Don't vouch for this

Every society has its own uniquely strange little rituals. Michigan, for example, has the quaint custom of putting at least one really stupid, even disastrous, idea on the statewide ballot every two years. This year, it is the schools’ turn. Voters this November will be presented with a very real opportunity to destroy the thing that made this nation both great and a nation: our public school system. This is the so-called voucher plan. Wackos collected enough signatures to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot which would allow the state to give $3,100 tuition vouchers to students (their parents or caregivers) who then could go try and buy a quality private school education for their child for a year with that vast sum.

Naturally, that’s money the public schools, which now get about $6,000 per pupil, would lose, though they would still have to try to offer the same set of services to their dwindling client base. That ought to finish off any chance the Detroit schools have of making it back to functional respectability, for a start. The kids would suffer even worse, since many might wind up in fly-by-night or substandard "schools," especially when their caregivers are less than savvy about educational choices or not totally committed to their kids’ well-being, as is sometimes the case with crackheads.

The whole voucher proposal is, in fact, crackbrained. Officially, only districts with less than a 67 percent graduation rate would qualify. But the way those figures are calculated can easily be manipulated, as Bob Wheaton showed in a story in last Sunday’s Oakland Press. It isn’t even clear who finally rules on what the numbers are. Besides, even a community with a 100 percent graduation rate can get vouchers if the people vote for ’em – and getting such a question on the ballot would be ridiculously easy. Now, while pretty much anyone who does this sort of homework knows the voucher plan is a loser, the election outlook is scary. For one thing, a lot of parents have very real and legitimate concerns about their public schools. For another, as is often the case with Michigan ballot proposals, the wording is misleading. What the voters will see is a promise that the amendment would "provide for guaranteed school funding, teacher testing, and school choice." But it guarantees only per-pupil funding, and only at the current levels, meaning funding could also be frozen at that level forever if the Legislature feels like it. What really frightens me is the knowledge that the real loser would be all of us.

America was made one country by our free public schools. Immigrants have become not only great successes but authentic Americans because of a common learning and culture instilled in them by big city, suburban and rural public schools.

They learned not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but the common good myths (all men are created equal, George Washington and the cherry tree) every society needs. Without doubt, some of those myths were never more than partly true. But that realization helped lead men like Thurgood Marshall to greatness in an effort to put things right.

Granted, the curriculum was often ethnocentric, distorted, and not nearly as inclusive of minorities and women as it ought to have been. Granted, many public schools are in severe financial and leadership difficulties today. Something is also pretty clearly wrong with the way they teach basics. I can tell which of my college freshmen went to Catholic school when I get their first writing assignments: The parochial school kids can spell and handle grammar.

But what that means is not a need to abandon public schools, but a call to fix them, as David Adamany and Co. have been struggling to do in Detroit. The best news in the papers last week was the report that 30,000 Detroit public school children are in mandatory summer school because they are performing below grade level.

How would voucher schools cope with that?

Diversity, educational as otherwise, is fine. Yet there has to be a common shared core. Otherwise, we may eventually risk becoming like Lebanon or at least Argentina, places with lots of diversity that don’t work, because they lack common bonds. When immigrants came to this country before, say, the late 1970s, the goal commonly was to become as American as possible as quickly as possible, which usually, if you weren’t of color, got done by the second generation. Italian boys might still marry Italian girls and Polish ones go to the Polish Century Club on weekends, but most soon spoke only English. Losing a second language was regrettable, but wholeheartedly embracing the common one and a common culture was mostly healthy. Today, however, we have immigrants who have no intention of assimilating, learning English or becoming part of the wider society. You don’t have to be a split-level middlebrow to believe that isn’t healthy, for them or us. Nor, for that matter, did the idea of giving taxpayer dollars to private religious schools used to be regarded as a "conservative" one. Incidentally, the odds are that this voucher proposal would, even if passed, never get off the ground. A federal judge declared a similar one in Cleveland unconstitutional for that very reason. So just vote no, and then get about the job of fixing the public schools. Exercise takes longer than liposuction, but it is cheaper and, long-term, far safer. Do the right thing, eh? Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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