The Voucher Initiative might best be likened to an old medical practice, bloodletting. Long ago doctors believed many physical maladies--everything from head-aches to fevers--were caused by too much blood in the body; and so the logical remedy was to drain out the excess. Everyone from kings to peasants willingly bared an arm so doctors could slice open a vein.

The beauty of bloodletting was that it seemed an easy remedy for numerous ailments. Nonetheless, today we smile at that primitive practice. (And grimace!) We understand that those well-meaning doctors of old had mis-diagnosed their patients. Indeed, diseases are too diverse and complex to ever allow for a such a simple, generic cure. Thus, instead of healing, the doctors often made their patients even worse.

I believe the same is true for the proponents of the Voucher Initiative. They claim the trouble with American education is that it's sheltered from market forces. Schools don't have to compete for their students' patronage, and so needn't strive for excellence. But, if we give parents a choice--and some tax dollars along with it--then teachers and administrators will finally get off their duffs and really get to work. (Actually, Vouchers would give the choice to schools, not parents.)

The Voucher Initiative sounds so nice and easy! Unfortunately, it is a simplistic solution founded on a misdiagnosis of public schools' apparent poor performance. The real problems are far more complicated. And their solutions are ever more elusive.

For example, most teachers aren't lazy. They're under-prepared, under-paid, under-respected, and, in general, overwhelmed. That's why it's becoming increasingly difficult to lure our best college graduates into a classroom. (Read my column next week!) The Voucher Initiative--itself a thinly veiled slap at educators--certainly doesn't make the teaching profession any more appealing.

An even greater problem is the fact that so many kids--especially those in inner cities--are unprepared to learn. Living quite literally in a war zone, they come to class tired, hungry, scared, unmotivated, abused, addicted, pregnant, unable to speak English, and armed to the teeth. How could any school succeed under such circumstances?

Meanwhile, public schools in affluent, safe communities such as Palo Alto and Hillsborough distinguish themselves as some of the finest in the world. The Voucher Initiative posits that forcing inner-city schools to compete with them--and with exclusive, private schools, as well--is the solution. Sure. Just like bloodletting is the cure for migraines!

Even if all our communities were thriving, we'd still face the problem of funding. Our local schools have already slashed their programs to the bone. Classrooms have never been so crowded, or campuses so rundown. And we'd need to build a new classroom every day in California just to keep up with all the immigrant children. Tell me: How will Vouchers, which will pilfer 2.6 billion from public education, help?

On December 14, 1799, George Washington woke up with a severe sore throat. Martha summoned several doctors who, during the course of the day, bled the ex-president four times. Finally, Washington begged to be left to die in peace. He did, just before midnight.

In trying to save Washington, his doctors bled him to death. Tomorrow, when you go to the polls, please don't let the Voucher Initiative do the same to our public schools.

A Tale of Two Schools

Once upon a time there were two schools, each on a different side of the tracks.

The first school, Ravenstree High, was on the wrong side. It ministered to poor, minority students. Many of them came from troubled, single-parent families that had never seen a high school diploma. The kids were only too familiar, though, with gangs and drugs. As a result, Ravenstree's dropout rate was high, its test scores low. Ravenstree wasn't well respected in the community.

It was a shame. The teachers who taught at Ravenstree were among the most dedicated. Many of them had turned down a higher-paying position at more prestigious schools because they wanted to work with disadvantaged kids. They put in long hours calling parents repeatedly, tutoring kids patiently, and planning innovative lessons. Their work paid off. When the Ravenstree's test scores were compared with other wrong-side-of-the-track schools, they were among the highest.

But few in the community ever made that comparison. And so they ridiculed Ravenstree and its teachers.

Meanwhile, the sun was shinning at Palo Blanco High, on the other side of the tracks. It had recently been singled out as the best in the state, since it had the highest percentage of kids passing advanced placement tests. Parents--most of them white--took time off from their jobs at the university to attend a special ceremony in the school's monstrous, new theater. The parents saved their loudest applause, though, for the teachers, who had somehow managed to help these Stanford/Berkeley-bound kids do well.

The newspapers, of course, covered the gala event. They ran it on their front pages, right next to an article about teen-age pregnancies at Ravenstree.

One day, some local politicians became exasperated. “Why can't Ravenstree do as well as Palo Blanco?” they fumed. “The problem is that Ravenstree isn't like a business. It doesn't have to do compete with other schools in order to win its students' patronage. Let's give those kids a choice. Then Ravenstree will shape up, or go out of business!”

The community, eager for a quick, painless solution, embraced the idea of School Vouchers, or Choice.

The following year, about two hundred kids from Ravenstree took their vouchers to Palo Blanco. (Others might have done the same, but they couldn't afford the cost of daily cross-town transportation.)

Of the two hundred, Palo Blanco accepted only thirty. (Coincidentally, they turned out to be either the brightest students or the fastest athletes.) Still, despite the numerous applicants, Palo Blanco made no plans to build more classrooms. The addition of so many kids from Ravenstree might “upset the warm, homogeneous atmosphere of the place,” explained Palo Blanco's smiling principal.

Meanwhile, Ravenstree's principal wasn't smiling. She began the year with thirty fewer student-leaders, and a lot less state funding. Most of her students had really never had a choice, and now they were left with even less.

Only one of the schools lived happily ever after.