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Seriously, Folks: School Voucher Proponents Need to Get Real

PJM Debate: The debate between Laura McKenna and Megan McArdle over school vouchers rages on into its third day. Today, McKenna explains why the theory that vouchers will give birth to lots of new shiny high-quality private schools just doesn't work.

by
Laura McKenna

Bio

November 9, 2007 - 1:00 am

If we’re going to talk about the problems about public education, let’s be more specific. The problem isn’t with suburban schools. Most suburban parents are fairly satisfied with their schools. In fact, suburban communities are solidly against school vouchers, even in predominantly Republican areas.

So, what Megan is arguing for is a limited voucher program aimed at urban school kids.

I’m four square in favor of any and all desperate reform efforts for urban schools. Megan refers to the schools in New York City. But she would do better far better referring to schools in Camden, Philadelphia, or Detroit. Schools in these areas have long abandoned any hope of education and are merely warehouses for the youth until they age out of the system.

I agree with Megan that systemic education reform ain’t happening any time soon. There have been some interesting findings that good principals and administrators can make a difference in poor communities, but there haven’t been any real efforts to toss out the bad administrators.

So, let’s have a limited voucher program for urban kids. It will help a few kids with parents who know how to deal with paperwork. It’s not going to help the kid who’s sleeping on his friend’s sofa, because him mom’s on crack again.

Kids in these urban areas have such a raw deal educationally, that I can’t even be bothered to care about church/state problems. If there’s a somewhat-adequate parochial school down the block, let that kid with the active parents use it.

But what about everybody else? There are only so many Catholic schools in inner city areas. They only have the room to accommodate to a small proportion of the kids in the public school system.

Well, the voucher advocates always say, vouchers will lead to the rise of new, shiny private schools that will gladly accept the $7,000 that will come with the voucher. Where there’s money and demand, the product will come, they say. The problem is that the money is not sufficient and neither is the demand.

It’s bloody expensive to open a new urban school. Construction costs. Permits. The teamsters. Parking. Renting space from another facility is still a very expensive proposition. If these private school were going to open, they would need more than a per student voucher. They would need a butt-load of start up cash.

Even if the building problem magically goes away, breaking even is still unlikely. The only way to break even with $5 – 7,000 is if you have packed classrooms. The church schools are able to function with low tuition levels and small classes, because they are subsidized by the church, and they pay the nuns nothing.

To fill all those seats in the classroom, all the kids in a community would have to be eligible for vouchers and also use them. A education venture capitalist couldn’t make it in a community that had a competing public school system that drew away 50% of the population.

Hardcore voucher proponents from the 80s and 90s have moved on to other issues, because of political and economic obstacles. Their new hope is online education.

And then there’s the demand problem. One of the problems that urban, public school teachers have is trying to get the students and their families to care about education. Few parents bother to show up for parent-teacher conferences. For many, the school thing is one more burden on an already complicated life. They aren’t rallying in the streets for vouchers, and it’s unlikely that this policy is going to make any difference in their lives.

As to Megan’s claim that private schools have popped up to serve the needs of kids with special needs, all I have to say is mwahahahaha. There are some private schools for autistic kids, but they very, very, very expensive. There are waiting lists. They are only for kids with the most severe problems. There aren’t enough of them. I have no idea what we would do with my son, if we didn’t have his public school program. Court decisions have done far more to improve special education in America than the existence of private programs.

Because of these problems, I just don’t see urban school vouchers helping more than a handful of kids. Still, I think those handful of kids should have a shot, so I’m not strongly against them. I’m just not strongly for them either. There’s a finite pool of political energy. I would like to see other creative ideas batted around.

While public school advocates sit around waiting for the magic school reform, the voucher people sit around waiting for the magic private schools. And I don’t feel like waiting around anymore.

Laura McKenna is a political science professor who lives in New Jersey. She blogs at 11D

THURSDAY, Megan McArdle wrote:

I once saw a comedian doing a bit about some blues musician. “I have all thirteen of his albums,” said the comedian. “As far as I can tell, he’s having some trouble with his woman.”

Audience roar.

“I keep buying each new album,” continued the comedian, “thinking ‘This time it’s going to be different. This is going to be the happy album. This is going to be where he gets it all together.’ I just downloaded his fourteenth album tonight.”

Audience chuckle. Long pause.

“He’s still having some trouble with his woman.”

This, in a nutshell, is the point I am at with public school reform. Every time I bring up vouchers, I am told that vouchers are a distraction from *fixing the system* or that they will destroy *the system* or that they will drain away the money we need to use the master plan that these very serious education policy wonks over here, much more serious and intelligent than stupid simplistic libertarians, have to overcome all the previous failures of *the system*. Just wait! The happy album’s coming out from Sony on October 15th . . .

I think it’s time to acknowlege that the system cannot be fixed from inside. No inner city school district has managed to do it. A few districts, largely New York, have managed to neatly arrange things so that affluent parents in Manhattan and a few parts of the outer boroughs can siphon off the cream of the school system, diverting the best teachers and so forth to the schools that serve them. Those affluent schools do drag a few poorer kids along with the wealthier ones, so this gives the parents the happy feeling that the system works. They, of course, do not wander out to East New York to see what happens when no one on the PTA has the knowledge or connections to work the system.

Those kids–the overwhelming *majority* of kids in the New York City school system–live in a very different system: one in which the other tragedies of their lives are exacerbated by an incompetent system that pays them little attention. That system fails at every level, but most importantly, it fails as a system. The problem isn’t the teacher’s unions, or the school boards, or the district offices, or the principals, or the ideology about curriculum . . . or rather, the problem is that all of these things are problems, locked in a poisonous relationship with each other. When systems become this sick, they rarely heal. The fundamental problem with all of these very serious, worthy, possibly even accurate, plans among the education establishment is that they have to first assume a successful political and administrative environment, where their plans will not be hijacked to the benefit of the teachers, or administrators, or corrupt district officials, or the school nurse–or actively sabotaged by an establishment that would rather not change, thank you very much, and look! my contract says we don’t have to.

The fundamental problem with the school, and the difference between it and the affluent schools (even in the same district), is that the parents are not the customers. They are the most weakly organized group of all the school’s constituencies, and moreover, the group that is least connected within the bureaucracy and the political establishment. A number of parents in Manhattan think that public schools can work for poor kids in the city because their own school works despite a high percentage of poor kids. Having attended one of those higher performing public schools myself, I think they miss the crucial difference: the customers of their school are the middle class parents. The school district wants to keep them in order to boost tax support for schools, the principle wants to keep them to raise test scores, and everyone is afraid of the hell that will break loose when some parent with the energy and connections to work the system decides that his kid’s school is being shortchanged. The right of exit functions powerfully even when it is not exercised.

Am I engaging in a fantasy? Not all vouchers have to be underfunded, and indeed, not all are; the DC system offers $7500, which is more than enough to obtain a decent education for a kid unless they have special needs. The problem with the voucher systems as currently implemented is that they’re too small; they offer only one benefit, the shift of an individual kid to a different school.

That’s not worthless, by any means. Contra Laura, I view the evidence on vouchers more positively. Despite the ways in which most voucher programs have been crippled, either by insufficient funds or by restrictions on how those funds can be used, they show somewhere between no to a modest improvement in test scores, at lower cost than educating the same kid in a public school, and with greater parent satisfaction, especially in key areas like kid safety. I thus find it strange that I’m even being asked to defend vouchers. The usual logic of government intervention is that it’s supposed to provide services where the market can’t, not where it can do almost as well as the market at greater cost.

But the market isn’t even being given an opportunity to do its full work. The market isn’t merely an improvement because some people can buy something right now; it’s an improvement because it changes the system. Markets can call forth new supply. They can experiment with new ways to teach poor kids . . . and if something works, it will eventually dominate, because the schools that don’t adopt the new methods will not be allowed to cut that fourteenth album in the hopes that this time, it all might be different.

But won’t the neediest kids be left behind? I am more hopeful about their fate in a market with choice than without. Like the poor kids in those affluent New York City private schools, the fact that even some parents in the school act like customers forces the school to serve all the kids better. Vouchers are no panacea, to be sure: I would be foolish to promise that a voucher system will make poor kids into the academic equivalents of the upper middle class kids I went to school with. We are a long way from knowing how to give poor kids the kinds of opportunity Laura and I had. But we know the system we have isn’t it.

And what about the very neediest kids, the ones like Laura’s son, who has special needs? I find this an odd complaint, because that’s the one area where vouchers are already looking. If your kid is disabled, and the school isn’t teaching him, the school can’t hang onto him because it needs the funding, or because it would be cheaper for the district to stick him in a corner until he turns eighteen. The district has to send him to private school. All the parents of disabled kids I know think this is a *wonderful* fact. It means their kid isn’t trapped in the system. Moreover, it has given birth to the world’s best system of private schools for special needs kids . . . so much so that wealthy parents come from all over the world to place their kids in it. To be sure, the supply isn’t adequate to the demand; we both know parents who are desperately trying to secure slots in the better schools for kids with autism and other special needs. But something is not only better than nothing for the kids who get in; it is also a constant pressure on the school district to step up and supply the services your kid needs, lest it be forced to pay even more to send him away.

The problem with these “vouchers”, as Laura undoubtedly also knows, is that they are mostly available to the affluent parents who know how to work the system, and can afford to hire lawyers, if need be, to ensure that their demands are met.

Megan McArdle is an associate editor at The Atlantic Monthly, where she blogs at Asymmetrical Information. She lives and writes in Washington DC.

WEDNESDAY: Laura McKenna wrote

There are two kinds of schools voucher proposals.

One is for a limited voucher program that targets low income kids in inner city areas. They involve relatively small amounts of money, $5,000 or so, that enable students to attend a private school of their choice. Typically, these vouchers are redeemed at Catholic or other religious schools that through church subsidies and low cost teaching staff are able to offer low tuition. These programs are actually in operation in a few locations in this country, including Cleveland.

There’s been little evidence that these programs have had a major impact in either a positive or negative manner. These programs have shown modest and debatable improvements in tests scores. The studies do show that the parents are extremely satisfied with the program. I’m happy to support a program that helps out some students, but I can’t get too worked up about it. Are there some other ideas out there that can benefit more students? In a world of limited political energy, you have to pick your battles.

Now, let’s talk about fantasy vouchers.

Die-hard voucher proponents advocate for a broader system of school vouchers than these meager little programs that are up and running in the country. They want vouchers that have a much higher dollar amount, aren’t limited to certain geographic areas, and are given to all parents. Since these vouchers don’t exist and stand as much political chance as Steve Colbert’s run for the presidency had, we’ll call them fantasy vouchers.

Would fantasy vouchers really lead to more education options for all kids? I’m not sure. If fantasy vouchers played out like pre-schools in this country, then some kids will end up with a few, bad options.

The pre-school system in our country is roughly the free-market utopia that the fantasy voucher advocates love. There are a range of private schools. The government provides subsidies for pre-school through tax rebates and offers programs of varying quality for the special needs students.

The pre-school system works out great in the suburbs. Out here, there are a plethora of options for pre-school with all sorts of different education philosophies and resources.

There are pre-schools that offer Montessori method. They are religious schools. There are schools that teach children to learn through play with small animals. Parents choose what system works best for them.

Because the schools are in competition with each other, they are much more deferential to parents.

Because of the competition and the cheaper resources in the suburbs, tuition costs are reasonable. Almost every family can find a school that fits their budget. It’s a free market Shangri-La.

The trouble is that the pre-school model doesn’t work in urban areas.

When we lived in Manhattan, we had very limited options for my oldest son. There was the super fancy program, which was way beyond our means. There was a very so-so program in a Jewish YMHA that was somewhat more affordable. And there was nothing. Nothing is what many of my neighbors chose. We went with the so-so program, where my son played a Hannukah latke in the holiday show.

The pre-school system also doesn’t work for kids who are a pain in the ass to educate.

Even though we lived in the suburbs by the time my second kid was ready for pre-school, he couldn’t take advantage of the educational feast. He’s one of those ‘pain in the ass’ kids.

He qualified for the public, special needs school, but it was inadequate. We felt he needed to supplement that school with a private program. First, we sent him to the local Catholic pre-school. They booted him out after two weeks. Then we sent him to the local daycare/pre-school. After two weeks, they tried to boot him out also. The only way that they kept him is because we gave them large sums of money. We bribed them to take our kid.

That’s what may happen with full-scale, fantasy vouchers. Schools in urban areas will continue to – to put it bluntly – suck, because the voucher amounts will not be sufficient to bring about good alternatives to a public school system. It will be difficult to find schools that will educate special needs children. Because disabled kids are geographically dispersed, private schools aimed at their needs won’t pop up. The normal kid in a suburban area will have some great options, but the difficult kids and the urban kids may be even worse off.

Laura McKenna is a political science professor who lives in New Jersey. She blogs at 11D

Laura McKenna is a political science professor who lives in New Jersey. She blogs at 11D.
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