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Chris Graham: Sure, follow the private-school model

You’re throwing money away. Bad money after good. Schools are failing, and all we’re doing is propping them up and pretending that it’s not happening.

Here’s the solution: private-school vouchers.

Yeah, sure. That’s the solution.

Private schools take in less than 10 percent of our nation’s elementary- and secondary-school students. There is surely some excess capacity that we could tap into, but how much is a question, especially considering what makes private schools most attractive to parents isn’t size but rather the lack of size.

Let’s face it – you’re not spending $15,000 a year to have your kid go to Fishburne Miltiary School as a day student or $26,400 to send him there as a boarding student so he can sit in a classroom with 25 to 30 other kids. Neither are you spending $13,400 to have your kid at Stuart Hall as a day student or $41,500 to send them there as a seven-day boarding student to have them get lost in the shuffle of a thousand-student school.

All the vouchers in the world aren’t going to get the fine, fine folks who run Fishburne or Stuart Hall to change their educational model. They know that smaller is better. The vouchers might inspire others who want to open schools to try their hand at providing a quality education; we can also expect to see more than a few charlatans figure out ways to take advantage of the money floating around looking for a home.

One thing that’s guaranteed is that the vouchers, once they’re out there floating around, will take money away from public education, unless I’m totally misreading things here and those who support the implementation of a voucher system are advocating for steep tax increases to fund them.

Another thing that you can guarantee – the kids who most need the kind of attention that smaller class sizes and more focused, individualized instruction can be brought to them won’t get that kind of access. Even the most ambitious of programs isn’t going to pay for kids who right now qualify for free and reduced lunches in schools to take a $15,000-a-year day-school slot or a $40,000-a-year boarding-school slot.

Anything less than 100 percent of tuition is going to disqualify those kids from being able to use the vouchers. And where I live, in Waynesboro, 65 percent of our elementary-school population qualifies for free and reduced lunches, so we’re talking right off the top about right around two-thirds of the kids being left behind.

The reality is that the vouchers will be used by and large by families who have already decided that a private-school education is the best option for their children and have their children enrolled. There will also be a cohort of middle-class families who use the vouchers to provide the nudge that they needed to get them into the private-school fold.

It’s not all that likely that capacity at private schools increases more than a percent or two. The same pressures on school boards related to costs in construction and maintenance of facilities will make sure of that. A relative few more middle-class kids using vouchers to go to private school will not launch a private-school construction boom.

The money committed to the vouchers does make it harder for the teachers and administrators in public schools to do what they need to do to reach out to kids like me.

Yes, I’m using myself as an example here. The son of teen parents, raised in a single-parent household in a trailer park, I was never going to go to a private school, voucher or not, but the Augusta County school system did me well enough to prepare me for college, where I graduated with honors and gained admission into several prestigious law and graduate programs before launching myself into journalism and later a successful business career.

You want to say the system is failing, that we’re throwing bad money after good, that we need to let the system fail so we can facilitate the next phase of education delivery?

I say get your head out of your ass. You want to emulate the success of private schools, then do what they do. Spend more money on more and better teachers, reduce class sizes, reduce the size of our megaschools, and put the focus back on learning, not on playing politics with our kids’ lives.

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