Friday, October 31, 2008
A reader writes:
Three points in response to Susan Stabile’s point that solving the problems in education will require much more than vouchers.
1. One significant reason why the school choice movement hasn’t made more progress is the near obsessive focus on vouchers by their advocates. The fact of the matter is that there are nowhere near enough seats available in private schools across the country to absorb a large block of public school children. I realize advocates claim that you don’t need to move all of the kids because losing some of the kids will force the public schools to compete and that will make them better. But even if competition was effective, you would need a big enough block of kids who might move to make public schools feel any competition. It’s not at all clear to me there would be enough space in private schools to get to that number. Nor is it at all obvious to me that the problem with public schools is lack of competition. Certainly there are problems in many public schools. Teachers are often under-qualified and are too hard to fire. In many districts there is excess bureaucracy (a problem made worse, not better, by No Child Left Behind). But most of the problems of (at least urban) public schools are problems of the community. Their students do not live in stable homes and therefore most schools have transient populations; students are often food insecure; they are not around educated adults very much; and there is no parental involvement in their educations. Not one of those problems is helped by vouchers. This does not mean that the exceptions – the kids whose parents are involved and provide a stable environment – should be stuck in schools with all of those problems. But it does mean that vouchers could only be a small part of the solution – helping those kids get out but not doing much to solve the underlying problems faced in the public schools left behind.
2. My experience, and that of many other voucher skeptics, is that voucher advocates tend not to support many of the things that would help resolve those community issues in the schools left behind. They don’t want to support programs that improve communities or get parents more involved in the schools because those cost a lot of money. Now I know that money isn’t everything, and that’s the retort you always get from voucher advocates. But the data clearly shows that educating children in poverty is much more expensive, particularly when those children have not had any early childhood education. When I see a vocal voucher advocate who has an education plan that addresses those other issues rather than treating vouchers as a silver bullet, I’ll start listening more.
3. Finally – and I think this point is actually wrapped up in the first two – I have my doubts that most voucher advocates support them because they really think they will change education for poor kids. Don’t get me wrong, there are some well-intentioned people who certainly do believe that (even if, in my view, they’re misguided). But here’s an anecdote that colors my view, and that I think resonates with lots of voucher skeptics. In one community where I used to live the parents at a local catholic school outspokenly opposed funding for the local public schools. Many of them said – without any apparent shame – that they hoped denying funding would result in the public schools’ failure, because then the state would be forced (under state law) to provide residents with vouchers, which (surprise surprise) they really wanted to help pay for the schools they were already using. I get this sort of sense (anecdotally, of course) from lots of voucher advocates – what they really want is a subsidy for their kids to go to school. Now it’s a separate question whether people who want to send their kids to catholic schools should get a subsidy so they can, as I’ve seen many on this site describe it, “make a meaningful choice.” [I happen not to buy that argument. I think all community members get lots of value from a good public school system (whether or not their kids go there), so it’s wrong to say that parents who send their kids to catholic school are “paying twice.” I also wonder whether the conservatives who make the “choice” argument would be willing to generalize their point to a principle that the freedom to do something is not meaningful unless the government subsidizes the choice so people can afford it. No one is stopping people from sending their kids to private schools.] But it seems to me the religious freedom point is a separate point that, even though it’s really driving many supporters views, is obscured behind claims that the vouchers are good for the poor kids.