Does parental authority ‘work’?

A friend has sent me a long article from The Wall Street Journal of Jan. 29. It was a report on the Milwaukee school voucher program, now approaching middle age. Roughly 25 percent of the districts’ children attend private schools, most with public help in the form of vouchers for low-income families seeking transfer from their assigned “public” school. The article’s declared intention was to determine the system’s success, bearing the end-all headline: “Do Vouchers Work?”

The answer, we are told, would depend solely upon the test scores of children in chosen private schools compared to one another and to assigned government schools. No other measured success was even suggested. Citing various reports, the authors conclusion was that scores among chosen voucher schools correlate with the degree of social class mix in the student body. That is, they go up when the proportion of a school’s pupils from poor families stays below some level, elusive but real; when disadvantaged kids dominate the scene, scores tend to drop.

The most noteworthy aspect of this news could be the manifesto that is the article itself; its author innocently assumes that test scores are the sole – or at least a sufficient – criterion of success or failure for parental choice. And, surely, they do matter; they matter, first of all, to many parents, now free to enroll their child in a more “successful” school. Enough such parental decisions and the old school will close (or reform); this is called competition. Milton Friedman was correct about all that market stuff.

In fifty years of writing on this subject and designing legislative models, my colleague Stephen Sugarman and I have consistently valued testing and the public reporting of scores; they are one obvious and easily accessible element in assessing a school’s “success.” Yet, they are but one among the variety of effects to be expected from any free system; and, for yours truly, they are middling in importance. Any serious educator will emphasize objectives that are less mechanistic.

In any case, the point here is not a critique of scores, but this: The central justifications for liberating the low-income parent to choose the child’s school are not statistical, being as incalculable numerically as the bare human values of responsibility, dignity and civility. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who favored vouchers, voiced some of these more profound elements in his ‘60s report, The Negro Family. If society arranges education, as we have, so that only well-off parents can select a school, public or private, that reinforces their own cherished values instead of flouting them, we can expect the poor (of every color) to withdraw from responsibility. Such conscription of one’s children by the state is an announcement to the parent that you don’t count – except perhaps as an unpaid truant officer, on call at behest of the state.

Simultaneously, conscription is a declaration to the child of the poor that – whatever your parents’ distress at your Fate – you are now a creature of the state and will remain so for thirteen years in whichever schools government strangers decide for you. Mothers and fathers will have little access to the diverse messages, specific and implicit, deferring the good life that the child will receive now for six hours daily, 180 days a year. The one thing certain will be that one basic subject will be excluded: the human responsibility to any authority higher than themselves and the law.

The primary purpose of vouchers – the reason that that they do “work” – is not the raising of scores but restoration of the dignity and responsibility of parent and child. That is the point of their empowerment. It is the message shouted by the action of have-got parents as they scour the suburbs for their own ideal, satisfied for most among government school. The unmoneyed parents express themselves, meanwhile, in silent recognition of their own impotence and defeat – in withdrawal from their commission as decided for their own child; in them the mirage of parental leadership and authority is over. Nor can the child mistake this new and enduring void uniparental dignity, especially when P.S. 67 proves dreary and dull, but Mom can only sympathize.

Thirteen years of this?

The affective impact upon the poor of their own decommissioning spreads, over time, to all comers of civil and social life. It is a deadly dehumanizing virus for which there is one vaccine – respect and support for the responsibility and authority of the parent.

Do vouchers work?

Think about it.

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