Monday, April 23, 2012

Finn: Romney will push vouchers, despite flaws

Former deputy Secretary of Education Chester Finn predicts that we'll soon see an education plan from presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who heretofore hasn't bothered to let Americans know what he might do regarding public education if he were to assume the presidency.

Further, Finn predicts that a Romney plan will lean heavily on vouchers, mainly because every other conservative strategy has been co-opted by the Obama administration.

But the issue of vouchers ought not be taken as a silver bullet for conservatives, Finn cautions.

He writes,

As vouchers have become real, however, the political picture has grown more complex. Eight newish factors are worth noting:

First, while the U.S. constitution is no longer a deal-breaker, some thirty-eight states have sundry provisions in their own constitutions that make it difficult or impossible to aid private schools and/or religious institutions and/or any sort of education program that isn’t “free and uniform.” (This is what killed the Florida “opportunity scholarship program” in that state's Supreme Court in 2006.) Hence there’s a practical limit to how far vouchers can really spread.

That was precisely the problem for former Governor Mark Sanford and his successor, Nikki Haley, and their pro-voucher acolytes. Since our state Constitution actively bars the use of state funds for private or parochial education, voucher proponents have had to find cute ways around the prohibition, like giving tax credits and tax deductions for tuition to private and parochial schools.

But, as they say, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck... it's a voucher.

Second, as religion has loomed larger as a political issue, evangelicals (most often Republicans) are keener and keener for it to play a role in public policy, including religious education and church-affiliated schools, while secularists (more apt to be Democrats) are even more resistant to public support for such schools.

As a colony, South Carolina characterized itself as a haven for all religions, a Mecca of religious tolerance. But the Age of Enlightenment was followed by the Great Revival of the early nineteenth century, and we live under its influence yet. There are reasons why the Quakers largely abandoned South Carolina in the mid-1800s, and why Nikki Haley had to assure primary voters of her commitment to Methodist Christianity.

Third, other features of private schools -— that have nothing to do with unions -— also cause palpitations among liberals (most often Democrats), such as selectivity in the admissions office (and the risk of “exclusion” of poor or disabled or minority or other “diverse” kids). Such anxieties may not cause them to keep their own daughters and sons out of such schools but a double standard often comes into play where “public policy” is concerned.

Ah, exclusivity raises its head again. Country clubs, golf clubs, hunting clubs and private schools remain the last bastions of exclusivity in America, and we mustn't use public policy to alter such things.

Fourth, even as the pro-voucher team has picked up a handful (but only that) of influential Democrats, a lot of state and local Republicans have grown somewhat equivocal about school choice—charters, vouchers, inter-district transfers, and more. Their own suburban constituents, whether enrolled in public or private schools, are averse to welcoming many of those kids into their classrooms, and their proud suburban school systems don’t much want to lose their own pupils, either.

Those kids. Did you catch that? Those kids.

What sort of kids is Finn talking about, that comfortable suburban parents wouldn't want many of in their classrooms? Hmm?

Fifth, what was for decades the strongest lobby in favor of vouchers (and tuition tax credits and more), namely the Roman Catholic Church, is today neither nearly as strong as it once was nor nearly as committed to revitalizing its own schools. It seems to have lost most of the wind from its sails.

Sixth, private schools in general are queasy about government entanglements and rules, worried about “accountability” requirements, alarmed at the prospect of forfeiting their distinctiveness, fretful about losing control of their standards and admission processes, leery of disclosing comparable data on their own educational effectiveness, and, sometimes, legitimately unsure that they really can do a good job with those kids. Nor has American private education shown much entrepreneurial inclination to grow to accommodate greater demand.

News flash: Traditional public schools aren't in love with what Finn calls "government entanglements and rules" either, but it's part of the social contract that public schools accept and serve every child that enrolls, that standards apply and must be maintained, and that accountability -- apples to apples comparison and contrast -- is part of the agreement. It's a pity that parochial schools value the lack of standards more than children's education.

Seventh, with state and local budgets tight, the claim that vouchers save taxpayer money over the long run is met with incredulity by school systems that can only see revenue disappearing along with headcount. And the argument that vouchers will be a needless and, for the taxpayer, costly windfall for middle-class families whose children already attend private schools is not easy to refute. (Of course, a carefully designed program may aid only “new” students.)

Truth is truth, isn't it?

And how helpful is Finn, suggesting a way around the ugliness of unfortunate voucher financing.

Eighth, and finally, the word “private” has grown even more suspect in American education circles today than it was yesterday. “Privatization” has sometimes gone badly.

Do tell.

Some private operators of charter schools are greedy, self-absorbed, and uninterested in educational quality. (Likewise for private SES providers and such.) Early evaluations have yielded mixed results for privately operated “cyber schools." Private school (and college) tuitions keep rising without evidence of improved results. And in era of transparency and accountability, the reluctance of private educational institutions to disclose key information about themselves, their students, their academic gains, and their finances—even to private organizations such as—has made them at least slightly suspect. (Why are they so secretive?)

What's shocking about Finn's litany is not its substance; we read the papers, we think and use deductive reasoning, we come our own conclusions about the motives of public school antagonists. What's shocking is hearing the opponents of public education admit the fatal flaws in their alternatives.

Still, fatally flawed as the alternatives are, public school opponents cling to their ideologies.

I’m still heartily in favor of more vouchers, provided that the program is structured with an eye toward serving the neediest kids first and making participating schools reasonably accountable for their results. I do expect the momentum in this direction to continue. But I don’t expect it to accelerate. And that’s not just because of hostility from Messrs. Obama and Duncan.

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