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The Right Choice


State Superintendent John White tweeted, “Amidst talk of legal questions I return to [a] moral question: do parents and children deserve options, no matter their wealth? [The] answer is clear.” Now that a judge ruled the voucher system unconstitutional, I return to a moral question: what should quality schools look like to a democratically elected government? I believe they should be diverse institutions dedicated to public interests.

Choice has become the raison d’être behind the voucher program. By inflating the value of an education as an individual good, state officials simultaneously minimize their responsibility in promoting a democracy.

No one can argue the broad platitude of choice. Choice is a central part of being American. However, we’ve been down the choice road before. The aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education showed us that when families are given choices they often choose to receive an education with their social relatives as opposed to their neighbors. One of the reasons why the public education system has declined, particularly in inner cities, is that families have divested from their public schools.

The state ignores that many private schools were created for purposes of social exclusivity. Times are changing. People are becoming more tolerant. Communities want public. Unfortunately, they also want their exclusivity. The rise and demand for magnet schools reflect this.

Not every choice is good for democracies. One may look to higher education for guidance. The U.S. Department of Education distributes financial aid so loosely that proprietary institutions, which also trumpet the value of choice, are fleecing many. The astronomic default rates among students who attend these institutions are burdening the rest of society. I find this akin to Louisiana State Department of Education subsidizing schools through vouchers that also teach creationism and reject evolution. The state’s economy cannot afford to subsidize and promote these curriculums. Neither example is in the interest of the public.

The haste and manner in which Governor Bobby Jindal’s education package bow-guarded its way through the legislature paired with a barren regulatory environment revealed the dangers of what opening up public dollars can do. In addition, we should not look to private and parochial schools as an escape hatch.

Faith-based institutions should not pursue growth from those who crudely want an educational plan B. Moreover, the burdens of education reform should not be focused only public schools. Louisiana didn’t become one of the lowest performing states because of its public institutions alone. Many private and parochial schools are benefiting from the idea that private is better.

It’s a lot easier to remove children from failing schools than to remove our failings as a society. The state should not give up on the higher principles our public schools should ascribe to. The answer is clear. Louisiana needs better public options.

Andre Perry, Ph.D. (twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola University New Orleans and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.

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