stands to address. I haven’t seen any in-depth journalism examining the issue of how the breakdown of family life affects the performance of public schools.

Here’s the thing, though. David Brooks wrote this week about what he calls “the opportunity gap.” Excerpt:

Putnam’s data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities. Decades ago, college-graduate parents and high-school-graduate parents invested similarly in their children. Recently, more affluent parents have invested much more in their children’s futures while less affluent parents have not.

They’ve invested more time. Over the past decades, college-educated parents have quadrupled the amount of time they spend reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines. High-school-educated parents have increased child-care time, but only slightly.

A generation ago, working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents. Now college-educated parents spend an hour more every day. This attention gap is largest in the first three years of life when it is most important.

If you take working-class and poor students whose parents go against the trends for their class out of the public schools, and give them the chance to study in a voucher school where the personal culture their parents instill in the home is respected and bolstered by the school environment, they will thrive. That leaves the public school as a warehouse for the children of the socially dysfunctional. Bad news, to be sure — but what is the alternative? To compel working-class and poor children whose parents are trying hard to do the right thing to endure the children of parents who don’t care? Is this what egalitarianism requires? Because the well-off can buy their way out of these conditions. The state of Louisiana, with this voucher program, is offering the children of those who cannot a way out. It might not work, but it’s worth trying.

That still leaves us with a class divide that has become and is increasingly a culture divide. It ought to make us uncomfortable … but not as uncomfortable as the status quo.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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