Violence and Vouchers

Consider the precedent before embracing private-school vouchers

Violence, it is said, doesn't solve anything. But it does grab headlines—and the public's attention. One headline, in particular, caught my eye concerning last week's tragic shooting at Central High. "Discipline concerns had been expressed," said the piece, a mix of "it could have happened anywhere" spin on the part of the school's PTO and dire warnings from several parents—some of whom, prior to the shooting, had transferred their kids to private schools—of a school in danger.

I sympathize with the PTO's position. Violence does occur everywhere. It can even happen, as evidenced by last month's shootings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, where you least expect such things. But, since it did happen at Central, many people will see it as conforming to and confirming a larger narrative. Particularly since, as the article about "discipline concerns" suggests, it's a narrative that pre-existed.

Hence the PTO president's dilemma: how to realistically address the issues and still keep parents from taking their kids elsewhere? Improvement requires commitment, but problems discourage it. The catch-22 is strangely akin to one I often faced as an advocate for my center-city neighborhood.

Nor is it unrelated. "What are the schools like?" is a complicated question whenever selling a house in Knoxville's center-city. And the answer, or at least the one given by far too many middle-class parents moving into the center-city, must be mighty discouraging for that PTO president out at Central (or her counterparts at Fulton and Austin-East).

"Every neighborhood is zoned for Webb," a Fourth and Gill friend is fond of joking. It's an open secret that, in most of Knoxville's gentrified center-city neighborhoods, middle and upper-middle class parents who send their kids to center-city public schools are a distinct minority (a percentage that, if not for the magnet schools, might be statistically insignificant). And I qualify "public schools" with "center-city" to account for kids quietly attending more suburban schools via stratagems such as parents listing a rental property somewhere out west as their primary address, or obfuscating over issues of custody and divorce.

So what of those "left behind," the center-city or Fountain City kids whose parents can't afford to pay private school tuition, or purchase a rental property zoned for some suburban school? Or are unable to realistically transfer out of their underperforming school? The questions are often a prelude to prescribing private-school vouchers. But, before doing so, it's worthwhile to consider the precedent in one area of public policy where vouchers have already been embraced as a solution.

About a month ago in this column, I mentioned an Atlantic Monthly article about rising crime in America's inner suburbs. The gist of the article raised fears that federal programs like Section 8 housing vouchers or HOPE VI's demolition and replacement of housing projects with mixed-income have produced a "Diaspora of the poor," driving those increased crime rates.

The scenario may bear on recent events at Central, too. As I wrote awhile back, Section 8 recipients are migrating out of inner cities and into "struggling older suburbs full of no longer fashionable split-levels and split-foyers, or aging apartment complexes." They are also moving into apartment complexes built to take advantage of the overflow. According to the News Sentinel, the alleged shooter's address was "a low-income apartment complex at the foot of Sharp's Ridge near Christenberry Heights." The complex, like most of its neighbors, was built to capitalize on the low-income housing tax credits offered as incentives for the privatization of public housing. The residents are, for the most part, Section 8 recipients.

In that light, would school vouchers truly address the problems of poverty and parental involvement that plague most underperforming schools? Or simply dodge the issue by disguising and diluting it? Perhaps worse, would vouchers eventually create a new crop of underperforming private schools akin to the privatization of public housing?