Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers expressed deep frustration with his fellow senators, more specifically his fellow Republican senators.
Citing international comparisons, Rogers pointed out that American students typically perform worse than their foreign counterparts on standardized tests in science and math. Even among underperforming American students, Rogers said, Georgia children generally perform worse than their counterparts in other states, ranking 46th or 47th.
Yet in a state Senate that Republicans dominate by a 36-20 advantage, the majority leader complained, he still couldn’t get enough votes to pass a bill that would significantly expand the use of vouchers to pay for private schools. As a result, Senate Bill 87, which Rogers calls “The Georgia Educational Freedom Act,” had to be tabled.
“It’s not me that’s losing today,” an angry Rogers said from the Senate floor. “The people that are losing in this state are the children, and they’re losing because we’re fighting other adults instead of giving them the options they deserve.” The children hurt worst would be those in underperforming urban schools, Rogers said, explaining that his bill was intended to give the children of Bankhead Highway the same available to those in Buckhead.
However, Rogers’ concern for the schoolchildren of Georgia would be somewhat more convincing if he had fought against state budget cuts that have shortened school years and forced teacher furloughs and layoffs. Instead, Rogers has championed continued tax cuts that would force even deeper reductions in education spending.
Rogers’ case would also be more convincing if he could point to other countries that have used vouchers to raise educational performance. Instead, almost all of the countries that outperform the United States, and all of the other states that outperform Georgia, somehow manage to do so through the public school model. In places such as Milwaukee, where voucher programs have been in place for two decades, there is no evidence that they have produced better educational outcomes.
In 2007, the General Assembly passed legislation granting vouchers to special needs and handicapped children, arguing that public schools could not always give those students the attention and programs they need. SB 87 would expand that eligibility to foster children and children of military families, including those whose parents are in the National Guard or reserves. In other words, the bill represents another step in an incremental, largely undeclared assault on public education that Rogers and others dare not propose directly. And that’s precisely why some of his fellow Republicans won’t enlist to support it.
It’s also important to think the vouchers argument through to its ultimate impact. From the beginning of the American experiment, public schools have been understood as a mechanism of assimilation and a means of giving us a shared understanding. They have been the “common schools,” the place where as children we are exposed not just to a common curriculum but to others unlike ourselves.
Fully implemented, a voucher program threatens to break that model. It would allow Hispanic immigrants to be educated in Spanish, Catholic children to be educated among other Catholics, fundamentalist Christians to be educated among others who think and believe as they do, all at taxpayers’ expense. Black parents could and in some cases would choose to educate their children in Afro-centric schools. Such division would not be a side effect of vouchers; the ability to “opt out” at taxpayers’ expense is one of the chief motivating factors of those proposing such a change, which is what makes the proposal so dangerous.
— Jay Bookman