Monday, March 16, 2009


I checked out Joanne Jacobs site recently and found she had a couple of pieces dealing with vouchers. In the first one that I read I learned that Congress had killed a voucher program in Washington, D.C..

Democrats in Congress just killed an experiment that gives 1,700 poor Washington kids school vouchers. They even refused to grandfather in the kids already in the program, so those children will be ripped away from their mentors and friends.

Now, I have no first hand experience with the D.C. school system, so if I am off base on this, I hope someone will shoot me down. But my understanding is that the D.C. school system is pretty bad. When I say that, I have no idea how good or bad the teachers and administrators are, and this is certainly not meant as an indictment of them. My assumption is that they are dealing with a lot of kids from rough neighborhoods with a lot of social problems.

I am no fan of vouchers, but if a school system is really bad, I think they are appropriate. I'm convinced that the most common cause of a bad school is not bad teaching or bad administration, but a high number of kids in the classrooms who can ruin learning for those kids who do want an education. I don't know how any union, any political party, or anyone who cares about education can in good conscience argue that kids who want an education should be stuck in those classrooms.

I believe that the best solution would be for the teacher to be given the power to remove those kids who ruin the educational environment, but neither Arne Duncan or Barack Obama have called me lately, so I don't expect my solution to be enacted anytime soon. That being the case, having vouchers is one way that students who want to learn can move into decent educational environments.

The second piece I saw on Joanne's blog promoted a full-scale voucher program for the United States. That I completely disagree with. While enough bad students can ruin an educational environment, good students are essential for it. Remove enough good students from a classroom, and a great learning environment can become a mediocre one. A full-scale voucher system would threaten to do this to public school classrooms across our nation.

The good thing about vouchers is that it allows kids with parents who care about their kids' education to move their kids to a place where they can learn. The big problem with that is that there are other kids who care about their education or have the potential to care with parents who don't give a rip. Those parent are probably not going to bother with vouchers. Get those kids together with good students, and they might be wonderful students themselves. Remove the good students, and their situation becomes hopeless. In a public school system that is already hopeless, that's acceptable. In any other situation it's not.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But my understanding is that the D.C. school system is pretty bad."

I don't have any first hand knowledge, either. But ...
unless this article:
[Note source ... this isn't entirely impartial]

is flat out lying things are pretty bad:

"The District spends $14,400 for every child in public school—well above the national average and more than any of the 50 states. The 2007 National Assess­ment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that Washington, D.C.'s fourth and eighth graders scored lower than any other students in the entire country. The District also has one of the lowest graduation rates in America—59 percent according to one estimate."

Now, someone has to be at the bottom of any stacking, so this by itself doesn't require things to be horrible. Additionally, the best-worst gap might be quite small, in which case being at the bottom isn't so bad.

But, I suspect that the gap between, say Iowa (or Minnesota) and D.C. is huge. And I'd kinda like the expensive districts to be at least average.

-Mark Roulo

3/16/2009 4:38 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

The vouchers would be handed out by the federal government, or through the states? I'm never really clear on that.

If we were to (loosely) liken public schools to hospitals, the charters would be those little outpatient clinics that can cherry-pick their patients and get the same amount of money for the healthy 27-year-old with the knee surgery as they can for the 88-year-old with dementia, a heart condition, diabetes and a recent mini-stroke :].

So a lot of these "look how great these charter school kids are doing!" arguments are a bit unfair.

I'm not really sure how I feel about it. I know that the system now consigns students to good, bad or mediocre schools based on residence. Throwing more money at these "underprivileged" schools makes no sense, though, and for proof one only needs to look at Kansas City Public Schools. We avoided these like the plague when we moved here 12 years ago... and that was way back when I thought public education was really great as long as you moved to the "right" district. :]

3/16/2009 5:00 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

I live in D.C. right now. And I am a teacher and I happen to think the vouchers are a bad idea. I think it drains money from the school system. Most of these vouchers are being used at Catholic schools in the district. There is little evidence that scores are any better among students that receive vouchers. Kids that receive vouchers are not going to places like Sidwell Friends where Obama's daughters attend. They are mostly going to smaller private religious schools where funding is less. I think what students and parents find in some of these private schools could be found in some district schools or charter schools in the district. Remember that kids in these private schools are still surrounded for the most part by other low income children. The difference with the private school is that a kid can be kicked out if he misbehaves. They can't get kicked out in the public school.

3/17/2009 5:43 AM  
Blogger Ms. V. said...

You've got some great ideas...

3/17/2009 11:57 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Erin, before I respond I want to repeat that I do not mean to be critical of D.C. teachers. My assumption is that they are working is a very difficult situation, and a lot of them probably have a lot more guts than I do.

You are more familiar with the situation than I am, but I don't see being surrounded "by other low income children" as necessarily being a problem. The sad fact of the matter is that low income kids are more likely to be uninterested in learning than kids who are better off. But that doesn't mean that there are no low income kids who do want to learn. I'm sure there are many, and the fact that these kids' parents bother to go through a voucher system increases the likelihood that these kids fit into that category. Also, the fact that a kid can be kicked out if he misbehaves gives those private schools a huge advantage over us in their ability to create a positive learning environment. I just wish "reformers" would wake up and give us that power.

Ugh! I'm arguing for vouchers. I'll probably have nightmares all night!

3/17/2009 2:18 PM  
Blogger Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Competitive markets deliver better services at lower cost than do monopoly enterprises. There is no good argument for restricting parents' options for the use of the taxpayers' K-12 education subsidy to schools operated by State (government, generally) employees.

Gerard Lassibile and Lucia Navarro Gomez
"Organization and Efficiency of Educational Systems: some empirical findings"
Comparative Education , Vol. 36 #1, 2000, Feb.
"Furthermore, the regression results indicate that countries where private education is more widespread perform significantly better than countries where it is more limited. The result showing the private sector to be more efficient is similar to those found in other contexts with individual data (see, for example, Psucharopoulos, 1987; Jiminez, et. al, 1991).
This finding should convince countries to reconsider policies that reduce the role of the private sector in the field of education".

While a voucher-subsidized competitive market in education services would outperform the current US State-monopoly system, vouchers pay excessive respect to current institutions. I prefer a policy I call Parent Performance Contracting.

3/22/2009 4:39 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hi Malcolm!

Thanks for your comment, but as you would probably guess, I completely disagree with you.

First of all, comparing education from different nations--different societies--is like comparing apples and oranges.

There are kids who would definitely be hurt by a full-fledged voucher system, because there are some kids who truly would be left behind. Some kids' parents don't give a rip about education. Most of the time, the children of those parents don't either, but I have seen a number of exceptions. That happens when kids with crummy parents make friends with kids in their schools who do care about doing well. Put in a full-fledged voucher system, and those friends are probably going to be gone, and that would be a tragedy.

Most public schools in America perform well. Those that do could perform better, and many of those that aren't could perform well if we would just make a couple of common sense changes. I must admit, however, that I don't see those common sense changes coming anytime soon.

3/23/2009 2:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The real problem is that the teacher's union is fighting Michelle Rhee on every change she tries to make in the DC school district. She's made it clear, that unlike the politicians, she won't pander to the union, and she is to be applauded for that. The politicians don't send their kids to the DC schools. They wouldn't dare. They are that bad.

Rhee wants merit pay, and she has offered higher pay rates for teachers who give up their tenure and step into the merit pay system. That hasn't been met with support from the union or the teachers, which frankly, smacks of the fact that they know they couldn't get raises if they didn't exist in the tenure system. If you work in the private sector, raises are based on merit, and it increases productivity and fosters hard, successful work. Look at the companies that are ruled by the unions. The auto industry is a prime example. They are not known for their productive workers, so why do we accept union involvement in our public schools, and why on earth would we allow tenure which throws accountability out the door?

But, ultimately, when you put someone like Arne Duncan in charge of all our schools, you are setting a really bad precedent. He wasn't a savior to the Chicago schools, and he won't be a savior to the rest of the country. He's just Obama's basketball buddy.

But, back to the vouchers - the kids in the DC schools deserve them, simply because they have been completely failed by the public schools in their district. The bottom line is that education is about the kids, and we seem to have forgotten that in the discussion of the vouchers. The DC schools are some of the worst in the nation, which quite frankly, is a crime. Those kids deserve every chance to succeed, and so far, the vouchers are the only chance they have been given. Until someone else comes along and is able to take on the union and the politicians and really fix the DC schools, the vouchers are the least this country can do for those kids.

3/23/2009 8:45 AM  
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