Vouch for Me

Last week, while browsing the shelves in one of those evil and wonderful chain bookstores, I overheard a woman say "school vouchers." I don't know why she said it, or whether she was in favor of or against vouchers, but I had a Pavlovian liberal response.

"I hate school vouchers!" I shouted. Well, I didn't really shout it, but I thought it very loudly, and salivated profusely while thinking it. And then I bought a dozen books and felt only a little bit guilty about enjoying the 30 percent bestseller and 10 percent Reader's Advantage discounts. I grew up poor, and books were often a luxury item for me, and now that I am upper class, I impulsively buy books just because I can and also because I can't stop. I'm addicted to books. It's not like I'm addicted to crack, but it's damn close.

As part of my addiction, I have read a few dozen books and essays arguing for and against school vouchers. I've carefully and not so carefully considered the arguments. And I have come to believe it is constitutionally wrong to distribute government money to children, usually poor kids in crappy public schools, so they can pay for education at any school of their choosing, including private religious institutions.

But last night, while thinking more about school vouchers, I suffered an insomniac, nightshift, cockroachian identity crisis. I am the American Catholic husband of an American Catholic wife, and we might one day send our two young sons to Catholic elementary and high schools. We'd only do it if we decided the public schools were failing our sons, and we wouldn't use state money to fund their education, so the church and state would still occupy separate compartments in our family TV dinner tray. But I know it is only my personal wealth and privilege that enables me to determine exactly where my sons will be attending school.

Don't get me wrong. The Seattle public schools have been wonderful to my eldest son, and I've worked my ass off to earn my wealth and privilege, and I am proud and pleased that my entire family benefits from that money and power. We have an amazing house rule: My sons only get toys on special occasions, but they can buy a book anytime they want.

But I know there are thousands of kids in this city who will never enjoy my sons' educational, literary, and economic choices.

Growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and attending its Upton Sinclairian nightmare school, I was a kid who didn't enjoy educational or economic choices. I dreamed of being a pediatrician, but the reservation school didn't have advanced math, science, computer, foreign language, or literature classes. Hell, I don't think there was one damn Bunsen burner in the whole damn town. So I left that crappy public Indian school and transferred to a far superior public school on the reservation border where I was the only Indian except for the mascot. I survived the move and thrived in that obsessive-compulsive, workaholic, farm-town environment.

But prior to my transfer to Reardan High School, what would I have done if some Bureau of Indian Affairs white guy had shown up on my rez with a check for $5,000 and told me that I could use that government money to attend Northwest Christian, St. George's, or Gonzaga Prep, the three private religious high schools in Spokane where every damn graduate goes on to college?

I would have been terrified of such a bold challenge, but I was also a ridiculously ambitious 13-year-old who wanted to conquer the world. So I'm quite sure that I would have eagerly taken the money and rode into academic battle with the white Catholics and Protestants of Spokane, Washington. Hell, I would have transferred to those schools only for their libraries and the awesome number of books on their shelves.

In any case, I did leave behind my less fortunate tribal members, my friends and family, in pursuit of my academic dreams, but only because of my parents' threadbare financial and robust emotional support. How many of my fellow rez kids wanted to leave and could not because of financial and emotional reasons? Would school vouchers have given them money and courage? So in considering the validity of the school voucher program, I am faced with this moral question: How can I, as an adult, oppose a program I would have happily taken advantage of when I was a child?