Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Vouchers and "school choice" remain political, not educational

Since today may turn out to be a bellwether day for so-called "school choice" advocates in South Carolina -- those who, for economic or ideological reasons, want to dismantle and privatize public education -- I thought it was instructive to review an article written by Kevin Carey, policy director of a D.C.-based think tank called Education Sector, published in the January edition of The Atlantic magazine.

Carey appropriately hangs the whole "school choice" movement on a foundation of profit motivation, buttressed by a well-orchestrated ideological agenda.

That school choice is valuable is beyond dispute. That's why there's a multi-billion dollar private school industry serving millions of students. And it's why there is a much larger system of school choice embedded in the American real estate market.

Carey finds the origin of the beast in a 1955 essay by Milton Friedman titled "The Role of Government in Education."

Friedman, as we all know, was enormously influential in shaping conservative economic thought. But it took a long time for his educational ideas to become embedded on one side of partisan lines. In the early 1970s, liberal education activists openly promoted the idea giving poor students Friedman-like vouchers in order to help them escape dysfunctional urban school systems.

But at the same time, the Republican party was in the midst of shifting toward a new brand of free-market, anti-government ideology. As Ronald Reagan was elected on a platform whose education planks were voucher-focused, school choice became an issue like abortion or gun control that people learn to be stridently for or against based on their larger party affiliation.

The fact that that the likely recipients of vouchers were either religious or non-unionized private schools made the divisions even more acute. For Republicans, vouchers were a way to be pro-God, pro-market and anti-labor all at the same time. This proved to be such a satisfying combination that many conservative politicians have never bothered to adopt any other discernible position on public education

No other "discernible position on public education." Isn't that strange?

The two most important responsibilities of any generation are to nurture and defend the next generation, until it is old and strong enough to fend for itself, and to sufficiently educate the next generation so it carries forward the best values and heritage of its forebears, and can think and act rationally in raising future generations.

The fact that three decades' worth of conservative leaders have formed no "discernible position" on the matter of public education beyond dismantling it and replacing it with a voucher scheme is tragic. Tragic, because other nations have suffered no similar impediment, and Diane Ravitch and others explain time and time again.

Carey's article veers often into the talking points of the right wing on the voucher question; it may be that in order to sculpt an independent or nonpartisan pose, he feels obligated to use the far-right's brush to paint public schools. But he points out accurately how vouchers have evolved as a political issue and as a policy in these 30 years.

Many conservatives have proved more interested in using vouchers as a political club than actually making them work on behalf of students. Students participating in the longest-lived and most well-studied voucher experiment, in Milwaukee, score no better on standardized tests than similar students who attended regular public schools.

Indeed, vouchers have become so tainted in discussion and practice that many conservatives now favor re-branded voucher programs that work through the tax code: Instead of getting a voucher for X amount of money to attend a private school, you get a "tuition tax credit" for X amount of money spent to attend a private school. A variation on the program was created in Arizona granting taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit for "donations" to private schools. This soon spawned a corrupt system of log-rolling wherein private school parents gave donations to schools on behalf of each other's children.

Isn't that clever? Under the Arizona plan, I can't get a tax credit for paying my own kid's private school tuition, but I can get the tax credit for paying yours, and you can get a credit for paying mine. I do your murder; you do mine! Criss-cross!

The legislation, moreover, required that donations be funneled through "non-profit" middleman organizations run by, incredibly, the very same state legislators who wrote the legislation in the first place. These selfless public servants then skimmed off some of the money to lease luxury cars for themselves, give jobs to relatives, and rent space from for-profit corporations they owned. Making free government money available with no oversight turns out to have some drawbacks.

I doubt that there would be any such hidden shenanigans to game the system in South Carolina.

We like to run our corrupt schemes right out in the open.

Indeed, both vouchers and tax credit programs suffer from the same underlying design flaw: they trust parental choice in a free market to, by itself, ensure that students will attend good schools.

What an admission. Voucher advocates frequently tar "educrats" for believing themselves superior to parents, when the wingers themselves have an elitist ax to grind.

Notably, even Milton Friedman thought this was a bad idea. That's why he proposed that vouchers be limited to "approved institutions." He didn't spell out how approval would work in much detail, but the smartest balance between flexibility and accountability looks very much like the process charter schools are subject to today.

Yet conservatives have continued to flog vouchers and tax credits for obviously partisan reasons.

And that's where we are in South Carolina, stuck in the same rut we've occupied for a generation.

As I enjoy reading the comments of readers, let me share a couple of responses to Carey's original article.

From Erik Vanderhoff:

There's a whole slew of other factors that charter schools and school choice don't even begin to address: Transportation. Parent investment. Special education. Supplemental services. Infrastructure. Limited space. The current trend simply accelerates schools in the direction pre-schools and colleges are going in: increased demand pricing out families of modest means, requiring them to beggar themselves. One of the dirtiest of secrets about current voucher programs is that the vouchers are often insufficient to meet tuition costs.

Mm. Lawmakers today are telling little Ray he can expect to take his voucher and enroll in Heathwood Hall, but as I've written before, little Ray and his mom may find themselves terribly surprised when the folks at Heathwood Hall inform them that their little ol' legislative voucher won't guarantee them enrollment, and wouldn't cover a week's worth of instruction if he was admitted.

Ulysses writes:

I HATE these articles purporting to throw light on the subject of "school choice", vouchers, charter schools and their relative performance, etc. PUBLIC SCHOOLS are simply UNDERFUNDED. Their teachers are underpaid, their academics under resourced, their physical infrastructures in decay, AS A RULE. Virtually ALL public school teachers in Chicago, spend their own money (to the tune of a few hundred dollars per year) to provide educational materials for their classrooms. The discussion stops and does not need to restart until this is not the case.

And Mark B predicts a sharp increase in private school tuition, a la higher education, once that tuition becomes subsidized with public dollars:

Pro-school choice people: If the private sector can compete in education, why is allowing a government option in medicine so horrible? Why not allow me to buy medicare instead of my hopelessly inflated private insurance? Government entities are bloated, unresponsive behemoths. So there's no threat there, right?

Now, to see what the future under school choice would look like, walk into a lecture hall in a private and then a public college. Both receive money from their home state in the form of scholarships and grants for the students. Now look at the class sizes. Imagine the same thing in public elementary schools.

And if you already send your child to private school, or want to, look at how college costs have risen at three times the rate of inflation. This is what would happen to private school tuition if it became subsidized like college tuition is.

For Twixlen, the issue comes down to first principles:

I don't think any government money - whether it be a school voucher or some other crediting system - should be extended to religion-based schools. It's basic separation of church and state.

I think vouchers and charters are killing the public education that exists, and that all of these patches (which ultimately don't provide a better education anyway), should be ended as programs.

Twiddly Dee takes issue with the premise of moral equivalence:

You've buried the lede! Amazing that a piece of this length spends so little time discussing the only salient issue: neither charter schools nor private school vouchers have ever been shown to produce statistically significant gains compared to public schools. And those that have can't be scaled or have sky-high attrition.

Vouchers and charter schools might be worth talking about, if they worked. But they don't work. Surely that's the most important point here.

Thoughtful readers. I wonder if our own state lawmakers invest this much consideration in the issue?

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