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Teachers Can't Vouch for McCain's "Voucher Plan"

As a high school teacher who dips into my own wallet to buy paper and pencils for students in the second largest school district in the land, I recognize the dangers of a pro-voucher McCain administration. Vouchers are not, as Obama so succinctly put it, the panacea for failing schools.
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In The Hollow Men, poet T.S. Eliot describes an apocalyptic desert where children spout eerie, blank chants about the cruel, "straw-stuffed" world they have inherited. Now, in a partisan world where pundit lions roar without substance, children are parched for heroes. Their icons have been spirited away to a stony landscape where nothing ever grows.

Sounds like eight years down the road, after a McPalin ascension, where the doddering granddaddy, the GILF, and their Secretary of Neocon Kool-Aid Elizabeth Hasselbeck take funds from schools to brand the system with their harebrained free market scheme. I am a teacher for Los Angeles Unified School District, and this is the specter of a pro-voucher world I live and see every day.

McCain's passion for vouchers will only make the wasteland more bleak and empty. In T.S. Eliot's vision, children lapse from nursery chants to sputtered prayers, trying in vain to chant The Lord's Prayer before silence reigns. Now, they may likely do the same because their overworked teachers preside over a class of 50 students in an under funded school where dynamic, caring educators take early retirement, battle grave illness on the job, or leave for the greener pastures of private sector work after a mere two years.

Although both candidates did address the issue of education in the third and final presidential debate, we have not heard much about this issue since. As a high school teacher who dips into my own wallet to buy paper and pencils for students in the second largest school district in the land, I recognize the dangers of a pro-voucher McCain administration. Vouchers are not, as Obama so succinctly put it, the panacea for failing schools.

I understand that voucher talk is a dull, unsexy topic. But we must realize that the emperor has no clothes: the free market voucher paradigm is a thinly veiled threat to public education. While the economy, health care, and foreign policy deserve our utmost attention, education is a vital issue for us to examine, and it is especially crucial for those fabled undecideds (who are they anyway?) to know before they head into the voting booth.

While I contemplate an expatriate life in France should McCain win, the truth is I love this country too much to not criticize it. So I teach during the day and campaign at night. I canvass, and I interview experts in the field. As a teacher, I challenge my students every day to think, reflect, and respond critically to everything they may read or hear (I dare not call my pedagogical approach the "Anti-Palin Doctrine", but I am sorely tempted). What I know, however, is that McCain's "voucher" plan is as wild a fantasy as my dream of renting a chateau in Provence for six years or so. Vouchers sell the fantasy to parents that they can eschew corrupt "public" education in favor of more rigorous and pure, profit-driven education.

Vouchers as educational saviors are a myth, a conceptual mirage that parents who want to save their kids from gritty urban schools will cling to like a superhero blanket. Draining funds from schools because the funds were never there and misdirecting them to schools that won't accept the kids is a farce, a faux rescue plan that will rescue no one and leave many more children behind. It is much more realistic to invest in schools, reroute funds from corrupt school bureaucracy to classroom books and technology, and support teachers so they remain on the job long enough to educate the next generation. McCain's plan to infuse free market principles into our public schools is about as realistic as my renting a Provencal chateau on the strength of fantasy. Better to just plan a trip abroad in about three years or so, when I have saved the money.

Vouchers: No Choice At All

McCain's statement during the Saddleback Church Faith Forum said it all: give parents more choices, and the school system will mystically rejuvenate itself through free market competition. What he neglected to mention is glaring gaps in logic and result that will make voucher success about as likely as my young daughter's paper airplane making a transatlantic flight. During the last presidential debate, he touted Washington D.C.'s "great success" with the voucher plan, neglecting to mention how untried it is, how small the district is compared to New York and Los Angeles, and how few students and parents can attest to any result.

McCain Voucher Gaffe/Gap #1: Parents Will Be Let Down, Badly

Vouchers will drain the coffers of public education, a disastrous move tantamount to dropping our youth off a cliff with no parachute in sight. Should parents karate-chop their way into securing one of the few vouchers in their district, they will quickly face a slew of abysmal realities: 1) private schools will raise their tuition to keep those kids away; 2) parents will have to cough up an extra $5000 or so a year to fill the cash gap between the voucher and the private school of their choice; 3) the private schools that are "low rent" (thus accessible to voucher parents) feature teachers who have not had to complete the sequence of courses and exams to obtain their credential under state law; and 4) the public school that these same would-be voucher kids return to will be the last refuge of corrupt administrators, paltry resources, and underpaid teachers. It may seem unfair and "elitist" (to use a term the neocons consider anathema), but the high-rent private schools will continue to service the needs of the affluent, much as any universal health care system will neither surpass nor supplant the "concierge medicine" (personal physicians who make house calls, etc.) that are the realm of the rich.

After combing through the campaign statements on education, I decided to consult the most ardent education activist I know: Richard Gibbons, a 25+ history teacher in Los Angeles, who also serves as the union chapter chairman for William Howard Taft High School in Woodland Hills. Over coffee in the cafeteria, I asked him why McCain's notion of vouchers is so problematic.

"What people don't realize" he said, is that private schools have raised their tuition in response to vouchers, making it impossible for middle-class families to afford the 'choice' praised by McCain." In other words, we are not talking about the schools the McCains consider for their offspring that charge the equivalent of my annual salary for tuition. The schools in large cities that would accept vouchers would, it seems, hire a geranium, or Palin, to teach.

McCain Voucher Gaffe/Gap #2: Less Isn't More: It Costs To Become "Highly Qualified"

Yes, it seems heartless to decry non-public education as the realm of unqualified teachers. After all, the deluxe private schools in our midst boast a truly impressive faculty who offer youngsters rigorous education. Yet consult the state requirements for teacher credentialing, and you will find an exhaustive list of requirements. It takes, in short, many graduate courses, entrance exams, student teacher months, and continuing professional development to even qualify as an applicant. When moving to California was once hailed as the Peter Pan frontier where winter never came, teachers flocked here - and soon realized that Sacramento had rightly upped the ante for becoming a credentialed teacher. A private school that operates outside the realm of such requirements will, quite simply, take whomever it can get - in many cases, teachers who are "passing through" the profession and would rather not bother with the tough licensing requirements.

McCain's Voucher Gaffe/Gap #3: What is a "bad" teacher?

Several years ago, an old friend with two young children told me that she was going to complete basic teacher credentialing requirements online in her state (not California) and "give teaching a try." When I asked why, she replied, "My schedule will be compatible with my kids' lives, and you get summers off." I inquired whether she had any real driving desire to teach, and she candidly replied "no". Keep your office job, I advised, and consider another lifestyle change if you can manage it. Even the most gentle high school students would eat her alive, I told her bluntly. She took my advice. During my tenure in teaching, I have seen teachers who should never have considered the profession quickly burn out, and I have breathed silent relief that future students are spared their incompetence. During the Saddleback Faith Forum, McCain cut Pastor Warren off before he could finish posing the question about education. "Get rid of the bad teachers," the dyspeptic warrior intoned. Whether McCain heard the same question posed to Obama a few minutes before or had a pat answer at the ready, I won't decry it as unfair. I will even embrace the idea that teachers who enter the profession without the passion, knowledge, or skills should be gently and firmly rerouted to another line of work.

So, McCain isn't entirely wrong. But to foreground the "getting rid of bad teachers" credo as the reigning mantra of education policy is to forget that the majority of us work and sacrifice hard on behalf of the students we serve. We eschew the "martyr" label and demand a living wage.

The Bell is Ringing

The bell signaling the end of our very short break was about to ring, so I asked Richard Gibbons what he would ask each of the candidates. His answers were succinct and compelling. "I would ask McCain why he thinks vouchers work, when there is absolutely no proof that they would do anything except......nothing" he replied. Although he supports Obama, he would try to convince him that the merit pay he has publicly espoused does not work. "There are too many variables in any one teacher's program to hold them all accountable for meeting the same criteria", he said. "Give me five classes of bright advanced placement students, watch them soar on the state tests each year, and I'm first in line for merit pay because 'I've' succeeded. But what about those teachers struggling with struggling students? How is that measured?" Lastly, I asked him exactly how No Child Left Behind has been under funded. "States have to absorb the cost of designing and implementing the tests that that federal law required," he said. "So, not only does NCLB NOT pay up, it actually takes money from the children it is designed to help." That, I wanted to add, is where fantasy derails into delusion. My witty comeback, however, had to wait for another day, because I had students waiting.

Obama and Vouchers:

Obama mentioned at the last presidential debate that teachers need higher pay, and hastened to add that vouchers are no panacea for our failing system. When I saw this, I cheered silently (actually loudly, to the annoyance of my neighbors), and beamed some more when Obama mentioned mentor programs for new teachers. I myself benefited from a mentor system in California that has since disintegrated due to lack of funds. When I was a first-year teacher with classes of 45+, I was drowning. My mentor was a living life raft, providing practical advice and daily morale-boosting talks as I struggled to stay afloat with violent kids in a crowded classroom. I have seen many teachers quit because they are faced with the same daunting set of problems, and they have no support (save for the on-the-sly, in-between-classes support I do my best to provide to this very day).

Ask any teacher why our system is failing, and we won't engage in finger-pointing, blaming "bad" teachers or "bad" students. That is a demonizing divide that does not hold up. No one is perfect, and teachers try our best. Students are not perfect either, but they deserve our respect. Our system, many concur, is failing because the brilliant math teacher next door to me quit after three years because his wife got pregnant and he knew he couldn't afford to turn down the private sector job that would help buy diapers and pay the mortgage in pricey Southern California. Our system is failing because, as I languish in a classroom with grimy floors, graffiti, and zero technology, the "coaches" and "coordinators" in our local district indulge in high-priced holiday parties to congratulate themselves on the "support" they never provide. They work fifteen minutes a day issuing memos that reflect their scorn of classroom teachers, and then indulge in long lunches .

Come to think of it, getting McCain to use his fabled hatchet to slash the jobs of these tedious, indolent bureaucrats and then using their salaries to buy books and more teachers to lower class size from 40 to 30 here in Los Angeles Unified School District would be a welcome relief. Palin, I have a post-election job for you, and it's nowhere near the White House. Come on over to L.A. and slash the office jobs, send those overpaid office drones back to the classroom, or fire them. You would certainly earn my praise for that.

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