• by Richard Riley, secretary of education • IDRA Newsletter • April 1999

If you gave the American people a choice today between using federal dollars to renovate and build new public schools or using public tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers, there would be no question how the American people would vote.

It could cost roughly $15 billion just to pay the tuition of the 5 million children already enrolled in private schools in this nation. The last thing we should be doing at a time when so many of our schools are bursting at their seams is to be draining public tax dollars from public education to subsidize private education…

Vouchers are wrong for many reasons and we need to be clear about what is at stake. Vouchers undermine a 200-year American commitment to the common school – a commitment that has helped America keep faith with our democratic ideals and become a beacon of light for people all over the world.

Let’s remember that public education has always been and continues to be the open door to American success and good citizenship – the American way to achievement and freedom. Vouchers would begin the unraveling of this uniquely American fabric – the common public school that is open to all and gives everyone a fair chance to succeed.

Every state in this nation provides for a free, public education and a great majority of them have written this idea into their state constitution. The ideal that every child in this country has a constitutional right to a free, public education is not to be dismissed lightly…

The background paper we are releasing today notes that vouchers would reduce public accountability and make private schools less private and less independent – and make parochial schools less parochial.

There is little certainty that religious schools that now make up 79 percent of all private schools would be willing to give up their religious mission in order to overcome constitutional barriers. The paper also notes that private schools simply do not have the capacity to absorb additional students, much less those children with special disabilities.

I worry, too, that those who support vouchers have become almost myopic in their insistence that public education is failing across-the-board. Tell that to the parents…in countless school districts across the country where parents and community leaders support public education.

Two years ago, Money magazine did a survey of the top 100 school districts in the country. The survey found out that the two defining factors that led to the creation of what Money magazine called “super schools” were community and family involvement, not income or family status. Vouchers, on the other hand, divide communities.

The background paper also provides research evidence – and this is very important – that the most important choice students can make is not the type of school they go to – public or private – but the academic courses they take.

This is the first choice that parents should be making – making sure their children take the tough academic courses like algebra, geometry, chemistry and other core courses. This is why I am always perplexed that voucher advocates almost never talk about how to improve reading, how to improve teaching, how to raise academic standards or how to fix crumbling schools.

Their solution for every issue that confronts American education is vouchers. It is a very simplistic world view – a silver bullet solution – and it is just dead wrong. If a school is failing, the solution isn’t to give scholarships to 50 children and leave 500 behind, but to fix the whole school…

Does public education need to be improved? Of course it does, and there is a consensus about how it can be done. Public tax dollars ought to be spent to improve reading and math, to improve the skills of America’s teachers, to get computers into the classroom, to renovate and build new schools – to make sure that high school diplomas really mean something.

I believe that if we focus in on what we agree on and what really matters rather than on what divides us – we can make the next 10 years the “golden era” of American education. The American people have made the improvement of public education a national priority. We know how to fix our schools. Now is the time to roll-up our sleeves and get it done.

Excerpted from September 23, 1997, remarks of Secretary of Education Richard Riley at the National Press Club. The background paper he refers to is, “What Really Matters in American Education,” that was released on the same day. The report is available on-line at www.ed.gov.

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[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1999 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]