The $2,000 ticket to abandon public schools

November 01, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

Ellen Sauerbrey's depiction of public education as an unresponsive monolith creaking under its own weight is one a lot of us share.

Her outrage that millions in tax dollars have not improved our children's performance in the classroom or in standardized tests is matched by the outrage in my community, too.

But on the matter of a solution, we part company.

While some of us are sticking it out in public schools in a Quixotic campaign to make them better, the Republican candidate for governor of Maryland would give us the money to leave.

Ellen Sauerbrey's package of plans for educational "choice" -- tax breaks or vouchers -- has some serious constitutional problems. And there are unanswered questions about where the money would come from. But this is not so much a legal question or a budget question. This is a moral question.

I agree with Sauerbrey that education in Maryland is top-heavy, that too few dollars make it to the classroom, that mediocre teachers are protected. But giving active, concerned parents a free ticket out of public education is no way to correct it.

And, trust me, they would be the ones who would take Ellen Sauerbrey up on her offer. Her plan would drain the public school system of just the kinds of kids and parents who are keeping it afloat. If Sauerbrey thinks public education officials are unresponsive now: Wait until she sees how easily they ignore the poor, the disenfranchised, the unsavvy parents and kids who are left behind.

I have seen the impact of limited choice in my own neighborhood school. Because a neighboring, predominantly white school had an after-school child care program and our racially balanced school did not, parents used their jobs as leverage to move their children out of our school.

Five families. Eight kids. Among them the president of the Parent-Teacher Organization, another very active set of parents and a family that had home-schooled. Just the kinds of families we wanted, and needed, in our school. They were given a choice and they left.

It was not the poor families -- who no doubt could use after-school care, too -- who played the system to move their children to what some believed to be a better educational environment. It was the middle class. "School choice." Code words for moving your children away from their poor classmates -- just the kids Sauerbrey says she wants to help.

You see what will happen, don't you? The parents who are involved in their children's educations, the ones who Sauerbrey says quite rightly are the best predictors for academic success for their kids, the ones who rethink their public school decisions every day -- they are the ones who will leave.

Her vouchers, her 2,000 bucks and, more significantly, her state government's endorsement of this action and its implicit judgment against public schools will be just the push these parents need. "We know we can't do the job, so you are free to leave. And here's $2,000 toward your private school tuition bill." An amount woefully inadequate to pay for the tuition and attendant costs of any non-religious private school. That $2,000 would not give poor people a choice; it would give middle-class people on the fence a choice.

Sauerbrey would be giving me permission to make the decision I have felt morally and socially compelled not to make. Public schools are an institution deserving my support, my bright kids, my time, my money, my example to friends and neighbors, my efforts to improve them. Sauerbrey's program not only gives me the money to leave, it gives me permission.

Look around your child's classroom. See the boy whose spelling scores make your own son jealous and moves him to have you quiz him before school? See the girl who has more rings in the reading chain than your daughter and is the reason she is up late finishing another book?

They will be the ones who will leave the public schools under Sauerbrey's system. Count on it. The competition that Sauerbrey believes, quite rightly, is the key to improved education will move right out of your child's classroom.

See the father who volunteers in the library on Friday morning? See the moms who run all the fund raisers that pay for all the field trips and the assemblies, the moms who tutor?

Say goodbye to them at the schoolyard gate. Because if you elect Ellen Sauerbrey and she gives these parents a choice -- and the money and the permission -- they will be gone.

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