My views on education have been a topic of regular discussion for many years with my wife and her family. She grew up in a family where all the children went to a very expensive private school. (It’s very expensive now, I don’t actually know what it cost back then.) My father-in-law has a PhD in education, three of his children have masters degrees in education (including my wife), I have a masters degree in education and I started a PhD myself before I decided that it would not be worth the debt I would incur to get it. On top of that, every one of my wife’s siblings has done some form of home schooling or charter schooling for their children at one time or another (some still are and others are not).
Through all the years of discussion my views on what is most important to the education of our children has been utterly static. I have always argued that a child could get a quality education in public school, private school, charter school, or home school (they can also get a lousy education through any of those avenues). The common thread to a quality education is parental involvement combined with a culture at home which values learning. There are times when an exceptional teacher can provide a surrogate in the absence of parental involvement, but that is outside the scope of what we can expect of them. A school which has a culture that values learning can compensate to a degree for students where the culture at home is not very supportive of learning.
Parental involvement is not simply a matter of joining the PTA or doing your child’s homework for them. It requires that you know your child. It requires that you know what they are doing and what is expected of them. It requires that you know their teacher and school environment (that’s easy with home school). It requires that you work with the school to achieve the results you desire.
A culture in the home that values learning must be cultivated – it does not spring up without work. A culture that values learning must differentiate between homework and learning. It must value learning even when it is not related to school or grades. It must not place awards before effort. It must also recognize effort when there are no external awards. A school in which the prevailing culture in student homes is one that values learning will be more likely to have a culture at school where learning is valued. Without the appropriately supportive culture at homes, schools will find it almost impossible to create that culture at school. All the head-start programs and other educational techniques or classroom gimmicks cannot make up for a school culture where learning is not valued.
So where do vouchers fit into all of this? Vouchers cannot replace parental involvement, nor create a culture that values learning. They can provide a vehicle for parents who are involved to exercise greater control over the formal education of their children. They might even serve as an invitation for parents who are not involved to get more involved in the education of their children. Those are the potential benefits. The potential risks are that they may be one more way that parents may choose to separate themselves from the education of their children as they shift the burden of responsibility from public school teachers to private school teachers. That will certainly be the case for those who do not understand, or refuse to accept, their central role in creating a successful partnership for educating their children.