Tuition vouchers: Should parents set school policy?

``The jolt of competition.'' That, says Lawrence A. Uzzell, is the key to improving the public schools. But how do you insert the element of competition into an institution that is, after all, a virtual monopoly?

His answer: tuition vouchers, giving parents a choice over the schools their children attend.

Which, says Scott D. Thomson, is a very poor idea indeed.

On the surface, the issue these two men are debating may seem little more than a technicality. At bottom, however, what separates these two educators is a basic difference not about funding methods, or even about public support of private religious schools, but about the role of parents in America's schools.

As executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Mr. Thomson squarely opposes vouchers. Voucher systems, as he explains them, would give parents a kind of gift certificate for their children's education, redeemable at any participating school. Schools would receive funds by cashing in these chits -- the more vouchers, the more money. The proposals most apt to attract attention this year, he feels, are those limited to public schools within a particular district, county, or state -- which he sees as a foot-in-the-door approach aimed at someday extending vouchers to private and church-run schools.

Joining Mr. Thomson and his principals in opposition to such voucher plans are the major teacher unions. That's a formidable phalanx -- as Mr. Uzzell does not need to be told. Uzzell, however, is an impassioned defender of vouchers. The former president of a private educational think tank (LEARN Inc.), he is now on his way into a full-time upper-level consulting position in the Department of Education -- just a week after the new secretary of education, William J. Bennett, moved tuition vouchers to the front burner in his first major policy speech. The idea, which promises to be increasingly in the public eye this year, is also attracting attention at the state level, with programs in the works or under consideration in Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee, and South Dakota.

Why does Uzzell think a voucher plan is needed? Because, he says, the nation's public schools are based on ``a set of creaky assumptions'' modeled on a small-town America of interested parents, committed administrators, and disciplined students. Since he feels these assumptions are no longer valid, and because there are wide disparities among schools, he sees a voucher system as a means whereby schools can ``earn the loyalty of their clientele'' -- and where the clientele, if they don't like what they see, can (in Secretary Bennett's phrase) ``vote with their feet.''

It's that last point -- the ability of parents to shape school policy -- that particularly worries Mr. Thomson. To be sure, he raises other objections -- noting in a recent telephone interview that the cost of educating students varies widely (making it impractical to attach a single sum to a voucher), and noting that a five-year, $8 million pilot voucher program set up in the late 1970s by the Alum Rock School District near San Jose, Calif., met with indifferent success and was never renewed.

Most tellingly, however, Mr. Thomson expresses ``very serious reservations'' about the role of parents. ``Empowering the parents with the money,'' he says, will ``drastically increase'' what is already ``a slow movement of influence and power to the parents.'' In his view, school policy should be determined by the whole community -- not just by the parents, who would effectively control the budget if they were given vouchers.

And that, it seems, is the hidden agenda behind both sides of the voucher argument. Up front, Mr. Uzzell argues that competition would strengthen the public schools. Up front, Mr. Thomson counters that, given cost differentials, some schools would make out like bandits while others would go broke. But underneath bubbles a profound question -- whether parents are the best arbiters of their children's education, or whether education is so precious and technical a thing that it should be handed over to a body of professionals.

Thomson doesn't say it quite that bluntly. He speaks not of ``the professionals'' but of ``the community.'' The reader may be excused for finding little distinction between the professionals alone and a ``community'' consisting of parents with no real budgetary power, nonparents with no real interest in the schools, and professional educators.

Given the high ideals of many of those educators, it is too cynical to assume that the educators are merely protecting their turf. The issue runs deeper -- right down to the fork where statism and socialism split off from individualism and free enterprise.

Seen in this larger context, the push for vouchers is a logical step for conservatives eager to reduce the role of government -- and the authority of specialists. Opposing vouchers is an equally logical step for liberals, who would argue that the rights of children can better be defended by professionals than by parents.

These are points over which honest men and women may differ. Odd, though, that the very group of professional educators which fears voucher-waving parents keeps imploring those same parents to visit schools, supervise homework, and generally take a greater interest in their children's education. Are most parents intelligent and concerned, or aren't they? Those who argue against vouchers, it seems, are trying to answer both ways. Vouchers, if restricted to the public schools, may prove to be the very tool that helps promote a central (and often missing) ingredient in good education: the parents' active involvement in their children's schooling. A Monday column

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