I can build a pretty cogent argument in favour of single-provider education based on equity. We could conceivably say that we want every child in the country to receive a uniform educational product, in the interests of levelling the playing field as much as possible before we send them out to compete in Life’s Great Rugby Scrum.
But I can only construct this argument if I completely ignore what American education actually looks like. Democrats complaining that a voucher system would lead to massive stratification by income leave me slightly flabbergasted. In what way could our educational system possibly become more stratified than it already is, short of just pulling poor kids out of school entirely and sending them to work in the coal mines at age six? Is it really conceivable that kids in inner city schools could get a worse education even from some awful fly-by-night unit where the books are written in Swahili, than they are currently enjoying right there at PS 82? I mean, at least they might learn a little Swahili.
First, I doubt even the “equity” rationale holds up that well: Apart from the general repugnance of “leveling down” thinking, which privileges uniformity over quality when the two conflict, it’s especially ill-suited for something like education. The shoe that fits one, as Jung had it, pinches another: There’s no reason to think “uniform” schools will provide meaningful equity for different kids with different learning styles.
But leaving that aside, I think what Meg’s bumping into here is a common (but misguided) tendency to place excessive stock in formal “guarantees,” almost as though the word (at least in statues) had some kind of hypnotic power. Sure, actually existing public schools may produce a caste system as rigid and inequitable as anything you’d find in the fevered free-market dystopias that haunt Noam Chomsky’s nightmares, but in theory, Marge, in theory, they’re engines of equal opportunity. This is the progressive version of the intelligent design fallacy—the implicit belief that complex results must be consciously aimed at to be achieved—indeed, that to declare the intent to produce quality and equality vigorously enough in the appropriate magic statue books is sufficient to produce the result: fiat iuxta! Of course, if you actually want to promote greater educational equality, it seems as though one big and obvious thign to do would be to decouple schooling from geography and local property taxes to the extent possible. Maybe I’m excessively sanguine here, but supporting vouchers seems like one of the few ways to make this otherwise politically very difficult project more feasible.