PESPD'S Myth #6: Public schools will improve if we use vouchers to force them to compete with private schools
In my last two posts, I wrote about the important effect that good students have on a school. The post about T. J. Oshie gives an example of the great effect that a group of good students had on one student, and the post on Nick showed the incredible effect that one student had on an entire class.
Some people believe that the way to improve public education is to have a full-fledged voucher system. I don’t know whether these people don’t understand the importance of good students to a classroom or if they just don’t care. The idea for vouchers first came from Milton Friedman, who is a famous conservative economist. And, of course, in our society being a famous anything makes one an expert on education. I have often gotten the feeling from conservatives that, whenever we hear the name Milton Friedman, we are supposed to genuflect.
People who are for vouchers, of course, want to take the state aid for a student that normally would go to that student’s public school, and give it to the student’s parents in the form of a voucher. Then the parents can take their vouchers and use it for at least part of the tuition if they wish to send their kids to private schools.
Now, I have to wonder which parents of which students would do that? For some reason I doubt that many of our "I don’t care" students would end up going to private schools, because so many of the parents don’t care either. I think it’s reasonable to assume that they’d just take the path of least resistance, and keep sending their kids to the public schools. It seems to me that the parents who would be most likely to take their kids out of public schools and send them to private schools would be the ones who really care about education. So in other words, I think the kids public schools would most likely lose would be students like Nick and the kids that made such a difference to T.J.. Someone is going to have to explain to me how that is going to improve public education.
I have to admit that Jay Greene tries to address this issue in his book, Education Myths. He assures us that it would be not be a problem, based on results of studies he’s done in places that do have voucher programs. Using his studies, he argues that test scores of public school students have actually improved after voucher systems have gone into effect in their districts. Everything I had heard before reading Greene's book was that the test results regarding districts using vouchers were mixed, and according to the National School Board Association, independent sources have questioned the validity of his studies. But even assuming Greene’s studies are accurate, I am not convinced about his conclusions.
It seems to me that there is a very basic flaw in Greene's studies on public schools systems that face voucher competition. They are almost entirely based on some of the worst performing public schools in America. Two studies that he emphasized dealt with the Milwaukee Public Schools and Florida schools that had been labeled as failing. Quite frankly, when a classroom or a school gets bad enough, rather than having a positive effect on their classmates, it seems more likely good students would lose their own motivation. I believe that because I have had classes--thankfully, very few--in which this has happened. It’s entirely possible that in a bad school, the loss of motivated students, which concerns me so much, would turn out to be a non-factor. That’s why I would not oppose vouchers in public schools with miserable test scores and ridiculously low graduation rates.
Greene seemed very excited about his findings that Milwaukee and failing Florida schools improved after voucher systems were put into place, but he certainly didn't argue that they improved to the point where they could now be called good schools. They simply weren't as bad as they had been before. There are no places in the United States with even average schools that have full fledged voucher systems, so there is no way that Greene could have conducted one of his "unbiased studies" in a situation that would apply to most schools. If we accept that the very poor schools included in Greene's studies really did improve, it still seems to me to be quite a leap to assume that all other schools would improve, too. As I've said in earlier posts, if public schools are given the same powers to deal with disruptive and apathetic students that private schools have, I would be happy to compete with them. But if we are not given that power, I'm convinced that a full-fledged voucher system would be a disaster for public education.
This is my vision of what would happen if we ever went to a full-fledged voucher system. I'd be interested in hearing if other people agree or disagree. First, there will be concerned parents who will remove their children from public schools in most school districts and use the vouchers to send them to private schools. Removing motivated students will cause the education that takes place in many of those public schools to be a little worse than it was before, and this will encourage even more parents to send their kids to private schools. I can envision many school districts getting to the point where almost any parents who cared about their children's education would do this.
Some of these parents would be able to afford to send their kids to first-rate private schools with the help of the vouchers, and those kids would probably get a very good education. Other parents who can't afford that would use the vouchers to pay full tuition at bargain basement private schools and their kids should do okay as well. The instruction at these schools might be a little shoddy since some of the teachers might not exactly be qualified, but that should be offset for students because they would be freed from being in classes with kids who can wreck learning. And let’s not forget those parents who are already sending their kids to private schools. Since they’d get a few thousand dollars knocked off the tuition they’re already paying, they would get a heck of a deal!
The public schools, on the other hand, would be left with the children of parents who don't care enough about education to move them despite the schools’ deteriorating situations. Obviously this would include the most disruptive and apathetic students because, after all, they've got a right to be there. Tragically, the public schools in this scenario would also include some kids who really do have a desire get an education and to better themselves, despite their parents’ lack of concern. Actually, I should probably say that these kids would have had a desire to get an education, if they were given the chance in a decent learning environment. These are the children who truly would be "left behind."