Monday, November 12, 2007

From The Archives

[NOTE: Thought I'd reprint something I wrote a while ago]

Just a quick point to ponder about the School Voucher debate: It's a very nice thought that School Vouchers equals School Choice - but does it, really, provide for such a choice - or at least a meaningful choice? Would highly-regarded suburban public schools and urban private/parochial schools (or should I say the students and the parents of the students in these schools) welcome inner-city voucher students to their learning communities? Putting a voucher in someone's hand doesn't neatly translate into supporting REAL school choice. In order for school choice to mean anything, voucher students must have the option to REALIZE their choice, which is something most voucher advocates haven't really thought much about. To use a common metaphor, it's as if someone were to hand me a fishing pole, some bait, a boat, and even give me fishing lessons; but then tell me that the lake with all the good fish in it that he fishes in was, ahem, off limits.


President Friedman said...

I think the operating idea is that it will allow for more choice than is currently being offered. No system is perfect.

Here's what I believe: The parents who are actively involved in their kids' education will, under a voucher system, have much more opportunity to do something about it when they find their kids in an underperforming school system. That doesn't mean every inner-city student will get moved to an elite school, but for many of them (the ones with parents who contribute and give a shit) it will mean moving from a horrible school to a mediocre one... and a kid with parents who contribute and give a shit can go a long way at a mediocre school.

I don't think vouchers are any kind of magic bullet. I also don't think our public education system is as horrible as many conservatives seem to think. But still, I always prefer a system that offers the widest variety of choice and a healthy dose of competition; and our current system offers very little of either.

Huck said...

Thanks for the comment, P-F. I'm not opposed to the voucher system. In the absence of anything better, my attitude is to give it a go. But I have to say that I'm a cynic when it comes to the true intentions of voucher advocates. I'd argue that a kid with parents "who contribute and give a shit" is probably already in a mediocre school, if not a good school; and they're certainly not in one of those pathetic and tragically abhorrent public schools. For parents who give a shit, poverty doesn't get in the way of their kids' education.

The cynic in me sees in the voucher system the following things: (1) an effort on the part of parochial and private schools to capture tax dollars; and (2) middle-class professionals who can afford to send their kids to private or parochial schools, but would like a state subsidy to do so.

Another problem with a voucher system is that it will concretize an inequity that many people will find distasteful. What do I mean? Simply this: when poor folk walk around doing school shopping with a government voucher, while taxpaying citizens find they still have to pay to send their kids to decent schools without any kind of help from the state, how will such taxpaying citizens respond? And what will private/parochial schools do regarding admissions if the voucher exceeds their normal tuition rates? Will they raise tuition to maximize voucher revenues? Will they prioritize (or apportion) limited seats in their high-demand classrooms to the non-voucher paying customers? And I haven't even begun to tap into the race/class/culture dynamics that a voucher system will introduce into the current private and public school structures. There are lots of problems that vouchers will bring with it. But, hey, I'm willing to give it a shot. I'm just a bit skeptical that what it will amount to is really creating greater school choice.

President Friedman said...

I can't speak for anybody else. Parochial and private schools may well be in it for the money, and some middle class parents may be looking for ways to get their kids into schools that are currently above their means. If school vouchers were available to me, it wouldn't make any difference. I am very happy with our local public school, and wouldn't have my daughter going anywhere else.

I agree that vouchers will bring their own set of problems (federal money being diverted to parochial schools is a contentious issue even among people who support vouchers). But, at the end of the day, I think a large number of kids would receive better educations than they might have otherwise if given the choice to trade in a poor school for a better one.

The real issue is what we're going to do with all those kids who we both agree have parents who don't give a shit about their education.
Fix that problem and vouchers become largely unnecessary.

Huck said...

P_F - My kids, too, go to a good public school. So, like you, the school voucher issue isn't a personal crusade for me. As to the folks currently sacrificing to send their kids to better, private schools, I don't think it's so much that vouchers can make it so they can "trade up," so to speak, but simply allow them to use vouchers (instead of their own bank accounts) to pay for their kid's tuition. For people like you and me who have kids in good public schools, vouchers don't matter so much because we're already seeing our tax dollars put to good use. But for those who think they are paying a double penalty (i.e. they aren't benefitting from their taxes that support public education, plus they are paying extra on private tuitions), they are going to think that they deserve vouchers as much as the next poor person does.

Fix that problem and vouchers become largely unnecessary.

I agree 100%. That is really the crux of the matter. But how to fix that problem and what to do in the meantime are the hard questions.

President Friedman said...

"for those who think they are paying a double penalty... they are going to think that they deserve vouchers as much as the next poor person does."

And I'd generally agree with them. I wouldn't reserve vouchers only for low income families. I don't consider a voucher program to be educational welfare; it is simply a matter of giving parents more options while not penalizing them for taking their kids out of a failing system. Parent's who are paying taxes into a poorly performing local school system while also paying for private education of their own children are, in my opinion, paying a double penalty. I have no problem with allowing them to receive a voucher for reimbursement of educational services they are not using, even if they are are relatively wealthy.

Huck said...

Here's a follow-up question for you, P_F. What do you tell a parent who claims that the public school you send your kids to (or the public school I send my kids to) isn't as good as the private school down the road, or isn't good enough for their kids, and so they should be able to use a voucher to send their kids to the private school -- even when what you and I would consider a decent public school is clearly an option? I live in a City (New Orleans) where many of the public elementary schools are the worst in the entire country, but there is ALWAYS the option to attend one of the few good local public schools. And any parent who cares enough about it is usually successful in getting his kids in the good public schools. How do you account for subjective determinations as to what constitutes an adequate and successful public school option? Or does this even matter?

President Friedman said...

"Or does this even matter?"

I would say it doesn't matter. Ultimately, the parent is responsible for qualifying the content of their child's education.

For instance, I have some friends who homeschool their kids for religous reasons. Their children are being taught a fairly hardcore Young Earth Creationist curriculum. We completely disagree on the quality of the education their children are receiving, but I still think they are being unfairly taxed for educational services they don't use.

(This is not to say I support vouchers for all homeschoolers. In a perfect world, perhaps we could do that, but I see way too many opportunities to cheat such a system. Still, I think that example can be used to make my point.)

Huck said...

Well, I guess I have to give you your good libertarian kudos. You're consistent. But let me push you a bit. Would you say the same regarding one's responsibility for qualifying his and his family's security? In other words, if I think that spending money on yet another tomahawk missile serves my security interests less than a voucher to spend on a top-of-the-line home security system, would you support a government-issued voucher to that end?

I know its a silly example, but I guess at root my question is who gets to determine what serves the national interest versus what serves the individual's interest, and how should government spending be allocated or appropriated for this.

Huck said...

Put another way, P_F, we are all taxed on educational services we might not personally use, but which support a system of public education that serves the general public good, and thus does serve us in another, roundabout way, much as defense spending does.

President Friedman said...

In this paricular instance, the difference is that I see national defense as a clearly defined responsibility of the federal government, while public education is a state and local issue. Federal funding makes up less than 10% of total K-12 spending in the US, and the Constitution doesn't say a single word about the Federal government having a responsibility to educate the masses.

In my ideal scenario there would be no federal Department of Education, no federal spending on public education, the State of Oklahoma's largest single expeniture would be on education (as is the case today), we would have a voucher program here, and the rest of the states could do whatever they want.

Truthfully, I am more of a federalist than a libertarian on this issue, because I do think public education is a worthy endeavor... I just don't think it should ever be a federal issue. National defense on the other hand, must by definition be a federal issue.

President Friedman said...

Also, to answer your question more directly: Do I think you have a responsibility to qualify your family's security? Only at the local level. You don't have a responsibility to personally go track down the people behind 9/11, because that is the federal government's domain. Even if the federal government fails in it's duty, you are not expected to gear up and go hiking through the Hindu Kush in search of Bin Laden.

To contrast that view to the one I have on education: with education, the entire responsibility is ulitmately on you. If the government (federal, state, or local) fails to teach your kid to read, it IS your responsibility to
make sure they learn to read, write, calculate, and think critically.

That is why I'd give you a voucher for a school but not a tomohawk missile.

Huck said...

Well-said, P_F. You make a lot of good sense. I can't really think of any counter-argument other than perhaps one of a degree of definition in what constitutes the public good and where to draw lines between federal obligations versus state/local obligations in meeting the public good.

You're a smart man. You need your own blog!

President Friedman said...

Wow. I call for the abolishment of the Dept of Education and you say I make a lot sense. That, mi amigo, is a first! ;-)

This has been a great exchange, and I must admit it has forced me to examine and define some positions on this subject that I had not previously fleshed out. Thanks for the mental workout!

As far as having my own blog, I find it much easier just to argue with what other people say than to come up with something to say myself. My blog would be a collage of commentary on rural life, livestock, reviews of Louis Lamour and Larry McMutry books, complaints about running a business, a mess of useless trivia about various IBM server platforms,and personal stories about my family.

However, I do sometimes guest blog at a friend's site, though my output has been pretty much nil since I started a new business last year. My few postings as his site are all archived here: