It’s April in Tennessee, so that must mean that once again we are embroiled in a battle to beat back vouchers. One year I wish Punxsutawney Phil would come out of his hole, and, instead of telling us there’d be 6 more weeks of winter, he’d tell us there’d be no voucher battle for this year. Vouchers are another one of those arguments that don’t seem to be predicated on any kind of empirical evidence. It just sounds like a great idea on the surface, and there are special interest folks already lined up to make donations in case a legislator is willing to support the legislation – therefore, here we go again. The past two years, the legislation has failed to pass a vouchers bill. This year, however, things are looking a little glum, and I’m a little frightened by that.
It seems that when legislators get up and scream, “Kids are stuck in a failing school!” they are forgetting something: we are a democracy and public education is in the Constitution. That means those failing schools are kinda on us. Think about it this way: it’s like letting your yard get so overgrown that your kids can’t play in it, and then you walk outside and declare, “This yard is a disgrace, and it is an injustice that my kids don’t have a great yard to play in.” Vouchers are akin to giving your kids five dollars so they can go play in a nicer yard down the road instead of cleaning up your yard. What you are saying is, “I am not responsible for my yard, and I certainly don’t intend to take care of it.” Vouchers are an admission of failure. It’s an unacceptable failure because the last time I checked, America wasn’t working too hard, wasn’t physically laid up, nor had a drinking problem. America needs to get out and clean up its yard. If the lawn mower or weed eater is broken, then fix it or invest in a new one.
You can see where the voucher issue would give me qualms. Then I read Peter Greene’s recent piece debunking the silly idea that the education funding required by the Constitution is really like money in a backpack. I know it wasn’t Peter’s intention, or maybe it was, but it set off a light bulb. What if we grew this whole voucher concept? What if everybody got a backpack full of money? Need to go into a nursing home? Here’s a backpack of money. Don’t like your fire department? Here’s a backpack. The possibilities are endless.
A couple of weeks ago, I was looking at crime statistics. It seems my neighborhood has more crime than the wealthier neighborhoods. Now applying my new found clarity, I’m starting to wonder why I should be stuck in a failing neighborhood. (Disclaimer for my neighbors: I don’t think our neighborhood is failing, but if you apply metrics that are used to measure schools, some might think we are.) I want my backpack. If my neighbors and I were given a voucher, we could go out and either hire the rich folks’ police department or entice them to come open up in our neighborhood. We wouldn’t be trapped, depending on that overstressed government police force; we’d have one dedicated to just our needs. Think how fantastic that would be.
Let’s look at other services. How about the zoning department? Right now, zoning is run out of an office downtown. Do they even know my neighborhood or understand our needs? I don’t know, but those rich neighborhoods are looking pretty nice. They never seem to get payday loan places and used car lots setting up in their neighborhood. Give me a backpack, and my neighbors and I could invite our own zoning department into the neighborhood. I know, some in the neighborhood might not agree with our vision, but nobody’s forcing them to use our zoning department. If they are happy with the city’s zoning department, they are more than welcome to keep right on using it.
I’m telling you, the possibilities for vouchers are endless. This could be a real game changer. There is no reason why the kids should get all the benefits. After all, what have they done for this country? So what if they are the future. We are the present. We are the ones who have fought in wars and paid taxes. Why should we be stuck in failing neighborhoods while others benefit? I say the time has come for vouchers for everyone!
With our public schools, people may argue that there is a flipside. We could do an honest evaluation of our schools. We could commit to fully and equitably funding them. We could commit to applying best practices that are backed by research and evidence. That would take recognizing the vital role that our public school system plays in shaping our children’s future. It would take many of us, both as citizens and businesses, committing to supply both financial and human resources. We might have to do a little volunteering.
In other words, we’d need to go out to the shed and pull out that lawn mower that we didn’t maintain. We’d have to remove the blade and sharpen it, change the spark plugs, change the oil, and maybe tweak a few things. It’s possible that we might need to invest in a new weed eater to help with the maintenance. I would reject the idea of overinvesting in the newest, brightest, shiny one. The one we’ve been using, with a few updates, will likely serve us best. Remember, we’d need to buy, not rent, our tools. That yard will need regular maintenance. I don’t know, but this is sounding like a lot of work! It might be easier to just give the kids five bucks and let them go play in a yard down the road.
Giving the kids five bucks, though, isn’t going to really solve the problem. First of all, my yard is still a wreck. Second of all, I’m not sure how far away those clean yards are. I may have to get in the car and drive the kids there. That’s starting to sound like work, too. Thirdly, I’m not sure five bucks is enough to gain them entry to the yard. What if that homeowner wants ten? What if, at first, they decide five is good, but all of a sudden they have a bunch of kids who want to play in their yard, so they jack it up to ten? Those damn private interests are always looking to make money. Lastly, what if that homeowner doesn’t have the same standards as I do, and my kids pick up all kinds of bad habits while playing in that yard? After all, the kids are not going to be right here in my yard where my neighbors and I can keep an eye on them. That could be problematic.
Maybe this backpack idea isn’t such a great one. Maybe the people saying we need to go out to the shed and do the maintenance have a point. That backpack idea sure was attractive for a minute though. Why does there always have to be unintended consequences? I guess I’ll talk to you later. If you need me, I’ll be out mowing the lawn.