My Turn: If you want to see the perils of a school voucher system, look at Chile
Upon hearing that President-elect Trump has picked billionaire Betsy DeVos, a school voucher advocate, to be secretary of education, I realized that I had to write publicly about my recent experiences teaching in Chile – a country that has had a voucher system for more than 35 years.
I firmly believe that a voucher system would destroy the very American ideals our public schools currently foster and protect.
As part of my sabbatical this past school year from John Stark Regional High School, I went to teach English in Chile after having been certified to teach English as a second language here in New Hampshire. For 4½ months, I taught public school students in grades five through 12.
Chile adopted its voucher system in 1980 with many of the same goals as today’s voucher advocates. However, due to the voucher system, Chile has three distinct school systems: public, semi-private and private. All students receive a voucher to attend public or the semi-private schools. Parents of students in fully private school must pay the entire tuition bill.
Public schools require only the voucher while the semi-private schools, which are often religious schools, charge fees on top of the voucher. The semi-private schools also have waiting lists and these schools can refuse students who are often more difficult to teach, those with disabilities and behavioral problems. The results are grim.
According to an article from the Washington Post, as of 2012 three-quarters of Chilean public school students are from the lower 40 percent of family incomes in the country while 90 percent of students attending private schools are from Chile’s top 60 percent of income-earning families. Only 10 percent of disadvantaged students use the vouchers to attend the semi-private schools.
But I’m not writing to summarize an article. I’m writing to tell you about what I saw.
The students attending the middle school where I taught, Manuel Blanco Encalada, came from poor families. Many of my students received public assistance for basic needs. The school had a disproportionate number of hearing-impaired and autistic students who were refused admission to the semi-private school. Chilean semi-private schools can pick and choose whom they take, and they take few students with learning challenges. With few resources to pay teachers, the average class size was 41. I had a student load of 277 students. A student I knew who attended a private school had classes of 30 students – none with learning or behavioral issues. This disparity is made possible by diverting public funds to the semi-private schools through the voucher system.
My classroom was heated only by a wood stove. When I ran out of wood, I was told I would have to buy my own. Public school teachers buy wood to heat their classrooms or parents donate it. The semi-private and private schools have modern heating systems. Basic supplies in my school were scarce, and the lights frequently went on and off, due to an aging electrical system. If you think this is unique to a South American country and would not happen here, think about the crumbling public schools in many of our own cities. A voucher system would only accelerate and amplify decay that is already occurring.
What shocked me the most was what the three-tiered system of education did to Chilean culture.
I met adults at my gym who told me they would never send their children to public schools because “those children don’t bathe.” My students were clean.
I lived with a host family whose 4-year-old went to a semi-private pre-kindergarten. His aunt is an assistant principal at a public elementary school, which he visited one day. When asked what he thought of the public school, he said the children were “desordenados,” which in Chile means undisciplined or unruly.
Where does a 4-year-old get an idea like this, especially when all 4-year-olds are undisciplined and unruly? Thirty-five years of vouchers have helped make Chile very classist – hardly an American value.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush wrote of DeVos that she is an “outstanding pick” and “her allegiance is to families, particularly those struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder, not to an outdated public education model that has failed them from one generation to the next.” School vouchers don’t help the poor. They take resources away from public schools and their economically diverse students. Vouchers separate children by disability or class and magnify social disparities and prejudice. When people say vouchers will benefit the disadvantaged, don’t believe it. The past 35 years of Chilean history prove otherwise.
American public schools foster the American values of opportunity for all, inclusiveness and diversity. Voucher systems promote disparities and prejudice. Our children deserve something better; they deserve schools that reflect American values.