“The caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf who keeps the caribou strong.” Keewations (Inuit) proverb.
One of the signature environmental books of the 70’s was “Never Cry Wolf” by Farley Mowat (how’s that for a name?). A wonderful book with many intriguing, fun, and memorable anecdotes, with the core message being that wolves had been getting a bad rap. Until the publication of Mowat’s book, wolves were broadly seen as dangerous predators, with few – if any – redeeming characteristics the the fact that they were a part of the overall ecosystem. In his view-changing book, Mr. Mowat provides convincing proof that wolf packs make the caribou herds stronger. A truth that the Inuit had known for generations.
How could that be? Don’t wolves prey on caribou? Indeed they do, but Mowat proved that the wolves attacked and killed only the weak, diseased and injured caribou, leaving only the strong. In addition to examining what the wolves had eaten, he observed that even the healthiest wolf had a near impossible time felling a healthy caribou. This limitation caused the wolf to make the herds stronger by eliminating the weak. The weak were no longer available to reproduce and compete for scarce food, leaving the strong to eat and reproduce.
So, how do wolves and caribou relate to public schools?
In the same way, charter schools and vouchers will make public schools stronger. No sane parent would choose a charter school or take advantage of a voucher if the local school was strong, producing good results with its students. They would opt out only from weak schools. And unlike the caribou, weak schools get a second chance. If parents start opting for other choices in significant numbers, the troubled school has time to improve and strengthen. Unlike a dead caribou. And if the school cannot or will not improve sufficiently, it will close and improve the overall quality of the herd. If this happens repeatedly and over time, there might be fewer public schools. But the remaining will be stronger. Even more importantly, the “herd”, public schools and charters, both serving the students, parents and the community, will be stronger.
Vouchers are another type of helpful wolf. Charters provide one type of strengthening competition; vouchers another. Vouchers make public schools stronger in a similar, but importantly different way. Charter schools require exactly that, a charter from public school authorities (or other public agencies) to start and to continue operating. Schools where a parent could take a voucher already have the right to operate, and can operate with far less oversight than charters. Vouchers could be used in a broad variety of schools, likely more schools with more types of choices than local charters. Obviously this further expands the choices available to parents and students. And more competition to make the herd stronger.
Speaking of variety, I would support the use of vouchers for faith-based schools. My stand is that faith-based schools, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc., are no more a violation of the separation of church and state than what is happening in many public schools today; espousing secular progressivism, humanism and/or deism. Or even atheism, which is often proselytized with an enthusiasm and passion which would be the envy of many a believer. Students presenting vouchers to a faith-based school would be allowed to opt out of any religious classes. And just how do students in any type of school opt out of classes where teachers insert their convictions (in classes where the published syllabus has nothing to do with religion, pro or con, whether the teacher’s stand be faith-based in the customary sense, or grounded in their faith that there is nothing to have faith in)?
Let’s walk across the hall, from where the class on how competition makes worthy competitors stronger and eliminates the weak who can’t or won’t get stronger, and audit the accounting class.
Does accounting bore you? This shouldn’t. Charters, and vouchers where they are allowed, fund the yearly operational costs, but do not include the cost of building the school facilities, classrooms, library, gym, etc., and do not include the cost of either adding onto or replacing those facilities when necessary. That would be exactly like your boss telling you that they will pay for you to have a car for work, but pay only the operating expenses, gas, repairs, etc., with no provision for replacing the car when it has gone past its useful life. If you wanted to keep having a car, you’d have to take money from the operating expenses and set money aside to replace the vehicle when necessary. Consequently, you would have to drive less, make fewer repairs, or take money from somewhere else in your budget. That’s what is happening with charters, and goes a long way to explaining why charters pay significantly less than public schools. Yes, I understand that public schools require things like certifications that charters do not. But that should not have anything to do with pay. We should pay for results, not degrees and certifications, yes?
Families with money already have the ability to make their own school choice, independent of charters and vouchers; they simply write a check to the private school of their choice (there’s that word, again). And this includes many politicians who steadfastly resist school choice in the form of charters and vouchers for others. With the exception of Amy Carter, youngest daughter of President Jimmy Carter, no school-aged child of a sitting President has gone to a public school. All of them attended Sidwell Friends School, currently charging $40K a year. At the same time, some of these Presidents have been quite clear about opposing school choice in the form of vouchers for those who cannot pay. The irony includes D.C. schools, being among the highest cost and lowest performing public schools in our nation.
How could it not be true that all of us, parents or not, want the best possible K-12 education with the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars, for all of the children in our country? And choice is key. Car manufacturers make better cars because they know that we have many choices, so they had better be competitive or die. It works that way all over our economy, including electronics, food, clothing, housing, entertainment – compete with a better product or service or crash.
Don’t we owe at least as much in the way of choice and excellence to our children as we do to people who buy smartphones?
Will Luden, writing from my home office at 7,200 feet in Colorado Springs.
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