Last Saturday's forum on to-voucher-or-not-to-voucher, held at Adams Elementary School, was billed as a point-counterpoint exchange between panelists and audience members over the merits and demerits of private schools, charter schools, home schooling and the state of public education.
The hour-and-a-half discussion proved less instructive for what was said about educating kids, however, than for the way it veered into ideological confrontation spiced with accusations of hidden agendas and unspoken motives on the part of pro- and anti-voucher speakers alike.
Twice defeated by voters in Colorado, proponents of vouchers have adopted new methods to sell their concept. Rather than calling vouchers vouchers -- which would be used to pay students' tuition to private school -- supporters have adopted the more palatable "school choice" to encode their proposal.
Critics say that such a plan would create a two-tiered system that would largely benefit wealthy white students.
Last Saturday's event aptly illustrated how the voucher debate tends to feature emotion-propelled ideological arguments over strictly educational concerns, the bottom line anxiety being less the educational welfare of students than the ideological preferences of the adult combatants.
Audience member Rob Abeyta, for example, roundly excoriated public education as a den of socialism, immorality, institutionalized mediocrity, teacher greed and unionism. He lauded vouchers as a vehicle for getting his kids into a private school that reflects his beliefs.
"A lot of the public school textbooks don't give the true history of this country, and there's a lot of perversion in these books," Abeyta said. "I want vouchers so that I can send my children to schools that think right."
Audience member and Coronado High School teacher Michael Merrifield offered an altogether different assessment of vouchers. Merrifield argued that the school choice movement is really part of an ultra-conservative agenda bent on discrediting public education in order to secure taxpayer dollars for vouchers to private schools in general, and to religious schools in particular.
"Vouchers benefit comparatively few students and hurt the larger student population, Merrifield argued. "We'd serve the children of this country a lot better by devoting our resources and energy to working with parents and teachers to improve the public education system -- the system that is committed to educating all children, regardless of their economic means, family background, religion, ability or race."
The two arguments typify and largely frame the voucher/school choice debate.
At risk or doing fine?
Saturday's panel was a who's who of local education activists. It included Dr. Ron Wynn, District 11 chief of staff; Steve Schuck, a homebuilder and architect of two failed voucher-type ballot initiatives in the 1990s; Dr. Anthony Young, founder and CEO of Tutmose Academy; Willie Breazell, who was ousted as NAACP president for advocating vouchers for minority students; Delia Busby-Armstrong, a former principal and present member of the District 11 school board; Peggy Doney, a local home schooling activist; and Lu Lu Pollard, co-founder of the Negro Historical Association of Colorado Springs.
Arguably the key panel member and catalyst of the event was Schuck, a longtime voucher advocate and outspoken critic of public education. Schuck made headlines in December by offering to provide vouchers at his own expense to allow economically disadvantaged students enrolled in low-performing schools to switch to private schools of their parents' choice.
He subsequently expanded the offer to provide gratis funding for supplementary learning assistance to needy students, including private tutoring of the parents' choosing, summer school, supplies and/or texts.
Schuck adamantly insisted Saturday that his offer is not motivated by animosity toward public education.
"I don't care one whit about the education delivery system," he said. "My sole objective is saving kids and empowering parents to send their children to the school of their choice, and I'll continue that battle until poor parents have the same choices as affluent parents."
Schuck paused several times, however, to dwell on the "abysmal," "dysfunctional" and "unconscionable" state of public education, to chastise "the education establishment," and to argue that increasing funding to public education -- what he terms "throwing money at schools" -- won't improve the public education system.
As is his custom when speaking publicly on the issue of vouchers and school choice, Schuck's closing summation referenced "A Nation At Risk," the 1982 report prepared by the National Commission on Education to assess public education.
He read the opening passage that has become the mantra of public education critics. It dramatically states: "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people." It also suggests that, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war."
However, Merrifield noted that Schuck ignored later statements from the same report that paints a broader picture of the state of education in the United States. A later passage, for example, asserts: "It is important to recognize that the average citizen of today is better educated and more knowledgeable than the average citizen of a generation ago --more literate and exposed to more mathematics and science."
Breazell, co-founder of the proposed HEART Charter School in Harrison District 2, partially assented to Schuck's argument about vouchers and school choice.
But he stipulated that Schuck-type experiments should be limited, at least initially, to minority students in poorly performing urban school districts, and that schools that accept vouchers should not be held to the same testing, open enrollment, regulatory and accountability requirements as public schools.
Pollard, meanwhile, said she "totally and absolutely" opposes taxpayer-funded vouchers and took issue with Schuck's assessment of public education. She said that when she attended Bristol Elementary in the 1920s, there were about 20 black students in the Colorado Springs public school system. By the time she graduated from Colorado Springs High (now Palmer), only four of those blacks students were still in school, all from her family.
"We should take pride in how far we've come," she said. "The schools are doing better. They're trying to educate everybody. In my day, they let a lot more kids slip through the cracks."