School vouchers can bring middle class families back to the city

By ROGER CHERMAK

In the United States, the city is no longer a place where middle class families live. The city is home to the childless, the poor, and the rich, but not the middle class family.

While there is the weakly but commonly held belief that children need the openness of suburbia to have a happy childhood, this seems to me more of a justification for rejection of the city and not the real reason. I believe that children are better off growing up in the city, because they get exposed to a more intellectually stimulating environment.

In the 1950s, middle-class families began a mass migration from the city, based on the perception that urban schools were in a downward tailspin. This became a self fulfilling prophecy, because with only children of the poor attending urban schools, the schools were robbed of students from families that stressed the value of education. The quality of urban schools declined.

The current conventional wisdom is that you can't live in the city with children unless you are rich enough to afford private schools. This is where vouchers could come in and turn things around. If parents could receive a voucher to make private schools more affordable, then the middle class could return to the cities and send their children to a school of their choice instead of whatever public school they might otherwise be assigned.

Now I know that there is strong resistance to vouchers. And let's be realistic about why the concept is resisted. Those who oppose vouchers have a noble belief in egalitarianism, and they believe that it's unfair that some children get to go to better schools than others. The public school system keeps things equal. All but the rich get to send their children elsewhere. The middle class and the poor both send their kids to the same public schools. Society becomes more equal.

The problem with the egalitarian ideal is that it has been circumvented by the middle class using the simple strategy of moving to a district with better schools. The public schools within a county may be equal, but not all counties are equal.

We must accept that, given current policies and demographic trends, the urban schools are not going to magically get better, and thus middle class families will continue to live in the suburbs and not in the city. So we need to look for new ways to attract middle class families to live and educate their children in the city. And the answer is school vouchers.

But the vouchers would have to be real vouchers with teeth, not wimpy watered down vouchers for a mere $2000 only usable for tuition payment in full. Parents must be given vouchers for an amount equal to what the city saves by not having a child in the public schools. This amount is probably well over $6,000, and maybe as high as $10,000, but it would vary by city. Parents should be able to spend the voucher just as if it were cash. So at a private school with a tuition of $8,000, the parent could pay with a $6,000 voucher plus a $2,000 check. Such a system would bring the power of the free market to bear in school selection, and it would allow people with regular middle class incomes to send their kids to decent private schools.

A voucher system like the one described above would once again make the city a popular place for middle class families to live. Freed from the fear (whether real or imagined) of urban public schools, families could once again enjoy what the city has to offer: convenient public transportation, shorter commutes to ones job, restaurants and shops you can walk to from your house or apartment, and cultural opportunities such as museums and theatre. But it will only happen if people have the courage to accept a new way of thinking about education.