Phrases like "vouchers take money away from public schools" are incomplete and -- ultimately -- inadequate. But they are necessary. I'm a big fan of George Lakoff and take his strategies to heart when I communicate publicly. The phrase "vouchers take money away from public schools" is meant to rally the troops, i.e., give those already committed to public schools a powerful rejoinder to people who talk about "school choice" and "tuition tax credits that benefit needy children." These latter phrases are smoke screens for one thing: privatizing public schools. Democrats and progressives typically have policy debates with Republicans and conservatives by launching into rational recitations of the facts while their counterparts hurl back one-liners like "tax relief" and "No Child Left Behind." So, for Democrats and progressives to be successful in public policy debates that are reduced to sound bites in the media, we have to learn from conservatives and make our message compact and powerful.
As to the fact that the phrase "vouchers take money away from public schools" conceals underlying problems with parents of at-risk children and does not speak to the perception that public schools are dysfunctional, I would say that there are much more systemic, causal factors at play in the dysfunction of both American society and American public schools that very few people are openly acknowledging. However, since Hurricane Katrina, much of the attention of the country has turned to the elephant in the room -- poverty.
At the heart of the great debate about poverty between conservatives and progressives is the very simple yet very powerful disagreement that people are either completely in charge of themselves or they are completely controlled by forces outside of their control. I think most people, when asked to reflect, would conclude that it's a little of both. In fact, I think most politicians would even argue that it's both. And yet, when it comes to formulating public policy, these sensible people line up and start shouting ideological one-liners at each other. Because we have a conservative political machine in place, we are getting one side of the argument more than we are getting the other (when and if we do get it at all). Katrina raised the issue again and gave Democrats a chance to tell their story about poverty, but because their story was so ideological and so political, it quickly faded from view.
I believe that there is a way to talk about educational reform that does not devolve into ideology when it comes time to discuss the root problem of education, i.e, poverty. Policies need to be formulated that recognize that -- paradoxically -- individuals are both totally responsible for themselves and totally shaped by their environments. However, it's important to point out that policies cannot be formulated that make people be more responsible for themselves. But it's also important to point out that policies HAVE been formulated that punish people -- mostly poor people -- for NOT being responsible for themselves. This, for me, is a moral and ethical dilemma, but it's also a practical dilemma: does punishing people for being "irresponsible" work? Is it effective? Does it achieve what it sets out to achieve, i.e., does punishing "irresponsible" people make them become more responsible? For me, the answer is no, it doesn't.
So if it doesn't work, then why do we do it? And what, if anything, can work?
To begin with, we need to address the educational achievement gap by doing the following:
1. smaller class sizes at every level
2. comprehensive social services so no child has to go without food, shelter, medicine, and dental care
3. adequate prenatal care and postnatal follow-up so children reach school age healthy
4. free, high-quality, universal pre-K that is developmentally appropriate
5. parent education for young parents
6. comprehensive job training and placement for parents at a real living wage
7. universal healthcare coverage for all Americans, especially the poor and "working poor"
8. free, high-quality onsite child-care or free transportation to and from child-care facilities to make it possible for parents to work and raise children
9. high-quality training and ongoing professional development for elementary teachers in reading instruction (not drill-and-kill phonics)
10. high-quality training and ongoing professional development for all teachers in classroom-based formative assessment
All of these proposals speak to the most important environmental factors that shape success and failure in our country, not just in school but in life overall. Then comes what I call my leap of faith. Ready? I take it as a matter of faith that, if these environmental factors were addressed and that material suffering were ameloriated, people would be motivated to take responsibility for their lives. How do I know this? I don't. But it occurs to me that if people live in misery, they themselves will be miserable. It's hard to want to be responsible for what you are told is your own self-induced, self-created misery. But if people live with their basic needs met, there's a greater likelihood that people will not only be able to take responsibility for their lives, but they'll also want to.
Missouri State Coordinator
Assessment Reform Network, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest)
Transform Education (blog) - <http://transformeducation.blogspot.com/>http://transformeducation.blogspot.com/ </blockquote></x-html>