The preparation phase of Kindergarten Quest really solidified my position on school vouchers, that position being that I would really, really like to have the option.
Our school district's per child expenditure is $15,972. That's more that $3k above the state average, and there is no school bus service in our district, so compared to most districts where they do pay for school busses there must be even more spent per pupil on education. Even so, when I look at the test scores my brain seizes because they are that bad, and well below state average in nearly every school.
If money were no object I'd want to send my kids to a private Montessori school. Cambridge Montessori is the closest and costs $20.6k for Kindergarten and a bit more for the higher grades. We can't afford that, even when we go back to being a two income family. We could afford to pay the difference between the cost of private school and what our district spends per child if we were to make budgetary sacrifices elsewhere, which we would gladly do. If school vouchers were available we'd take them in a heartbeat and find a few thousand dollars more per child in our budget and give our kids an education that we think would work for them. I expect that other parents in the district would do the same, creating a greater demand for private primary education and hopefully more private schools. It might even eventually lower the cost of private schools if there were more competition, but I wouldn't count on that.
Opponents of school vouchers & charter schools argue that such measures would take money away from the public schools, which they would, but they would also be taking students away. People who oppose vouchers also say that the public schools would then only have the worst, most needy pupils in them, and the ones with the least motivated parents. I'm not sure this is a bad thing either, perhaps the public schools could do a better job just focusing on the most disadvantaged kids. As things are now they seem to be spending most of their energy there and are failing the bright kids and the average kids. You know something is wrong when multiple people have suggested to me that in order to get Margaret the attention she needs as a gifted child that I get her diagnosed with some disability so the district is forced to come up with a special plan on how to educate her.
What the opponents of vouchers & similar proposals lack is an actual plan that works right now. I haven't heard any plan from that side other than variants of 'throw more money at education and eventually it will get better'. Firstly I am dubious about that, my district already spends way more per pupil than the state average and their results look terrible. Secondly, I need a solution that works for me by next September, not a decade in the future. I think a lot of people discussing education policy just don't get that sense of urgency. Even one year in a terrible school can put a kid at a serious disadvantage, and when that kid is your kid it makes your blood boil with anger and frustration.
Another thing that the anti-voucher crowd seem to not get is that parents will do what they are able to do to act in what they perceive to be their best interest. As a parent I care a lot more about the education of my own children than I do about education in general. What am I going to do if I can't get Margaret into the best elementary school in the district? I already know of a few couples who were living in the Cambridge/Somerville area but fled to the suburbs primarily because the schools here were failing their children, and the topic of us moving to a better school district has come up in more than casual conversation. Any proposed solution to the education problem has to take into account that parents justifiably have very limited patience and will flee a failing school district if they have the means to.
Opposition to school vouchers is often led by teacher's unions. Their arguments are based on the interests of disadvantaged kids, but I'm pretty sure their actual motives are far less pure. Most teachers in private and charter schools are non-union. Obviously a teacher's union does not want more non-union competition. I also have a strong bias as a parent and former public school pupil that the teacher's unions are probably a big part of the problem. I had some really good teachers in school, especially in the upper grades where the best teachers tended to be rewarded with the honors classes, but then again, there were some truly bad teachers too. I'm thinking that the French teacher who routinely showed up 10 minutes late to her own class would not have a job in a non-union environment.
Ultimately I think we may be OK in our district's pubic schools for next year and possibly a little longer if we get one of our top two choices but unless the landscape changes we need a solution that we can implement by the middle school years at the very latest, and if we don't get something like vouchers that solution is probably going to be "flee to the burbs".