Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Regretting President Obama's lack of support for choice and opportunity in DC

The White House -- despite the occasional encouraging sign of openness to education reform -- continues to oppose even D.C.'s small experiment in school-choice for low-income kids in D.C.  Sad.

UPDATE:  The Washington Post gets it right.

We understand the argument against using public funds for private, and especially parochial, schools. But it is parents, not government, choosing where to spend the vouchers. Given that this program takes no money away from public or public charter schools; that the administration does not object to parents directing Pell grants to Notre Dame or Georgetown; and that members of the administration would never accept having to send their own children to failing schools, we don’t think the argument is very persuasive. Maybe that’s why an administration that promised never to let ideology trump evidence is making an exception in this case.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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The idea that "the program takes no money away from public or public charter schools" is naive. While this specific bill or proposal may not, the more we shift towards a voucher system, the less money will go to public education. Those so poor as to not be able to afford private education, even with vouchers, won't have the political clout to ensure proper funding of public education, and public schools will quickly deteriorate as the money dries up.

Vouchers cannot be pursued unless we commit to making them available to 100% of students within a few years. And if we do that, the cost of private education will skyrocket while the quality drops.

Voucher programs sound nice in rhetoric. Everyone likes the thought of integrating in the "rich kids' school" rather than improving the quality of the run-down PS 138. But the sad fact is that such integration just won't happen. There are always great success stories when vouchers are tried on a small scale. But the disruption they'd cause in wide-spread use would eliminate all of the purported benefits.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Apr 3, 2011 4:35:40 AM


You are, with all due respect, wrong to oppose school choice. That a quick move to universal school choice would be disruptive is hardly a reason not to introduce them on experimental / pilot bases (unless, of course, one is afraid of any policy changes that weaken the political power of teacher-unions). As I see it, there is no reason we should accept the notion that "public education" means "education in government-run institutions, by pubic employees." "Public education" could, and should, mean "education of the public, at public expense, for the good of the public"; so understood, "public education" is well served by school-choice, since private and parochial schools, as a general matter, deliver a better (or an at-least-as-good) "product" for less.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 3, 2011 1:57:48 PM

Rick, I'm not afraid that policy changes would weaken the political power of teacher-unions. As I said, I'm worried that policy changes will weaken the political power of those students who remain in the public school system. Aside from other problems, the more students we put in private schools, the less attention there will be to the plight of those children still in public schools. It's already extremely difficult to get the political support needed to sufficiently fund public education: can you imagine how much harder it would be if even more families had no kids in public schools? Especially since school choice would tend to pick off those parents most likely to be politically active in advocating for public education.

There are other issues with school choice. Private schools tend to deliver a better "product", as you call it, largely because of various selection measures. They need not put up with bad students to the extent that public schools do, many (including ones I have personal experience with) have admissions standards that ensure their students are higher-performing. Most private schools tend to have a significantly higher average economic standing among their students than public schools do. And of course many private schools operate in religious or social communities that may already have social norms of higher parental involvement.

The more kids we put in private schools, the more those advantages will disappear, and the more private school quality will start to degrade.

Also, the more demand there is for private schooling, especially demand subsidized by government vouchers, the more cost for private education will rise. As you know, the tuition that a private school charges versus the amount spent by the government on public schools doesn't represent a fixed ratio determined by their relative efficiencies. Instead, the cost of private education (in terms of tuition) is artificially depressed by its competition with the free alternative. The less competition there is from the public alternative, the less depression of those prices there will be.

There's also the issue of teacher quality. To a certain extent, I'm willing to posit that currently, some amount of better teachers are drawn to private schools. A lot of this may be due to the selection factors for students that I talked about above (because good teachers tend to be drawn to good students). Others may be due to decentralized administration of private schools. To a certain extent, with more and more private schools we're more likely to see education corporations take a similar role to public school districts, eviscerating this advantage too.

There's a lot more to the issue than this, obviously. It's complex, and I'm not saying that school choice is an obviously horrible idea. In my opinion, a lot of it comes down to this fact: quality of education is largely (though not entirely) due to quality of teachers and quality of students. That's not something you can change just by changing the means of administration and funding.

By the way, I completely agree with you about your proposed meaning for public education. I just think that public schools are the best way we have, at the moment, to educate the public, at public expense, for the good of the public.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Apr 4, 2011 1:24:48 AM