Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Vouchers. Aren't They Great?

Today I would like to discuss vouchers. An email exchange with MyFriend CJMichiels as well as previous discussion on my blog and others led me to want to explain what vouchers are and my position regarding this concept.

We can argue 'til the cows come home about how effective public schools are. I don't really want to do that now. While I support the public school system with every fiber of my being, you'll never hear me argue that the system is not broken. I think that, regardless of our varying views on public education, we can all agree that public schools (from school to school, district to district, state to state) are inconsistent. Since we can all agree on that word, "inconsistent" it will be as I discuss further.

So, what are vouchers? The concept of vouchers is simple. Think of Capitalism and apply its concepts to schooling.

Guess what? I'm not here to argue Capitalism either. If you know me, you know that I'm generally a proponent of Capitalism though I do think that, were the government to truly take a "hands-off" approach to the market, we'd all (and by "all" I'm referring to the majority of the people in this country who are in debt up to their eyeballs or who live paycheck to paycheck) be screwed. A blog for another time.

In a voucher system, parents would have the option of saying "no" to their local low-performing school and receive a voucher from the government (money that otherwise would have been granted to aforementioned local school) and have the option of sending their child to a private school. Like in a free market, if parents had a chance to send their child to a higher performing school, the low performing schools would either have to step it up or shut their doors. Low-income families would benefit because they could get their kids out of the ghetto school two blocks over and give their kids a chance at a top-notch education.

Sounds great, doesn't it?! But, wait, there's more!

I'll tell you what. On principle, despite any leanings toward capitalism I may have, I'm am strongly opposed to vouchers. In a free-market schooling system, it's a bit odd that the biggest stakeholders in this whole argument (the children actually attending school) don't get to choose. But wouldn't it be nice if they did!?! Hey, there, all of you little five-year-olds! Today, you get to decide which school you want to go to! Here's a bunch of data, we know you can't read yet so we went ahead and included a slew of graphs and charts in pretty colors! All you have to do is decide which school is the best and then the government will pay for you to go there! What's that you say, Johnny? Your local public school would get $7,000 per pupil but it costs more to attend the private school you've picked out? Boy, you are sharp! Well, we're a bit unsure about how we're going to handle that. Either your parents will have to pay the difference, or the government will have to shell out more money for you than for your neighbor. I wouldn't worry though, if I were you. Clearly, with your mad math skillz, you can get a scholarship for the difference. By the way, your local PTA is looking for a treasurer.

Let's face it. It doesn't work like that. Kids don't get to choose what school they go to, parents choose. In a voucher system, we imply that all parents are capable of making decisions that best suit the future of the world. That ain't true, folks.

Look at the welfare system. I support having a welfare system because, sometimes, good hard-working people genuinely need it. My mom used it as a single mother of three when she was going to nursing school. She's made a great living for herself in the 20 years since she graduated and has more than paid back the assistance she received. I support welfare even more when I think about all of the children it helps to support. If there were no welfare, wouldn't that force people to get off their asses and get a job to feed their family? In some cases. Not all.

I've been around enough to know that there are lotsa lazy losers living on welfare. Some, perhaps many, of these people either don't care or don't know enough about making informed schooling choices on behalf of their children. And should these children have to pay for that? It's not their fault.

So, for those of you who don't have children but pay taxes that support public schooling anyway, this is a real treat for you! Susie, a good kid with nice folks who live in a middle class neighborhood is going to send you a nice thank you card for paying taxes that sent her to a lovely, high-achieving private school. That should make you feel warm and fuzzy. But don't turn your back on Joe, the 7 year old who has to let himself in to his apartment in the projects because his dad split and his mom has to work all day for minimum wage at Wal-Mart. He's using your tax dollars to go to the local public school. For many reasons.

Maybe mom doesn't care. Maybe she does but she doesn't comprehend these vouchers. Maybe she can't afford transportation to the private school. Maybe she comprehends, can arrange transportation, but little Joe just wasn't accepted. After all, the school is private, silly taxpayer. They can admit anyone or refuse anyone they want on any grounds they want. And, as they become so popular for producing such model citizens, they get to up their tuition (supply and demand, anyone?) and turn away more kids than ever! Who do you think is going to get turned away first?

So, Joe comes home to an empty house. He goes to a substandard school and has substandard peers with which he spends all of his time. Alas! In this highly competitive free market education system, where everyone has access to a better school, the cycle continues! Hallelujah! Praise Jesus! (I can say that here, because your tax dollars will send these kids to religious schools if their parents choose.)

What else? Hmmm...Private schools are not subject to standardized testing (again, blog for another day), so it's gonna be hard to measure their success over public schools. In a study by the Department of Education as well as statistics of countries that have implemented some form of a voucher system, there really isn't an achievement gap overall. Private schools (subject to inconsistencies as well) and public schools average the same "score." In Milwaukee, a quarter of the students use vouchers yet more of the property tax money goes to the voucher students than the public school students. So, taxpayers, what you're saying is that you're willing to pay more taxes for students to attend private schools. It seems to me that if the public schools had that kind of funding to work with, they might do a tad bit better, too.

That's all I've got for now. I'm probably forgetting something. Bring it on, dissenters, I'm ready to fight! ;)

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