Los Alamos, N.M.
Jonathan Rauch's argument for school vouchers (The Agenda, October Atlantic) is a strong one, to which I would like to add another: break the stranglehold of the colleges of education on entry to the teaching profession! In my experience, the college of education is too often a last refuge for students who cannot meet the foreign-language requirement for a B.A., and have no head for science, math, or technology. Let anyone with a degree in any field submit his or her records and references to school boards. Check the applicants' legal backgrounds, and test them psychologically. Give them written guides to the principles of conduct, legal and ethical standards, methods of dealing with parents and with problem students. Supervise them for a while! Then let them teach. I think our failing schools would be the very first to benefit from a higher quality of teacher.
Sister Kate Hawthorne
Incredibly, Jonathan Rauch's piece in praise of school vouchers does not even mention the pre-eminent objection to them: since 80 percent of private schools are parochial, vouchers are public funds that directly support religious education.
James S. Bernstein
Rockville Centre, N.Y.
Jonathan Rauch makes the same mistake that most school-voucher advocates make: equating school choice with healthy competition. Vouchers, in his view, would force public schools to "shape up" when faced with the rivalry of private schools. But it is an odd notion of competition that requires one competitor to assume significant burdens from which the others are immune.
A federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, mandates that public schools offer "free, appropriate public education" to all students, no matter what their level of ability. If children require constant one-on-one attention, or if they need special classroom adaptations to accommodate their specific needs, or if their behavioral problems preclude a normal classroom setting, public schools must provide for them. This kind of attention, though morally just and necessary, can be extremely expensive, in many cases exceeding $50,000 per student per year.
Private schools can choose to avoid this responsibility, and most do. If Rauch wants real competition between public and private schools, he should advocate adherence to the IDEA for all schools involved. Otherwise, private schools will be able to use tax money to educate only those students who fit their admissions criteria, leaving public schools to deal with everyone else. It is easy to predict where that kind of "competition" will lead.
I read of the bio-engineered mousepox-IL-4 virus, with its 100 percent lethality rate, when the experiment was first announced, in July of 2000. My first thought was "What's to stop scientists from introducing interleukin-4 into human smallpox?" Jon Cohen ("Designer Bugs," July/August Atlantic) prefers to downplay this possibility by citing the virologist Frank Fenner's objections. Fenner gives three reasons why smallpox-IL-4 will never be created: it might not work; it would most likely kill the scientists, since the virus could beat vaccination; and the virus would kill people too quickly to spread contagion effectively.