The Trouble with Vouchers
main fact about education,
G.K. Chesterton observed, is that there is no such
thing. He meant that we tend to speak of teaching in the
abstract, without reference to what is actually being taught.
Chestertons words are timely now, when so many people want to break up the government monopoly of education. Not only do many public schools fail on their own terms; even if they were successful, they are, in essence if not always in practice, totalitarian. They are based on the assumption that its the states business to decide what children should know.
One popular or seductive current alternative to the public education monopoly is of course the voucher, a tax grant to parents that would be used for tuition at the schools of their choice. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver argues for this approach in the Wall Street Journal in the name of diversity and choice. And he argues that Catholic schools could achieve the goals of public schools, if only they were enabled by vouchers to do so. They have high minority enrollment and produce high achievers at comparatively low cost per student.
My point here is not that Catholic schools should replace government-run ones, Archbishop Chaput writes. They arent designed to.... However, Catholic schools already do an outstanding job of serving the poor and minorities, and theyre eager to do more.
But the primary purpose of Catholic schools is to teach Catholicism, isnt it? And isnt all the rest a byproduct? The idea behind Catholic education is that the Catholic faith is true and that it must be inculcated in children. Education is instrumental to salvation. This means that religion is the central subject, and other subjects, whatever their secular value, must be taught in the light of Catholic truth.
In other words, the main criterion of a good Catholic school is not whether it does what the public schools do, only better; its whether it conduces to the salvation of childrens souls by teaching them such habits as adoring Christ, praying to the Virgin Mary, and obeying the Church.
This is a far cry from the secularist, divinity-free education whose success is measured in SAT scores. Its hard to find a useful common denominator between two kinds of teaching whose purposes and contents are so radically different. Nothing in the concept of education can tell you which kind your child should receive.
What does the government think of all this? That shouldnt even be an issue. The state has no authority in religion and should have none in education, which is inseparable from religion not to mention the danger of having the state in the general business of thought control.
Education, after all, is largely thought control. Unthinking people who merely repeat clichés will tell you they are all in favor of the one and absolutely opposed to the other. But its precisely because schools do control what children and adolescents think that the power of doing so, like most forms of power, should be dispersed in private hands rather than concentrated in the state.
The trouble with a voucher plan is that it would leave the state in charge of all schools, which would need its approval in order to qualify for vouchers. The correct approach is to get government out of the education business altogether. Education isnt free unless schools can define success on their own terms rather than the states.
The virtue of truly Catholic schools, for instance, is not that they teach what state schools teach, only better, but that they teach what state schools and other schools dont teach at all. Yet we see Archbishop Chaput edging away from this obvious fact. He wants to justify Catholic schools in secular terms, suggesting that they beneficially duplicate the efforts of the public schools.
If Catholic educators really think that way, its likely that vouchers would subtly lead them to filter anything distinctively Catholic out of their schools which already happens too often even without vouchers. The only sound approach is the total separation of school and state.
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