Monday, April 30, 2007

Voucher Remedy Litigation

Last week, I interviewed Clint Bolick, the former head of the Alliance for School Choice, for another piece I'm writing on vouchers and the like. However, I thought some of his insights might be interesting for people who care about gifted education as well.

The Alliance for School Choice has generally been focused on defending voucher programs against lawsuits that claim they violate the First Amendment's establishment clause (or roughly, the idea of separating church and state). As Bolick has pointed out, the words "separation of church and state" aren't in the Constitution. There are also all sorts of other precedents for using state money for non-religious ends via religious means. Veterans can use their education stipends at religious colleges, some Head Start programs are held in churches. etc.

This past summer, though, the Alliance for School Choice decided to take a more pro-active approach, which Bolick calls "voucher remedy litigation." Rather than wait for a district, city, or state to pass a voucher law, he sued the Newark, NJ public schools for failing to provide an equitable and thorough education to its students. As part of the remedy, he asked the NJ courts to force the district to impose a voucher solution.

This is obviously an entirely different can of worms, though there's some precedent. Courts have often imposed busing or funding schemes on districts deemed to be inequitable or segregated. And as Bolick points out, there's plenty of precedent in consumer law. If you buy a car that turns out to be a complete lemon, and you sue the dealership, if the court imposes a remedy, it's unlikely to be a massive payment to the dealership. More likely, you'll be given your money back to go buy a different car.

It's seductive reasoning. On the other hand, if I'm not happy with the way the U.S. military or the NYPD are defending my safety here and abroad, I don't think many judges would take kindly to a suit asking for my tax dollars back so I can hire a private security guard. Some problems we recognize must be argued out in elections and through the legislative process.

Bolick has an answer for this too. When it comes to school choice in NJ, he says, the democratic process has broken down. Newark mayor Cory Booker is a member of the Alliance for School Choice's Board of Directors. Something is clearly not working when the mayor of a city is on the board of an organization suing the city to get a solution that, in theory the mayor should be able to do something about. Bolick notes that he believes the New Jersey legislature would vote to create urban voucher programs if they were given a chance to do so. But a few legislators in the education committee have vowed that such a bill will never get to the house floor. So that's why he's taken to the courts.

He plans to take this "voucher remedy litigation" show on the road to other states whose Constitutions guarantee an education, where there are state standards, and where there are failing urban districts. It will be a hotly contested area in the future I have no doubt.

So what does this have to do with gifted education? One of the biggest arguments I've heard people make against vouchers is also one that's been made against separate schools for gifted students. Namely, that taking certain kids out of failing or mediocre schools amounts to "creaming." In the case of vouchers, the people who care about their children's education the most will avail themselves of the chance to send them to private schools. Then these parents will no longer care about the public schools. Similarly, I have heard opponents of gifted education argue that parents of gifted kids care a lot about education. If you remove these parents from the general public schools, they will no longer advocate for better teachers, more funding, more attention, etc.

Frankly, I think both arguments miss the point. Children are individuals, not members of some collective whose theoretical good should be advanced at their concrete expense. A childhood can't be repeated. As the Davidsons and I write in Genius Denied, "squandering a bright mind in the name of a future utopia is hardly justice." People who are concerned about the public schools have every right to advocate for whatever they want. But they have no right to hold other people hostage as allies. I'm not sure I agree with Bolick's litigation strategy. But the idea that certain children should be kept in miserable situations in order to change those situations deserves to be fought on both the voucher front, and in gifted education.


Anonymous said...

The money people pay in taxes to support public education supports every child, not just their child(ren) (and many people paying taxes don't even have children in school). It's a false argument to say this money is somehow "theirs" to do with as they please just because they have children that need to be educated. This situation could not be extended, for example, to drug safety, state health insurance, or road construction and maintenance.

Public education is paid for with taxes that everyone pays, because an educated public is a common good. Everyone, regardless of whether they have children or not, has a responsibility to support that.

LynnG said...

I wonder if an analogy to medicaid might shed some light here.

Medicaid is a governmental program to provide services. People in the medicaid program are able to "choose" more or less from whom to seek services. The competition from alternative providers has not destroyed the system (the lack of adequate reimbursement is a bigger problem).

We have some experience with the government paying for an essential public good while preserving the rights of the recipients to make choices.

I don't see why choice is a bad thing. We should give students and parents more choices to find the best educational alternatives that meet their needs.

There is no reason to think that insulting public schools from competition is fundamentally a productive way of organizing the sytem.

maxandbruno said...

Dear Laura,
I am a teacher in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, who has been working in the field of gifted education for 15 years, and I was delighted to find your blog and read your posts. Many of the same issues plague the school system in Vancouver. However, we have a great variety of gifted programs, from multi-age homogenous classes, to pull out programs, to mentorship opportunities for gifted. Our system is not perfect, and in many ways I am trying to educate teachers how to plan and deliver services for gifted children. I am in the process of starting a blog, and I find your blog very inspiring.
Marielle Wiesinger