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November 05, 2007

More on Vouchers

I sort of think the voucher argument has devolved into "but don't you know that markets are awesome!?" and that further continuation should actually require some evidence from school systems, rather than arguments derived from worn sticky note in freshman economics textbooks. That said, four quick points:

1) Markets fail. Governments fail. In any given policy debate, you'll have to decide which failure will be worse. But no, it is not the case, or near it, that all markets learn from failure and eventually right themselves. What markets do is either make the selling of a good profitable, or run those who can't make it profitable out of business. The profit motive is what drives markets. But profitability of schools is not our objective in education. The incentives are grievously misaligned.

2) You could, of course, align them. You could allow broad experimentation tied to public accountability. That's what charter schools are. The idea that we'd prefer to end all accountability and instead say, "here are our kids, go make some money," is fucking crazy. Which school wins in that competition? The one that develops good results? The one the kids like? The one that most effectively courts the parents? The one that does the best job cream-skimming? The one that most closely conforms to the parent's view of how old the earth is, or which deity sits on which cloud? Effective markets require effective information, weighed by capable decision makers. The first step in any discussion of market-based education reforms must be to detail what information will be collected, how it will be distributed, and how that will help children. The reality has been, like in Milwaukee, that voucher schools have often resisted any efforts to collect data or submit to testing.

3) Meanwhile, vouchers have returned just about no positive results. The data is, at best, inconclusive. That's why Megan is arguing that their repeated failures are actually a virtue (though it's a little unclear to me what sort of innovation she thinks public schools are barred from). On the other hand, reduced class sizes have shown positive empirical results. Yet, somehow, all these folks so deeply concerned with privatizing education -- for the children, mind you, not merely to sate the Ghost of Milton Friedman -- don't expend an ounce of effort advocating for them. Puzzling.

4) And just about all the evidence suggests that the schooling is far less important than the environment, than the level of poverty, than the nutrition, than the resources, than the time spent with involved parents. But the less said about the Right's interest in the economic situation of the urban underclass, the better. You want higher achievement in our schools, though? Implement this. Unlike vouchers, the policies here actually work.

November 5, 2007 in Education | Permalink

Comments

And just about all the evidence suggests that the schooling is far less important than the environment, than the level of poverty, than the nutrition, than the resources, than the time spent with involved parents.

There are a lot of people in this country who, perhaps without ever really reaching the decision consciously, have nevertheless figured out that in their education they have a certain comparative advantage, and one they can pass on to their kids, only if the present very uneven distribution of quality public education in this country remains very uneven.

They're not necessarily bad people -- just not able, or willing, to distinguish between only wanting the best for your kids, and wanting the best for only your kids.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Nov 5, 2007 11:45:45 AM

‘The incentives are grievously misaligned.”

You’ve used this term before, I believe, in the healthcare discussion, but with healthcare, you’re still willing to espouse a model where the service is financed publicly while delivered privately. You’ve said before that you’re not in support of a UK/NHS model where financing and delivery are both public, yet with education, you are. I’m interested in understanding why? Is it just a matter that public/public is the status quo in education? Do you think public education is better delivered through public entities?

Posted by: DM | Nov 5, 2007 11:46:45 AM

Same old story: abortion is bad, life is sacred. Until the baby is born, then root hog or die.

Schools are bad, markets are sacred. Until the learning is measured non-learning is unmeasured and the kids can't get a job without skills and knowledge, then the refrain is we didn't give the marketplace a chance to work because it was held to some accountability standard that interferred with the market.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Nov 5, 2007 11:48:04 AM

"Which school wins in that competition? The one that develops good results? The one the kids like? The one that most effectively courts the parents? The one that does the best job cream-skimming? The one that most closely conforms to the parent's view of how old the earth is, or which deity sits on which cloud?"

if you change the second word from school to politican isn't the statement just as true? I would trust my ability to choose a good school for my child over any elected politican. If you can't trust a parent to make a wise decision on schooling their kid should we trust them with electing politicans or even having kids? I find the notion that someone would trust a politican with the decisions before they trust themselves scary. With all the political coruption going on who really believes the kids best interest comes first?

Posted by: Nate O | Nov 5, 2007 11:55:08 AM

I think private entities should not be the primary insurers, but I'm pessimistic as to our ability to marginalize them on health care. So I look for next-best solutions. That's not the case with education, where the primary providers are public, and should remain that way. I think charters -- which sort of combine public and private models -- are a good thing, though.

Posted by: Ezra | Nov 5, 2007 11:57:04 AM

DM,

Could you please actually describe what you think a private/public education system based upon healthcare would look like? I don't see any connections that can be drawn between two completely different industries. Healthcare simply isn't education, so you tell us how it would work.

Further, Ezra and others have pointed out, over and over and over and over and over and over and over, the various experiments with vouchers and charter schools and the studies which have sought to compile all the relevant data. The data goes back for decades, and there is no evidence at all that "market solutions" work any better than public schools, and lots of evidence that they don't work as well.

Frankly, I don't understand what it is you think people have been holding back.

I think charters -- which sort of combine public and private models -- are a good thing, though.

Urgh. Charters are a terrible idea for the same reason vouchers are. They simply don't do any good.

Posted by: Stephen | Nov 5, 2007 11:59:23 AM

DM and NateO remind us that no matter how clearly and cogently you explain the differences between markets and actual provision of goods and services, between a theoretical "free market" and the actuality of limited information, time, and money that makes markets *not work* for the poor or the ill informed--there will always be people dopey enough to continue to parrot political and economic theories they don't understand in favor of policies that would actually harm them and their children. It never fails. We keep having the same conversation over and over again about both health care and education and yet these rubes never learn.

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Nov 5, 2007 12:23:50 PM

"4) And just about all the evidence suggests that the schooling is far less important than the environment, than the level of poverty, than the nutrition, than the resources, than the time spent with involved parents. But the less said about the Right's interest in the economic situation of the urban underclass, the better. You want higher achievement in our schools, though? Implement this. Unlike vouchers, the policies here actually work. "

There you have it. Better to spend less on schooling and introduce an hourly wage subsidy.

The benefits from smaller classes is very small. People would score slightly better on these standarized tests. It will have even less effect on the rest of people's lives than on the test scores.

Also most of teh benefits of education are relative. ALL CHILDREN CANNOT BE ABOVE AVERAGE!

No more money for schools. It will help nothing!

Posted by: Floccina | Nov 5, 2007 12:25:34 PM

You’ve said before that you’re not in support of a UK/NHS model where financing and delivery are both public, yet with education, you are. I’m interested in understanding why? Is it just a matter that public/public is the status quo in education? Do you think public education is better delivered through public entities?

A fine example of ideologically driven thinking. No thought at all given to the fundamental differences between education and healthcare, much less any consideration of the fact that differing circumstances are likely to require different solutions. Just the assumption that markets are the panacea for all ills. The irony of implying that Ezra is motivated by an allegiance to public entities over private is a thick one and apparently unrecognized by the author.

I would trust my ability to choose a good school for my child over any elected politican. If you can't trust a parent to make a wise decision on schooling their kid should we trust them with electing politicans or even having kids? I find the notion that someone would trust a politican with the decisions before they trust themselves scary. With all the political coruption going on who really believes the kids best interest comes first?

I'd suspect the author has no practical experience with sales, marketing or advertizing, except that his parting shot about political corruption is precisely the sort of emotionally driven mis-direction that such fields thrive on. One could just as easily argue that in the age of Enron style scams and credit market meltdowns who really believes that kid's best interest would come first in the hands of private industry?

Posted by: WB Reeves | Nov 5, 2007 12:30:24 PM

Also most of teh benefits of education are relative. ALL CHILDREN CANNOT BE ABOVE AVERAGE!

Where has anyone suggested otherwise? Unless you think you have a foolproof method of determining, in advance, which children will be "above average" and which will not it's difficult to see your point.

Unless it's simply that you oppose public education and any argument, however specious, will do.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Nov 5, 2007 12:36:23 PM

"Unless it's simply that you oppose public education and any argument, however specious, will do."

Ding ding ding! I think we have a winner!

"No more money for schools. It will help nothing!

No more uninformed comments like that, please. They help nothing!

Posted by: Dan S. | Nov 5, 2007 12:50:38 PM

They simply don't do any good

They make people happier. That, in and of itself, is a good thing, from the perspective of the municipal government, who doesn't have to worry about the parents moving away.

I really don't think you appreciate how ruinous a bad school environment can be to a family. If going to a charter school, while not producing any striking academic improvements, makes a child happier and keeps a family from moving to a different school district, then the policy "wins."

No more money for schools. It will help nothing!

I can accept this premise if you accept the insight someone made right here on this blog not too long ago: schools are extremely good at educating people who are healthy, well-fed, and have enough stable living space to work alone on their schoolwork at home. Thus, the best academic gains can be achieved by ensuring that all people have the latter, turning them into students that the school system is trained to educate.

Posted by: Tyro | Nov 5, 2007 12:56:33 PM

WB Reeves;

"I'd suspect the author has no practical experience with sales, marketing or advertizing"

Director of Marketing for roughly 5 years now, salesman before that, is that practical enough? Might not be a great salesman but good enough to make a living at it all these years.

How many people lost money on Enron? few hundred thousand? maybe a million shareholders? How many people had money in the stock market and didn't lose money on Enron, tens of millions. Individual people will always make bad decisions. Majority of people when given the freedom will not make such poor decisions. The problem with liberals and their public schools is you rather see everyone lose a little money on Enron then a small percentage lose a lot. This is why your perfectly happy with large school districts having 40% graduation rates. Everyone is suffering so it fair universal sufferage. Vouchers would allow a percent of those 60% failing to move to a new system and have a chance to succed. Will all 60% now graduate of course not, will even 30% do better doubtful. But what about the 10% that could? You rather tie them into a failing system and not even give them the opportuntiy to get out. Your chasing equal outcomes not equal opportunity. That's the difference between us, conservatives think everyone should have an equal opportunity Liberals want equal outcomes, ala Edwards New Deal. Plain and simple that is what it boils down to.

Posted by: Nate O | Nov 5, 2007 1:03:15 PM

Aimai, is the rube the person who supports a failed system turning out uneducated children in the name of social advancement or the one who tries to change the system. Take the 50 worst performing school districts then after it put the initial of the party that runs it. At most you see 1-2 Rs. Conservatives are eduacating our kids, you don't see mid america and the rural areas with the education problems of DC, Philly, Detroit, Cleveland, LA, etc etc. You will have all sorts of excuses but at the end of the day it's your ideals failing our kids.

Posted by: Nate O | Nov 5, 2007 1:08:08 PM

And just about all the evidence suggests that the schooling is far less important than the environment, than the level of poverty, than the nutrition, than the resources, than the time spent with involved parents.

Spot on. All the bloviating about 'how our schools are failing' is a distraction from some of the real issues with getting an education, which you've correctly identified as being based in poverty...But being poor has been identified by some on the right as a moral failing instead of a fault in US-style capitalism...Therefore - other than saying that poor folk need to get to church and stop choosing to be poor - the MegArdles of our country target that which they find most offensive to their ideological sensibilities: Teachers' unions and a big government education program.

Not to say things are perfect in our public school system - there needs to be continuous improvement in they ways we educate - but the problems go deeper than what occurs within the schoolhouse.

Posted by: grape_crush | Nov 5, 2007 1:09:29 PM

The question of the relative success or failure of charter schools is to me totally irrelevant.

It is our responsibility to provide a functional public education to all of our children. Charter schools, vouchers and all other Republican schemes are nothing but a way to evade that responsibility, and in the process to see to it that that the children of the well off have a better start in life than the children of the poor.

This is a moral issue, not one of efficacy. It is one more piece of evidence that the right's claims of moral superiority are self-serving lies.
We should not allow the discussion to devolve into a debate about which system provides a marginal increase in test scores. This is part of a much larger issue- our responsibility to our fellow man. Conservatives have abandoned that responsibility, and they cannot win that fight.

Posted by: Carl from L.A. | Nov 5, 2007 1:10:10 PM

While I don't necessarily agree with Carl abot this being a moral issue (it strikes me what we've got here is a practical one no matter where one's morals go), he does seem to make the most salient point: the problem with the voucher argument is really not what Ezra's suggesting. The problem with it is that we have, through various government mandates and a societal determination, an educational system that supposed to deliver something to everyone. Vouchers can't fix the system as a whole; thus the discussion of them as some sort of "solution" is a small one in the context of a broader conversation on education. And the problem with the "education debate" is that we're not having that broader conversation, but using things like vouchers, "school choice," home schooling, and other too-small-to- be-the-solution solutions as proxies for a discussion no one, really, wants to have. Because what we need to do fix schools - spend money, hire, train and retain good teachers, etc - are expensive, long term, and time consuming. I'm opposed to vouchers mainly because they're a distraction. If we want better education for large numbers of kids - and we should - then we need to figure out how to do that, not vouchers.

Posted by: weboy | Nov 5, 2007 1:21:29 PM

Carl, I can understand how, in a small town of 2000 people, we can talk about our "individual responsibility" to prove a public education to children in our community. However, there simply isn't any practical way to view "my community" as existing outside of roughly the 10 square miles outside my door. While, for moral and patriotic reasons I feel a need to ensure that everyone has access to a good education, I simply can't be compelled to care about the schools on the opposite end of the city in the same way I care about the school down the street from me. And since I do care that the individuals become education but don't care as much about the social environment, individual needs of the teachers, etc., as I do about my own community (I can't! I just don't have the capacity or the time or the interest!), I can be willing to support people leaving their local public school in favor of a charter school or even a voucher school if their community isn't providing a good academic environment for
them. I think vouchers (which i'm skeptical of but could grudgingly accept) and charter schools (which i have no problem with) are an acknowledgment that some "communities" are too large to address the individual needs of students when it comes to an academic environment.

When your "local public school" is 3000 students, what "community" is there to care about it? And why would "the community" care about addressing the needs of a small group for whom this might not be the best environment?

Posted by: Tyro | Nov 5, 2007 1:21:50 PM

We're a world-leader in one area of schooling-- our colleges. And here we've found a way to help finance educations at church-affiliated schools like Notre Dame. We may not be able to make our grammar schools function exactly like our colleges, but there are plenty of lessons we can learn.

Posted by: withrow | Nov 5, 2007 1:23:42 PM

"The profit motive is what drives markets. But profitability of schools is not our objective in education. The incentives are grievously misaligned. "

This is true if the parents are paying out of there own pockets. See Sylban learning centers etc. The parents will get what they want or move the child to another provider. If I send my child to guitar lessons and he does not learn to play I will not keep sending him to the same teacher.
One of problems is that the goal is often not a set of things that the child should learn but that he get into some other next school (this relies on him do well relative to others).

Posted by: Floccina | Nov 5, 2007 1:25:35 PM

When discussing how Americans can get hold of healthy, sustainable, cheap food it might be worth mentioning first that currently meat and sugar are the only industries heavily subsidized... These industries use chemical fertilizers and pesticides and are not sustainable.

In other words - it is useless to claim that organic fruits cannot be delivered to all by the market alone without context.

It might be useful to claim that given the current status quo of bad government spending and distortion - the market is inefficient. But that does NOT mean that the only way to get more organic quality is to invest even more government spending? Given existing government spending the only way may be more or different government spending. But one can make this claim for free markets too.

Vouchers are not free markets. They are an attempt to balance the disadvantages of the current statist system.

But I do agree with the implication that more education is not better education. That what we teach is at least as important as how and to whom... that more spending does not equal more skills, etc. In other words - a big part of the challenge has nothing to do with who operates and pays for education (public or private).

Given the many answers one can find on the Internet - we should try to teach children how to question more? That the team might not be as important as the sport itself? How can we do that?

Posted by: Hugo Pottisch | Nov 5, 2007 1:25:58 PM

withrow, our elite high schools are as impressive as our elite universities. However, universities in general have plenty of similar problems of high drop-out rates.

There are three differences-- universities don't have to educate everyone, the students want to go there, and there is a massive supply of intelligent, highly-qualified people desperate to teach there. On each of these points, the public school system faces the exact opposite issue.

Posted by: Tyro | Nov 5, 2007 1:27:05 PM

Nate O | Nov 5, 2007 1:03:15 PM: Liberals want equal outcomes, ala Edwards New Deal.

Actually, I want each kid to have an equal shot to make it in America, which means equal beginnings, not outcomes, which no one can guarantee.

Nate O | Nov 5, 2007 1:08:08 PM: ..you don't see mid america and the rural areas with the education problems of DC, Philly, Detroit, Cleveland, LA, etc etc.

Then Mississippi and Alabama should be near the top of this list, right? They're largely conservative and rural demographically...

Posted by: grape_crush | Nov 5, 2007 1:27:25 PM

The basic problem with the libertarian belief in markets is that libertarians seem to assume that markets self-correct according to ethical rather than purely fiscal rules. A secondary problem with the libertarian assumptions in the voucher situation is the assumption that vouchers magically place schools in fair comptition with each other.

With vouchers, a small subset of the students at a given school get choice. The marginal cost of educating those students is quite small, but the amount of money they take out of the school is quite large. Meanwhile, the private schools that manage to attract the voucher students reap a windfall -- the marginal cost of educating those additional students is small, but the additional influx of cash is quite large. This shift of resources makes is harder for public schools to compete with private schools, and actually _reduces_ the pressure on public schools to improve efficiency--they get more money and a weakened opponent each time. All the private schools have to do is keep persuading the public that private schools are better, which is easy because the public already believes it, and keep pressuring politicians to allow vouchers, and they reap windfall profits, all the while screwing over the kids in the public schools who can't afford to switch to private schools.

Posted by: Galen | Nov 5, 2007 1:33:48 PM

withrow,

when I (who generally disagrees with vouchers) read this post, I too thought "well, come to think of it, we do this sort of thing with colleges, and it works like gangbusters". Except does it really work?

True, our colleges are top notch, and serve our society by turning out future leaders, professionals and those who generate culture and technology. And they, along with gov. ran labs, conduct research* which, after appropriation by for-profit entities, saves lives, etc.

But does everyone really need a college education? We only need so many chefs: too many spoil the broth and we need short order cooks as well. Our colleges do well training the chefs and perhaps even the cooks need a college education to be good citizens of a democratic republic. But our system fails at actually training people with practical knowledge at an advanced level. Do we really wanna have this failure also occur in providing kids with basic education by making primary and secondary schools have the same de facto voucher system that colleges have?

* which would be hard to fully privatize as research oftentimes reduces to a bunch of monkeys (I know ... I am one of those monkeys) typing at a keyboard and eventually producing the works of Shakespeare ... unless you have all those monkeys typing, you don't get the results you want and need ... but paying for all those monkeys is not something a for-profit entity would rationally do.

Posted by: DAS | Nov 5, 2007 1:37:28 PM

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