Forget the rhetoric spawned by Education Secretary William Bennett's proposal to "voucherize" Chapter I funds. It will only confuse you.
The secretary himself touts the proposal -- under which federal money to supplement the education of disadvantaged youngsters could be used to purchase education in nonpublic as well as public schools -- as representing some major breakthrough in educational choice. Right now, only the well-off are free to choose whether their children will attend public, private or parochial schools. Vouchers would extend that choice to low-income parents, creating competition for the public schools and thereby improving education for everybody.
All for approximately $600 per year? Surely Bennett knows better.
But his overstatements in behalf of vouchers are well balanced by the exaggerations of his opposition.
The National Education Association, for instance, argues that the proposal would provide precious little by way of "choice," but would violate church- state separation, undermine support of the public schools, and promote inequality and racial segregation.
"Most of all," the NEA claims in a recent memo, "vouchers would open the gates to white flight and educational inequality in our country. Only more wealthy Americans -- the majority of whom are white -- would have enough money to send their children to private schools. Lower-income families -- a great percentage of whom are minorities -- would be left to attend our public schools. The result would be a dual system of education in our country. . . ."
Voucherizing a program for children from disadvantaged families would send wealthy white families scurrying into private schools? Surely the NEA knows better.
There is, to be sure, a mix of promise and peril in the voucher idea, and few of us are able to sort them out in any satisfactory way. But the debate is less over vouchers than over what each side imagines to be the hidden agenda of the other.
Bennett and his supporters say they want to extend educational choice to those children who need it most. But his opponents see only an attempt to get the camel's nose under the tent, the eventual idea being (they are convinced) to voucherize all of tax-supported education, destroying public education in the process.
Public educators, arguing against vouchers, say they want to protect the public schools against their right-wing attackers. But the pro-voucher crowd sees only a knee-jerk effort to protect failing institutions and incompetent educators from anything that hints of real competition.
What would the Bennett proposal actually accomplish? Probably not much, for either good or ill. It would (if it passed constitutional muster) allow Chapter I-eligible children now in nonpublic schools to purchase supplemental services and instruction. It might make the difference for a handful of low-income parents who would like to but cannot quite afford to send their children to private or parochial schools. It might (depending on how local school districts worked it out) allow some youngsters to opt out of truly dreadful neighborhood schools, or else force those schools to improve.
But in general, it would offer only a tiny degree of "choice" to a small minority of children now in the Chapter I program. Imagine trying to transform the quality of medical care by voucherizing Medicaid.
But it isn't because the administration proposal offers too little choice to public-school children that it has triggered such exaggerated opposition. In fact, if the proposal offered more choice, the opposition would intensify.
If you want to know the real reason for the opposition even to an experimental voucher proposal, don't look at the program; look at its proponents: mostly conservatives whose general attitude paints them as no friends of poor people.
Rhetoric notwithstanding, the fight isn't about how best to educate poor children. It is a fight over politics, ideology and turf.