Thursday, December 18, 2008

more on vouchers and our tradition of public education

Freddie has a post up in defense of public schools--a defense I share--which has got me thinking again about the entire subject. Freddie believes the entire debate has been skewed by misrepresentations of the failures (or lack thereof) of the public school system.
As someone who is an ardent supporter of public education, and a committed opponent of vouchers, one of the most frustrating aspects of the conversation is the amount of work done by completely unfounded and unsupported notions about widespread public school failure. Simply put, a huge difficulty in our discussion on education is really paralyzing lack of reliable data on which schools are succeeding and which are failing. We just don't know, really, how many school districts are reliably good, how many reliably bad, and we really don't know about individual school quality within those districts.
Mark Thompson weighs in, arguing that the questions being asked-, and really the entire framework of the debate--is all wrong:
Importantly, changing the debate to focus on the question of "how much control do we give individual parents over their child's education" avoids the moral absolutism and elitism that comes with the existing debate, which makes it difficult to discuss on terms that all sides understand. Instead, changing the debate puts us all on something of a sliding scale in which individuals are forced to recognize the complexity of the issue.
But I think Mark is entirely off-base with this. First of all, is it really a new angle, or is it merely reworking the issue to once again make this about school choice, which has been the modern conservative argument all along? Does this actually level the debate, as Mark suggests, or does it simply skew the question in favor of the presupposed conservative case? Mark's take undermines the larger question, which is simply this: do we want, as a nation, to maintain our tradition of a robust public school system or don't we?

We can't have it both ways. Vouchers will kill the public school system, I have no doubt. They will take an under-funded system and cut funding further. I wrote on this before, and stick by what I said, regarding the effects of vouchers:

First, public schools will face budget cuts, layoffs. Students will have a harder time taking "unnecessary" subjects like history, art, theatre, music, etc. This will have a long-term effect of dumbing down America and making it more difficult for us to compete in the global economy.

Second, it will cause private schools to raise their tuition rates. There will be more money in the hands of people who can already afford to send their kids to school, so the schools will have no qualm, and no reason not to raise the cost of attendance. (This is why a need-based "grant" system might work better, though even that could cause the price of private school to go up. Just look at college tuition. Direct funding of colleges rather than easy-loans and easy-grants would keep tuition and debt lower).

Third, it might lead to the opening of new private schools ... but if everyone is going to private school, then I imagine we'll see a very similar decline in quality that we've seen in public schools. The low end of the scale will be the least funded--perhaps solely paid for by vouchers, and populated largely by the lowest achievers. The high end will also be paid for by vouchers, but its tuition will be higher, so more private money will inundate these schools. The gap will be similar to what it is today, only now people will not have the safety net of the public school system, and that will be a great loss.

So the question to me is not to what degree parents have choice over their kids' education. As Freddie writes in the comments:
Now, if you decide you want to send your kid to a private school, go right ahead. But you can't have public money to do it, just like you can't take "your share" of public money to use a private subway, or a private fire department, or a private police force, or a private military, or a private water department. Sorry. It just doesn't work that way.
Parents already do have choice, but the choice is not about their tax dollars. They can spend their own money however they want, but they're still required to contribute to the public coffers. This is not "socialism" -- it's community. And giving people the choice to no longer contribute even that small amount to their community is not a course that America should take.


Mark said...

E.D. - I just stumbled across this. It's not worth rehashing the debate we had at my site, which I think we both agree was worthwhile.
I just wanted to let you know that I added you to our blogroll after I saw you had done the same. I look forward to additional worthwhile debate in the future!

E.D. Kain said...

Mark, indeed--great debate and there's probably time for a second round but not today, I agree!

Thanks for the blogroll add! All the best.

Mark said...

One last things that just occurred to me. One of the central points I was trying to make was that recasting the debate need not favor one side or the other. Perhaps the best proof I can think of for this is the fact that one of my preferred solutions (maybe even my most preferred solution) is something fairly close to what NYC schools are currently putting in place, which does not involve vouchers at all but instead creates a situation where "the funding follows the student" within the context of the public school system. As I understand it, it's something of a school choice program - but limited to choosing the public school that works best for your child. A central part of this program is that it also gives principals greater control of the curriculum (while also giving them greater responsibility when things go wrong).

E.D. Kain said...

Interesting notion, Mark. I'll have to look into the NYC program. I imagine it could have some of the same pitfalls of the voucher system, but at least it would (to some extent) bring into play reasonable competition.

Then again, I think at the heart of much of this must be a discussion on where that funding comes from and the inequities therein...

Mark said...

The NY program actually tries to account for inequities in funding, by creating a formula based on a parent's resources, whether the child is a special needs student, etc.
There is of course something inherently problematic with reducing everything to a formula, but at least it tries to acknowledge the differing needs of different families and students.