The Voucher Trap

'IF you think education is expensive,'' the saying goes, ''try ignorance.'' These days, ignorance is quite expensive indeed. In 1990, the District of Columbia, not exactly known for its high academic performance, spent $9,377 educating each of its students - three times the tuition charged by the average private school.

David Boaz of the Cato Institute in Washington calculates that a more accurate figure is an astonishing $12,875 per year ''for every student who's actually in a classroom on any given day.''

Many conservatives and libertarians have suggested a voucher plan as a possible solution to an ailing public school system. Under such an arrangement, an amount less than what the school system spends annually to educate each child would be given to parents in the form of vouchers, to be used for tuition expenses at the private or public school of their choice.

A group called the Coalition to Educate America is aggressively pushing a House proposal that would create vouchers worth $3,000, to be spent on tuition at public and private schools in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Some free-marketeers support vouchers because they seem to be a market-based approach to education. Republican presidential hopefuls Steve Forbes and Lamar Alexander say they support a nationwide voucher plan.

But there is more to the voucher scheme than meets the eye.

The Bush Department of Education, itself enthusiastically pro-voucher, published a book in 1989 called ''Choice of Schools in Six Nations.'' Its conclusions regarding school autonomy are sobering: ''For those who believe strongly in religious schooling and fear that government influence will come with public funding, reason exists for their concern. Catholic or Protestant schools in each of the nations studied have increasingly been assimilated to the assumptions and guiding values of public schooling.''

Britain's Fabian socialists favored state subsidy of private schools for the explicit purpose of extending state control over recipient institutions. George Bernard Shaw, a leading Fabian, observed in this connection that ''he who pays the piper generally calls the tune,'' and wrote in a 1903 letter that private schools ''should be fully financed by the state, and brought under its control.''

Vouchers would also subject private schools to pressures that public schools face. The NAACP, for example, has initiated lawsuits across the country alleging ''discrimination'' in districts whose black students are ''underrepresented'' in honors classes. Some schools have stopped sorting students according to skill level and achievement - a measure that only non-pragmatic educational theorists would support. Private schools, heretofore insulated from measures that have more to do with political power than with education, would lose independence under vouchers' ostensibly benign ''nondiscrimination'' clause.

Since the overwhelming defeat in 1993 of California's Proposition 174, which would have established an elaborate voucher system in that state, more conservatives than ever have grown skeptical of the voucher idea. A few free-market think tanks have begun offering an alternative to vouchers: lower taxes, which would provide more discretionary income for parents to spend on education; and radical decentralization of decisionmaking from the federal Department of Education and state boards of education to the level of the local school system.

Vouchers may tempt us as a ''quick fix'' for the low level of educational achievement, but they come with their own set of problems.

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