Friday, April 20, 2007

Thoughts on vouchers

Following up on my recent post, in which Jay Mathews praises vouchers but then dismisses them, I wanted to share the critique below, which I agree with, and add my own thoughts.
Mathews goes on to say that “the two major political parties find it very hard to drop the voucher issue,” because “they can raise money on that issue forever, while in the meantime not doing much for schools.” 

This is absurd.  School choice is no fundraising issue.  School choice is being driven by people who believe it will save children and money while improving education across the board.  Lawmakers who support school choice, especially Democrats, are siding with principle and risking the wrath of the educational industrial complex.  With a monopoly on education, control of school boards, and forced dues, the big education unions have a lot more money to throw around during election season than school choice activists. 

Mathews may be tired of the voucher issue, but I think a little more reporting on school choice might do justice to his vocation as a journalist.

I don't think vouchers are a magic bullett, but when it comes to school systems like Newark or Washington DC, I fall into the "by any means necessary" camp.  Why not take one of those Newark high schools, in which 50% of students are dropping out in 9th grade and only 5% graduate, shut it down, and give every child a $10,000 voucher (HALF what is being spent now for utter failure)?  I don't know for sure what would happen, but I'm quite sure the outcomes couldn't possibly be worse than what's happening now!!! 
Cory Booker and supporters like E3 are essentially pushing for this right now, trying to get the Urban Schools Scholarship Act passed in the NJ state legislature, which, via corporate tax credits, would make education vouchers -- what I call "exit visas from hell" -- available to low-income families with children in failing schools.  Given the state of schools in Newark, Camden, Trenton, etc., who in their right minds would oppose this, if only as an experiment?
I think voucher opponents miss some of the power of vouchers.  There are four powerful arguments for them (for more on this, see my slides at:
1) A moral imperative.  Forget the systemic arguments.  What do you say to a parent with a child trapped in a dangerous school where no learning is taking place?  "We know the school your child attends is a disaster -- and has been a disaster for the past 20 years -- but we have a new reform plan (the 20th in the past 20 years) that we hope might work (all evidence and common sense to the contrary), so please be patient."  If I had a child in such a school and someone said that to me, I'd hit them over the head with a 2x4!
Jay Mathews captures it nicely:
I could not think of a single thing to say that would not leave me feeling guilty and deceitful. The usual argument against vouchers---that they drain needed funds from the public system---would make no sense to that mom. She was entitled to a good public education, but her local school was terrible, so the government had not kept its promise. I could not in good conscience argue that she should sacrifice her child’s education, and his future, so that DCPS could continue to spend its tax dollars on inadequate schools.
2) Better education for the students who use the vouchers.  See my slides for data on this, but it's obvious that if vouchers are only made available to students currently at the worst schools imaginable, then at least some of them will end up at better schools -- even mediocre schools would be a huge step forward!
3) I'm so sick of hearing the nonsense about how the students "left behind" will be harmed by vouchers (or charter schools for that matter).  I've never seen any evidence to support this, but common sense and quite a bit of evidense (see my last three slides) tell us that, when faced with competition and loss of students (i.e., loss of jobs for teachers, administrators and bureaucrats), failing public schools DO respond.  Why this isn't obvious to everyone is beyond me.
4) Vouchers change the political debate.  NOTHING terrifies the entrenched forces of the status quo more than vouchers, so when you're engaged in brutal negotiations and facing huge opposition to even simple, obvious things like lifting the cap on charter schools and/or funding them properly, extending the school day, eliminating onerous work rules, allowing differential pay to attract and reward top teachers, making it easier to remove highly ineffective teachers, etc., why not put vouchers on the table and, even if you have to capitulate on this point, maybe you can get something for it?
Related to #3 and #4, vouchers also change the debate at the school level.  One friend spoke with a public school principal in Milwaukee, which has the longest running, most widespread voucher program of any city in the nation.  The principal told him: "I'm not a supporter of the voucher program, but they're sure helpful when I'm negotiating work rules with my teachers -- I use vouchers as a bogeyman."

Jay Mathews, education reporter for the Washington Post, urges everyone to drop the voucher issue because:

1. “I am tired of the voucher issue.”

Mathews may feel like he’s had to write about vouchers too much, but most of the public hasn’t heard a thing about them, and certainly doesn’t know much about education tax credits, which get far less coverage and are usually called “vouchers” by journalists covering the education beat in any case.

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