Proposal to Help Poor Vouches for Keegan's Courage

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan has guts.

While superintendents in other states merely pick at school bureaucracies, Keegan picks fights with them. Fresh from a tussle over the AIMS test and bracing for another over bilingual education, Keegan has gone to the mat again by proposing statewide private-school tuition vouchers.

Keegan wants the Legislature to pass a voucher bill in this session. If it does, vouchers could take effect in the 1999-2000 school year.

While the specifics of the Keegan plan won’t be unveiled until later this month, it is already clear that Keegan’s plan would turn the educational system on its head by giving power to people who don’t have much of it. The plan is modeled on one in Milwaukee that provides vouchers to the parents of 15,000 low-income students. The parents may then choose to use the vouchers to pay tuition at private schools.

In the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, “low income” means children who come from families with an annual income of about $26,000 for a family of four.

The Keegan proposal would also target poor students. And, in turn, Keegan herself will soon be targeted by an educational establishment that combats vouchers with a passion one can only wish it channeled toward the educating of children. Claiming to be advocates for public education even as they advocate for the status quo, university professors, teachers unions and school administrators have already begun to criticize the yet-unveiled Keegan proposal as draining money from public school coffers.

Of course, the very idea that vouchers “drain” money from public schools assumes that poor parents, if given the option, would opt for private schools over public ones. Ironically, that underlying fear makes the case for vouchers by revealing just how insecure educators are about the product that they are turning out. They have no interest in giving poor parents a choice to leave because they have given them very little reason to stay.

It’s been true since the days of the little red schoolhouse that poor people often get poor educations. What makes a class-based voucher proposal so intriguing for Arizona is that it is the poor who are getting the short end of the stick in the state’s public school system.

One reason is that, thanks to years of unequal funding, schools that serve the poor are usually themselves poor and lack money for everything from new roofs to books to computers.

But another reason has less to do with low funds than with low expectations. Teachers and administrators in poor schools often use the issue of underfunding as a convenient excuse to hide the fact that they expect little from their students. Those low expectations produce a willingness to settle for whatever they can get in the way of student performance. And that leads to poor performance. What emerges finally is a public perception that the schools teaching the children of the poor don’t offer the same quality of education as those teaching the well-off.

In fact, both in Milwaukee and in Cleveland, where vouchers have also become popular in recent years, the most outspoken supporters of the innovation have been African-American activists and advocates for the poor, who correctly surmise that it is their often voiceless students who are being underserved.

Black support for vouchers produces a sticky situation: White liberals in opposition are forced to argue that they care more about the schooling of Black children than the children’s parents do.

That same condescension has already appeared in Arizona’s emerging debate over bilingual education, in which Keegan will also assume a role.

A group of Hispanic parents is expected to file today with the Secretary of State’s Office an initiative that would in essence end bilingual education in Arizona. The parents believe that bilingual instruction delays the learning of English and harms Hispanic students. They are opposed by a consortium of interests, including university professors and bilingual teachers. And while many in opposition are not themselves Hispanic, they go so far as to argue that they care more about educating Hispanic students than do the students’ parents.

In the end, these political squabbles over educational issues may reveal to Arizonans a great truth: that the interests of those who run public schools are not always congruent with those of parents or students served by them.

Now, that’s a valuable lesson.

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