A Voucher is a Voucher is a Voucher–And They’re All Wrong

This is a rant about school vouchers—which I oppose. And it’s a shaggy dog story of sorts. It ties together in my mind, so if you care at all about the former, I hope you will stick with the latter. Because Minnesota, in the Crazy Mixed Up World that is 2017, is actually entertaining the notion of sending tax dollars to private schools.

Calling them tax credits, or scholarships, doesn’t change the basic calculus. We are talking about sending public money—which people of myriad creeds contribute, because way back when we decided we were one nation, indivisible—to institutions that may decide to flaunt civil rights.

Not long ago, I was in Texas interviewing parents at, among other events, a school choice fair. I stopped at the booth of a school serving students on the autism spectrum that claimed to get great results via novel methods. After chatting with the school’s founder for a little while, I arranged a visit.

The school was private, not a public charter. Special ed is a notoriously bureaucratic corner of education. The decision to open a private school, he said, was driven by his and his colleagues’ desire to be free to adhere, unfettered, to their approach.

When I got to the school, all I could see were red flags. Texas-sized, fire-engine-red flags. Flags Christos could unfurl across a cattle barony big enough to encircle Delaware. I left. I hit one last taqueria. I flew home.

Shortly thereafter Texas found itself in deep guano when the Houston Chronicle reported that the state’s Department of Education required districts to cap special ed enrollment at 8.5 percent of their student bodies. This is pretty much illegal—the equivalent of declaring you’re only going to treat X percent of people who walk into the emergency room bleeding to death.

In a flash, my school visit made sense. Imagine you are the parent of a child with a disability who was being denied an appropriate placement and whose disability was dealt with—possibly with best practices borrowed from the Salem Witch Trials–in a regular ed classroom as continual bad behavior.

You’re desperate. Like, can’t hold a job because you’re running down to the school twice a day desperate. A school appears that promises not just to put a floor under your child but to change their fundamental challenge? How many organs do I have to hock to foot the bill? Who cares! Sign me up.

I tell you this because it was something of a watershed moment for me. I have long opposed private school vouchers for many reasons–not least of which I think it’s morally wrong to give tax dollars to programs that can legally discriminate. Against people like me, a gay woman. And against one of my children, who has an intellectual disability.

And I think it’s morally wrong to give tax dollars to schools that can—and in some cases exist for the express purpose of—turning away kids like my son and/or incorporating into the classroom materials that teach that fragile queer kids like the one I once was that they can and should pray away their inherent wrongness.

And I can even argue that, given queer kids’ suicide rates, some of these practices should not be legal in private schools. Do we not remember the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s suicide contagion? Some of the dead kids would not yet have turned 18 had they lived. But that’s another post.

So there I was in a storefront in an industrial park in a space where desperate families could find decent care for their kids for the day. Maybe not the intellectual challenge and practical skills to allow them to lead their best lives, but also not the relentless push-out pressure exerted by a school system using red tape to balance the budget.

Vouchers? Friends, I can’t honestly tell you that in that desperate spot I wouldn’t take public dollars and spend them on a dubious private “cure” that is no substitute for the rights—recently reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, even under John Roberts—of people with disabilities to aspire to their full potential.

So here’s the thing. Solidly red Texas doesn’t have vouchers—and just rejected them again. Purple Minnesota is considering them.

I understand and am moved by the experiences of families I’ve gotten to know who see vouchers as a possible path to a decent education for a child consigned by geography to dismal options. But in the case of queer kids and kids with disabilities, taking a voucher to a private school means giving up the protection of the laws of the land that exist specifically to protect people whose needs are costly, inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Desperate people are often cornered into giving up their rights. A Hail Mary play that never results in their needs being met.

And there is a route—albeit one with its own lawyer-clogged red tape—to help desperate families who truly need a unique, private option. School districts fight like hell, but do pay for specialized, private programs for a small number of students with profound and unique needs. They do this because federal law that grants children with disabilities fair and equitable education—the exact, precise right voucher recipients would give up.

We absolutely need school choice. And my son, who has an intellectual disability and was pushed out of a traditional Minneapolis Public School, has benefitted tremendously and in a life-changing way from policies that gave my family the right to vote with our feet.

But giving us the right to use communal resources to buy into a private system that could recognize our desperation but not our rights is just wrong.


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