School vouchers - or "opportunity grants" as one California candidate in last week's elections rechristened them - sound like a reasonable idea.
All children should be well educated, and public schools aren't doing as good a job as they should. So children should be allowed to take the tax dollars allotted to their education to pay for schooling outside the public system. Advocates say this will "force the public schools to compete."
But why would sending more children - and their tax money - to private school improve public education?
The misconception is that our schools are just not trying hard enough - as if great hordes of complacent teachers, satisfied with secure paychecks, are just sitting back and taking it easy.
No one is sitting around the teachers' lounge asking others: "Did anybody force you to do a good job yesterday?" "Anybody threaten you with loss of pay if you didn't turn out top-notch work?"
But the argument for competition for the educational tax dollar goes like this: Threatened with economic reprisal, the "educrats" will finally deliver the goods, which they are currently withholding out of sheer laziness.
It makes a peculiar kind of sense, doesn't it?
Yet the public school teachers I know aren't a monolithic pack of layabouts, motivated only by the desire to get rich on public money, while working as little as possible. Besides doing their demanding jobs all day, they work long hours after school correcting papers, researching lesson plans, attending meetings, and contacting parents. Some even spend their own money on classroom supplies, and use vacation days to attend teacher-training conferences. Most of the educators I know are concerned and frustrated with the poor showing of their low achievers. No threat of fiscal punishment could cause these people to work any harder.
Proponents of competition as the answer to our academic woes forget that "competition" implies that everybody is playing by the same rules. But are they really?
Private schools can exclude children who don't measure up to their academic or behavioral standards - they decide who they'll teach. The same can't be said of public schools which must accept anyone, no matter how disruptive or poorly prepared.
Mutual selection is a pre-condition of commercial competition. How many private schools compete for the dubious privilege of enrolling children who chronically misbehave and underachieve? A few cater to that segment of the market, but generally private schools compete for children who meet certain standards.
But children don't have to be competitive to hold on to their place in public schools. They're free to return day after day, no matter how poorly they pay attention and follow directions, regardless of how much they misbehave. This is the major folly of the debate on improving public education: We can't possibly hold schools accountable, if schools can't hold students accountable.
Private schools also have a particular agenda and a specialized clientele. Catholic schools don't compete to attract the children of Baptists, for example. But public schools often have a default clientele, "attracted" in many cases by the fact the law requires parents to send children to school.
Public schools deal the best they can with children who haven't enrolled to fulfill a special purpose and who aren't required to do anything at all to earn the privilege of returning each day.
Is it surprising that the results are less than desirable?
If public schools are going to be "forced to compete," then let everyone compete by the same rules. Either private schools must be required to accept anyone who happens to walk in the door, and continue instructing them, no matter how miserable their performance - or public schools must be allowed to uphold the same standards of selectivity and exclusivity that help define the success of their private counterparts.
Vilification of public schools has nothing to do with improving them. Those who've spent enough time in public schools to appreciate the difficulties inherent in dealing with the clientele that they must serve won't be swayed by such a naive, unproductive argument as "forcing them to compete".
"Allowing them to compete," however, is another matter. When public school children are held to a strict standard of daily accountability, they and their schools will be competitive - and competent.
* Jeff Simpson is an educational consultant based in Ukiah, Calif. He is the author of the 'Count, Notice, & Remember' series of math education supplements.