A test case of GOP's education holy grail?

When Rod Paige talks about school vouchers, there is an impassioned certainty in his voice. It is the certainty of a true believer.

Since his arrival in this town, Mr. Paige, the secretary of Education, has questioned why opponents of vouchers want to keep such an important tool away from students and the public schools. He says he can't understand why the poor should be stuck in bad schools while the rich have their pick of the best education available. More important, he adds, research shows capitalism and competition are good for industries, on the whole.

Ergo, if public schools - that much-maligned government "industry" - have to compete for students, they will improve because they have to. Or, as Paige said at a recent Monitor breakfast, "When schools have some outside pressure, they respond."

This isn't exactly a surprising point of view for Paige, the Bush administration's voice on education. Vouchers are one of the most sacred Republican issues, hitting on all three parts of the Holy Trinity of GOP dogma - faith in the market, "empowering" the citizenry, and weakening government power. In fact, school choice and even vouchers are part of the No Child Left Behind legislation the White House pushed through Congress.

But this debate over the idea is gaining new relevance in this town. Last week, the House passed its version of the first federally funded school-voucher plan. And now the Senate looks prepared to follow suit, which means vouchers, the GOP's favorite silver-bullet fix for public education, may actually get a real trial run. The pilot program would offer more than 1,000 children in the district's public schools as much as $7,500 to attend the private school of their choice.

There is some hope in the plan. As Paige and the voucher supporters point out, it may give poor children the same opportunities as rich ones to attend good schools - to some extent. While $7,500 may sound impressive, it is far below the $11,677 tuition at the average private school in Washington. In fact, almost two-thirds of the city's private schools cost more than $7,500. And you can bet the cheaper options will quickly be filled.

But the bigger issue behind the entire voucher question, the one that its supporters claim is paramount, is that they will improve the public school through competition, like any other industry. There are problems with this argument, however.

Competition works in industry because companies compete for the business of consumers who choose to buy or not buy products. If manufacturers choose, they can ignore whole segments of society they don't think will make them money. If General Motors decides it would rather not make a car for the extremely impoverished, it doesn't have to. But what industry does the government mandate to exist and force every person of a certain age to be its customer?

And no amount of competition theory can explain how pulling the better students out of public education will somehow improve the schools. All the competition in the world cannot help overwhelmed teachers deal with kids whose parents, out of neglect or overextension, are not focused on their children's education.

Thus, while the Bush administration is right that vouchers, in theory, might help some individuals (if the amounts are large enough), they miss several larger points. How can you keep good teachers working in increasingly difficult classrooms? How can you teach kids facing extremely difficult environments? These are the questions the D.C. "experiment" will examine.

But regardless of how many true believers there are over at the Department of Education, and how impassioned they are, it's hard to see how the answers will be ones we want to hear.

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