When engaging in public discussion, there is an understandable tendency for participants to rely on their personal philosophy to form and advance arguments. But what happens when our particular orthodoxy falls short?

Should we maintain it at all costs or try to think beyond our self-imposed constraints?

I am proud to say unequivocally that I am a philosophical liberal. But the public conversation often requires more than philosophical predictability. My philosophy -- or anyone else's -- should not be the end point of discussion, but rather the beginning.

Where one comes down on an issue should be influenced not only by political philosophy, but also the circumstances that result from raising moral questions.

I have long opposed school vouchers and philosophically continue to do so.

School vouchers (often referred as school choice) are state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private school. The most common application for school vouchers have been for low-income students, especially those who attend low-performing schools.

The idea of providing parents with a voucher to attend a private school is attributed to University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s. It assumes vouchers to be a free-market choice that drives competition in the marketplace, resulting in a better product -- in this case, higher student achievement.


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Supporters assert that vouchers provide a quick way out of struggling schools for low-income students. Detractors portray vouchers as something much different.

No public policy is a panacea, and vouchers appear to do more harm than good. By redirecting public school funds to private institutions, the latter are strengthened by further weakening the former.

This potentially causes more damage to already struggling public schools. Moreover, if one consistently takes the best and brightest from public schools, don't school vouchers become a systematic method that further diminishes the quality of student achievement?

The manner that students qualify for vouchers is also troubling. Invariably students are selected through a voucher lottery, which seems to be a terrible way to determine access to a quality education. The luck and chance required to create the educational inequity is also the method used to escape.

Shouldn't true equity mean the ability for every child to attend a good school in their neighborhood?

The aforementioned criticisms of school vouchers (all of which I share) must also be balanced against a single moral question: Should parents of students in underachieving public schools be forced to wait until student achievement improves?

I can't imagine a single parent would opt to leave a child in an underachieving school, if the possibility exists to leave. That is a universal trait that holds for even the strongest critic of vouchers.

Student achievement in underperforming schools is also linked to a parallel culture. It is a culture in many cases that eschews high achievement, critical thinking and opportunities for higher education.

If the culture is not altered in underachieving schools, there can be no significant change in achievement.

The school voucher debate is a tug of war vying for philosophical superiority that places parents and students of underachieving schools in the tenuous middle. Whoever triumphs, the majority of students and parents will be left in the muddy moat of no possibility.

If the school voucher proponents win, a few more students might slip through the cracks, while further harm is done to public education. But if those opposing school vouchers are victorious, the few parents whose children might win the voucher lottery will have the honor of waiting until student achievement improves in a meaningful way to public education.

Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or byron@byronspeaks.com.