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October 31, 2007

How I Feel About Voucher Cranks, Teacher Union Obsessives, Etc

Matt pithily sums up my feelings:

But in neither case would it address the issue in a comprehensive way. Which, I think, is one of the main attractions of the voucher concept — it lets people get indignant about the sorry state of public education by basically assuming the problem away, thus avoiding the need to deal with the real issues.

There are a lot of very good, very smart people thinking through education policy, childhood poverty, etc. Then there are somewhat more shallow people who want to propose a tough-minded solution to the sorry state of inner city education, and they fasten on vouchers (which no evidence has ever suggested will actually solve the problem) or teacher's unions (ditto). Those policies may have some worth. But they are not Answers, no study has ever suggested otherwise, and forcing us into an endless conversation over them is actually bad, so far as I can tell, for the education debate. They do, however, give a certain class of participants a useful club with which to beat on liberals and accuse them of active opposition to the disadvantaged.

October 31, 2007 | Permalink


A certain class of goat-loving participants, Ezra?

On a more serious note, this obsessive focus on things like teachers' unions is sort of a highbrow counterpart to the middle-American obsession with the largely non-existent threat of illegal immigration: see http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/10/everything_sucks_i_blame_mexic.php by Matt Y.

Sorry to thread derail, but the two topics remind me of one another, and they both cause me to lose hope that Americans will be able to stop chasing after their favorite obsessions and address the genuine problems the nation faces.

Posted by: ChristianPinko | Oct 31, 2007 6:11:17 PM

But the beauty of vouchers is that all the white people who fled the schools because they didn't want their kids to go to schools with black kids can now use vouchers to go to the private schools they already go to!

Posted by: Binky | Oct 31, 2007 6:13:33 PM


I don't think that's a derailment at all. They are examples of one strategy, which is to confuse and distract from real issues whenever possible.

Posted by: Stephen | Oct 31, 2007 6:33:12 PM

So, basically, you don't care about vouchers one way or the other, but you're reacting to the incivility and false dichotomy of Megan's posts, and you'd respond similarly if she had opposed vouchers with, for instance, a blanket accusation of racism on the part of voucher proponents? Or are you saying that since vouchers are neither definitively good nor definitively bad for public education in terms of testable outcomes, it's not merely that talking about vouchers is a waste of time, but that we should actively defend the status quo so as to prevent voucher efforts from getting off the ground, which would lead to more debates over the details of policies, and generally suck up more time that could be used for more constructive approaches to improving education?

Basically, if you don't have a position on whether vouchers per se are good or bad policy, but view them as a distraction from actually discussing good policy, then why are you talking about this? (This question should not be interpretted as the imperative: "Stop talking about this!")

Posted by: Julian Elson | Oct 31, 2007 7:55:28 PM

I'd go a step further than Matt... and I suppose further than Ezra, if that's the case - there isn't really anywhere I've seen "the education debate" done in a "serious, comprehensive way." We have a debate about vouchers. We have a debate about testing and NCLB. We have a debate about funding. We have a debate about what we teach. We have a debate about home schooling. We have a debate about teacher training, teacher unions and teacher salaries. What we don't have is a debate that ties these things together, sees why they all are part of a bigger issue, and attempts to address it in a thoughtful way. I've said this for some time. And in terms of the voucher debate (and the home schooling one, too, actually), I come back to one thing (as I said in the McMegan post): 90%. That's the percentage of American kids in public school. The reason I don't think a voucher debate is meaningful is because you can't "voucher out" kids in remotely the numbers that are suggested to make a dent in schools. And it's why, I think the voucher debate is another way of avoiding the debate that would be comprehensive: what we need to the schools we have, not some magical schools that don't exist.

Posted by: weboy | Oct 31, 2007 7:58:41 PM



An interesting survey: http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/images/libimages/148.pdf
Crucially, I have never seen any studies that point to negative effects on education. Given that one of the main reasons for having a free market is that it allows innovation to improve products (generate more value for the same unit cost), this is probably a long-term winner even if studies have not identified better outcomes.

Posted by: Marcin Tustin | Oct 31, 2007 8:06:54 PM

Then why would you continue to allow a "certain class of participants" to keep beating you over the head with it? This post is a pretty hilarious example of "letting the perfect be the enemy of the good" - or at least the not-bad. How does creating a voucher program make you less able to talk about the other issues, especially given that you think vouchers won't solve the problem? Doesn't trying them just give your position more ammunition?

Your position - and Kevin's - has been: vouchers don't solve the problem. Why is that in and of itself a problem? A reasonably-designed voucher program represents a decrease in the amount of government work (need fewer government teachers) and spending (private schools are cheaper than our crappy inner city schools) - even if they do precisely nothing to improve outcomes, how is this not a net gain?

Posted by: Ryan | Oct 31, 2007 8:42:38 PM

Ryan:The common feeling..and this is probably more true than false...is that there's only one bullet in the gun. We're not going to see any sort of ultra-comprehensive bill that combines vouchers AND redoing school funding (Away from local property taxes) AND a rethinking of the goals of education AND finding out what can be doing about the poverty problem, or whatever you think should be done about the education problem.

One bullet. One kick at the can. One chance. So you push for what you think needs to happen, and against the other alternatives.

It's the same thing with the environment or health care or other similar issues. It's a real problem with progressive politics, or at least it's a real problem FOR progressive politics.

Posted by: Karmakin | Oct 31, 2007 9:48:36 PM

The problems you note are unsolvable. Some people are just not good at school. Most of these people who are not good at school are also not good at making money and so will end up poor. Most of their children will inherit their inability to do well in school. Further considering what is taught in school diplomas are more important than what one learns. You will not solve the problems of schools that poor children going to being bad schools with more spending or with vouchers. The goal should be to cut school spending and get the same results. Maybe vouchers would help cut spending but I prefer that we try means testing the Government schools to accomplish this goal. Poor people on average benefit the least from school more spending, so it is better to give them money than to spend more on schools.

Posted by: Floccina | Oct 31, 2007 10:09:13 PM

Floccina does not seek to explain the achievement gap between the US and other developed countries. All the people who are not good at school have somehow ended up as inner-city poor in the US. Interesting, that.

Posted by: Ryan | Oct 31, 2007 10:22:22 PM

Part of the problem is that people don't understand just what vouchers mean. In a voucher system, all the taxes that are currently being paid will continue to be paid. Then every parent will have X amount of dollars worth of credit that can be applied to any school which meets whatever minimum requirements are set up by the voucher program. If it sounds like a bureaucracy would need to be created in order to evaluate schools and keep track of continued standards compliance, there's a reason for that.

So what we're talking about is not a reduction in people drawing a government salary. Instead it's a system for contracting out government services to private entities. You can argue that education outcomes are better that way - it's not true, but you can argue it - but you can't argue that it reduces the number of people being paid by taxes to educate children.

Then there's the laughable idea that private schools are cheaper than public schools. In the real world, almost every private school requires some sort of endowment or institutional support in order to operate, with tuition providing only a portion of what's needed.

So if you think it's irritating now to get a bunch of letters from your college asking you for money, wait until you put your kids in one of those wonderful, ultra-efficient private schools. Once you're in it's weird how open they are about their dire financial situation.

Posted by: Stephen | Oct 31, 2007 10:48:46 PM

"In the real world, almost every private school requires some sort of endowment or institutional support in order to operate, with tuition providing only a portion of what's needed.

And in many cases, they're relying on an enormous amount of social, cultural and fiscal capital -of a kind that has a high rate of return re: mainstream success - being invested in the kid throughout the home environment. Meanwhile, inner-city public schools can't depend on things like: kids having been read to since infancy, kids being adequately nourished, etc.

Interestingly, the one group of private schools identified in that recent study as producing (albeit very narrowly defined) relatively higher achievement are Catholic schools run by holy orders (ie, Jesuits, etc.). If this is accurate, I suspect it has to do with the enormous structure and sense of mission they can bring to bear - something that is pretty hard to replicate on demand, sadly

Posted by: Dan S. | Nov 1, 2007 12:03:30 AM

That is patently false, Stephen. Typically, the voucher advocate will say x amount of dollars is being spend per kid, and it will be some outrageously high amount, $9,000 or $13,000 a year or some such. Then they will note that the cost to the parent placing their child in a private school - say a Catholic private school, is only three or four thousand dollars a year. Maybe six thousand. Then they will propose a voucher for $5,000 to sound reasonable.

In fact, your voucher advocate got their figure by dividing the total school budget by the number of children attending the school, which is a terrible accounting practice. What should be compared is what is spent to educate the typical child in a public school with what is spent to educate them in a private school. No, you can't fold in special education needs kids in, and no, you can't factor in the facilities that only a fraction of the student body will use. That inflates the figures enormously. But I suspect - I'll say it - I know that voucher advocates know this, and simply don't care about the dishonesty.

The other factor is the apples-and-oranges comparison of what is _spent_ per child in a public school, with the _cost_ to the parent to educate their child in a private one. Yes, our prototypical Catholic school with the good outcomes, costs less. But that's at least in part because the building comes rent-free courtesy of the Church, because physical maintenance is done by the Church's custodial staff, because of the large number of volunteers and the volunteer-hours they rack up, etc.

Iow, just as there is no data supporting the notion that private schools promote superior educational outcomes because they are private, there is also little data supporting the idea that they are all that much less expensive. Again, as somebody else as already pointed out, the pro-voucher people are frustratingly vague as to why this would be in the first place. Some handwavy arguments are made about 'administrative costs', and it's true that in some places that is the case. But - again - not because the school is a public school. And that's about all they've got.

Posted by: ScentOfViolets | Nov 1, 2007 12:04:21 AM

Ah, my face is a bit red there, Stephen. I misread your post, in fact 100% backwards. I missed the part about this is what "people think" a voucher program is. My apologies.

Posted by: ScentOfViolets | Nov 1, 2007 12:28:29 AM

In fact, in some areas big public schools systems are almost certainly more cost efficient - economies of scale - although there's a tradeoff in terms of less flexibility, etc. (Although if we're talking anyplace with a largely transient population within the system, uniformity does have some advantages).

One of the cute little experiments I like to imagine (besides giving anti-teacher screechers an inner-city classroom for a week or until they stop showing up, whichever comes first) is what it would look like if a decently high-ranking upscale private school and average poor inner-city school switched student bodies . . .

Posted by: Dan S. | Nov 1, 2007 12:50:37 AM

of course, that should be "big public school [no -s] systems . . ."

Posted by: Dan S. | Nov 1, 2007 12:51:27 AM

If the benefits of vouchers are debatable, then we should exclude vouchers from the debate? I don’t get it. Sure, they don’t solve the root cause problems for the system (in this case, inner city schools); but the system has been flawed for some time and all these smart people working on education policy seem not to have helped.

What I don’t get is the liberal insistence on the status quo. I asked a few days ago why liberals will accept a publicly funded healthcare system delivered privately, but not the same for education. At minimum, a voucher system gives a family who wants to get their kid out of a crappy school the option to do so. And while this may not improve their test scores, it can improve their education.

Posted by: DM | Nov 1, 2007 1:16:08 AM

One of the obvious problems with vouchers is transportation. It actually makes tons of sense if most of the students in a given town go to the closest school. You can have one public bus system that will be in charge of a small area's students and bring them to the near by school.
But vouchers sever the link between community and school. Now students are going to schools that are physically much more dispersed. Most communities can only support one or two high schools, so if parents want choices they will have to send their kids to a school that is farther away. If a given student wants to go to a high school two towns over, he or she would have to find some way to get there. That is fine if you are 16 and your parents can buy you a car, but most public school students aren’t of driving age, and anyway vouchers are supposed to benefit poorer families, most of whom can’t afford a car for every child.
The state could step in and create a public bus system that tried to bring students to each school, but that would create a whole bunch of its own problems. Ironically the more options students had, the less efficient the system would be. In other words if one school was attracting students from 5 different communities, then that school would need a bus that was responsible for an area 5 times the size of the older pre-voucher system. Instead of having one bus system for each small area, you would have multiple bus systems each serving the same larger area, but bringing students to different end locations. Now, the journey is significantly longer for every student, since each bus may have to make stops that are very far away from each other. It would be a total mess.
And it just plain wouldn’t work in rural areas where students already have to travel too far to get to school.
Basically school choice is only a meaningful slogan for A. the rich who can buy their kids cars or have their chauffeurs drive them before they're 16 and B. students in a handful of urban areas with great public transportation. And of course if libertarians have their way, we won’t have great public transportation anyways.

Posted by: Peter W. | Nov 1, 2007 2:16:11 AM

I have a little psychological theory of my own. Could it be that liberal opposition to vouchers stems from a view of the education system as an apparatus for indoctrination as well as education?

racial/economic diversity quotas, classes in leftwing moral theory and the like would be much harder to acheive in an education system with vouchers. If schools have to compete for students they will be forced to offer syllabuses that cater to parents wishes and not those of starry eyed social reformers.

Posted by: pimp hand strikes! | Nov 1, 2007 4:08:27 AM

I have a little psychological theory of my own. Could it be that right wing stomping for vouchers stems from a view of the education system as an apparatus for indoctrination as well as education?

Posted by: Gray | Nov 1, 2007 5:05:16 AM

"I have a little psychological theory of my own. Could it be that liberal opposition to vouchers stems from a view of the education system as an apparatus for indoctrination as well as education?"


This has been another installment of simple answers to simple questions.

Posted by: jmack | Nov 1, 2007 6:26:12 AM

I want to know if charter/private schools have to adhere to NCLB if they accept voucher money. Does anyone know?

I do know that in Ohio, charter schools are not as regulated as are public schools. Also, one reason that public schools cost so much(in addition to frequent mismanagement by administrations) is that there are a lot of kids who qualify for Special Ed. There are also a lot of city kids with 70-85 IQs out there. A lot of it, IMO, is environmental. They don't qualify for much help, but they can't really follow a regular ed curriculum. What is the answer?

Posted by: mollycoddle | Nov 1, 2007 6:43:28 AM

"This has been another installment of simple answers to simple questions."
Hehehe jmack!

Posted by: Gray | Nov 1, 2007 7:31:14 AM

Curiously, the incomparable George Will at Washington Post is blovating on this issue, with reference to a vote in Utah for school vouchers: seems that mean ole progressives oppose it. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/31/AR2007103102549.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

You can read it, but my shorter George Will is: 'Defunding public education to subsidize the Private education industry and breaking the teacher's unions are the most pressing educational issues of the day."
And as usual, he's having a new nether orifice torn in comment. Y'all have a nice All Souls day.

Posted by: MR. Bill | Nov 1, 2007 7:46:47 AM

> Floccina does not seek to explain the achievement
> gap between the US and other developed countries.

Other developed countries haven't outsourced their entire craft and physical economies to China. France, Germany, etc. all use tariffs and barriers to keep a certain percentage of skilled and unskilled manual work within their borders - and although it isn't said explicitly I have to think that this is done in part to absorb the people who don't fit into a classroom environment but have other abilities and skills they can use to earn a living.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Nov 1, 2007 7:50:48 AM

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