My post on Rob Natelson's mystery posts finally drew a response from Mr. Natelson, buried deep in comments over at Electric City Weblog. I'm not sure why a conservative would think it's a bad thing that poor people can't afford to send their kids to ritzy private schools, but Rob seems to think it is. He offers two solutions: (1) Get rid of public schools altogether, or (2) give parents back some of their tax dollars through vouchers or tax credits so they can choose (presumably less ritzy) schools of their own.
It's safe to presume that Obama won't propose to do away with public schools, since that would be the effective end of his administration, so I guess we are left with vouchers or tax credits. Let's use "vouchers" as code for both.
As a strict adherent of the "let a thousand flowers bloom" philosophy of education, I'm a longstanding agnostic on vouchers. If they work, fine. And if the union doesn't like it, tough.
But I've never quite understood the logic of the voucher argument, especially in rural states like Montana. No matter how much the globe warms, a thousand flowers ain't gonna bloom in Ekalaka. And public schools, whatever their demerits, have one advantage in efficiency that's hard for private schools to duplicate: They are the closest possible schools to where kids actually live, which saves transportation dollars, if nothing else. No matter how big the vouchers are, they are never going to be big enough to send a kid to Sidwell.
Then there's the philosophical argument that public schools benefit society as a whole, not just the kids who are in them. Even if nobody in your family ever sets foot inside a public school, you supposedly are better off knowing that the soldiers who defend your country have learned to do math, and that the clerk who takes your order can read and write, and that when Joe the Plumber goes to the polls, he has learned enough civics to know how to vote intelligently, and why it matters.
That's why people who don't have kids, or whose kids have graduated, or who send their kids to private schools, generally have to pay the taxes that support public schools. Limit public school taxes just to the people who have kids in school, and their parents aren't paying taxes anymore; they are paying tuition.
I realize that lots of people feel they have no control over the tax dollars that are pumped into public schools. I'm sympathetic. But that's a political problem, not a philosophical problem. The people own, and pay for, the schools. It's up to the people to create a public school system that best meets the needs of the students who attend them.
UPDATE: This post doesn't say much about whether vouchers produce actual results because I don't know much about that. But here's a pretty strong case that they don't work.