Fresh debate on school vouchers, anyone?

Gov. Corbett has rolled out a new school voucher plan for Pennsylvania.

Is there any chance we could have a fresh conversation on this issue?

Because a lot of unlucky kids need us to get out of our deeply dug trenches.

Many liberals swear the welfare of children born into the tough luck of poor, violent neighborhoods is one of their chief concerns. And I believe it.

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Yet they’d rather condemn those kids to keep attending crumbling schools than to give some of them, through vouchers, hope of a better chance.


Because the push for vouchers has come in part, not exclusively but in part, from people whose agenda is to dismantle public education. And people whom liberals disagree with and fear on a host of other issues.

But if you can never give an idea a fair hearing because it’s on the lips of people you dislike, you’re going to miss a lot in life.

Would it help to know that the idea of school vouchers was in part born as a liberal project three decades ago, at Northwestern University? Yep, Milton Friedman, the icon of laissez-faire capitalism, was present at the birth, but so were some very progressive education reformers.

In the present moment, Corbett’s plan is far from perfect, but it’s better than plans floated by former Gov. Ridge in the 1990s.  Progress is being made.

Corbett wisely targets vouchers wisely to the most disadvantaged kids in the most failing schools. His vouchers may be big enough – around $7,000 – to enable kids to go to a variety of schools – not just Catholic ones.

Some liberals flip out at the thought of public funds going to a religious school. But the Supreme Court has ruled, reasonably, that a voucher plan can’t exclude religious schools, just as it can’t favor them. Ridge’s old plan failed that standard; Corbett’s might meet it.

Can I point out that America already has a solid education system that lets government aid follow the student wherever? It’s called higher education. Eligible students can get aid whether they attend Penn State, St. Joseph’s or Ohio Wesleyan.

When I point this out, voucher opponents tend to splutter, “Well, K-12 schools are different.” How, I ask. After thrashing around a bit, they say, “Well, they’re mandatory.” Isn’t that a powerful argument for vouchers? When government makes education compulsory, but fails to provide a decent school, doesn’t it owe the student a refund?

Sure, Corbett’s motives bear scrutiny, given that in his first budget he massively failed his duty to fund education adequately. Sure, too many in Harrisburg subscribe to the absurd fantasy that improving schools will cost less, not more money.

All true. But when you dismiss vouchers out of hand, you are failing the innocent, unlucky children whom you claim to care about most.

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