Tuesday, June 27, 2006

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."


Blogger A Romantic Artist said...

I think you'd be surprised how many "not caring" parents do enroll their kids in charter schools. They care just enough to fill out a piece of paper to get the kids out of their hair. Many of these students end up not wanting to go home because they feel safer with us than with their parents. I can say this as somebody who has worked both in a public school district and a charter school.
I respectfully disagree that "good and bad students" are the end all and be all for the quality of our public schools. I do agree that, by current assessment standards, it is a part of it. But, I also think the administrators who run our public schools have it all backwards. I don't think our politicians are helping any by creating mandates that invluence administrator to create misguided policies, but I would never go so far as to blame our students, ever. Some students are more challenging than others, but it is our professional responsibility to try to reach every child. And it is the administrations responsibility to support our actions toward that goal. Will we succeed? No. That's impossible. But, the difference between being a K-12 teacher and a college professor is that responsibility toward your students' success.
I commend you, however, for praising the successes of public education. Truly we have had many successes that are ignored. The media has become much too negative toward our public schools which has only hurt them more than helped them. We do have a long way to go, but without our public schools, I can't imagine what life would be like. I wouldn't be where I am today.
Respectfully submitted.

6/27/2006 5:39 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ben, thank you for visiting my site. I always enjoy having a dialogue with someone who can disagree without being disagreeable, and you certainly did that in your comment.

In previous posts I've said some of the things I'm going to say now, but I don't know how many of those you've seen. From the beginning of your second paragraph on, I don't think we are as far apart as you seem to think. It's not that I think that "good and bad" students are the and all and be all, but I do think it's a very important factor, and I also think it's been ignored. That's why I make such a big deal out of it. I also believe that public schools need more power in dealing with our most disruptive and apathetic students. Yes, that does mean that some would end up out the door, but I truly believe that if we had more power we could reach a lot of them that we're not reaching now.

You also say that I would be surprised how many "I don't care" parents send their kids to charter schools. Since I teach in a small district in northern Minnesota, and we don't have any charter schools near, that is news to me. And you're right--I am surprised. Thanks again for visiting my site. As DCS and Anonymous Teacher could probably tell you, I love going back and forth with people who's views are not exactly the same as mine.

6/27/2006 11:44 AM  
Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

Dennis, I haven't made an ironclad decision about vouchers. However, I tend to find the concept distasteful because I'm such a strong advocate for public schools. That said, I do believe that our public school system has some work to do before it becomes totally accountable to students and parents.

Like Ben, I disagree that "'good and bad students' are the end all." See my comments in one of your previous posts on what I think educators should do in an effort to raise student outcomes in the classroom.

We have charter schools in Missouri, where I live, but vouchers are not constitutional. Charter schools in St. Louis are struggling. We have yet to see marked student improvement by students in charter schools. I attribute that to the fact that charter school here tend to pay less than school districts and many of the teachers are novices.

As much I support public schools, I made the expensive decision to send one of my children to private schools because I found the school district that we lived in unacceptable. Sending my child to private school was huge sacrifice because I am a single parent. I then had to put him through college. But I have no regrets.

My daughter will graduate from public schools, but I had to transfer her twice before I found a school district I found acceptable and where she was happy.

Why did I transfer my daughter? I was concerned about some student behaviors. However, I was not outraged with the students. Ineffective and/or apathetic teachers and administrators triggered my outrage. But let me say I will always be grateful to the teachers and principals who demonstrated leadership, responsibility and character, even when the going got tough.

6/27/2006 1:19 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

DCS, I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I am convinced that anyone who comes to Warroad High School and wants to get a good education will be able to do so. I don't think I'm making a ridiculous generalization when I say that if this is true in Warroad, it's probably true for a very large number of public schools around the nation. But I know that it doesn't mean that it's true everywhere. Although I believe that most public schools and most public school teachers do a good job, I know there are a number of places where there are big problems in the public schools. Despite my "defense of public education," I would never question your decisions to do what you believed was right for your children.

I know that bad teachers and bad administrators do exist (yes, I have seen them in my schools, too). But I hope you can understand why I am reluctant to jump to the conclusion that "bad schools" are that way because of the administrators and teachers. If I'm ever going to do that, then I'd better be willing to walk a mile in their shoes.

6/27/2006 7:39 PM  
Blogger EHT said...

I'll admit I haven't researched the voucher topic in depth so I am a little perplexed. Most private schools in my area only take a certain number of students. If a voucher program was begun in my area what would prompt a private school to accept them?

6/27/2006 9:10 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

EHT, private schools wouldn't have to accept more kids, but if there was a voucher program, more private schools might spring up.

6/28/2006 3:08 AM  
Blogger A Romantic Artist said...

Thank you for your response. I definitely see your perspective on it, and, I guess in some ways, you are correct. I guess our agendas, while similar, differ only in focus.
I also welcome challenging dialgue as well, so I think you for your response!

6/28/2006 5:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams -- I'm talking from "the other side" -- all of my experience with school management is in private schools.

I've been around the voucher debate since uhmmm (counts on fingers) the late 1970s, anyway. I've been involved with private school governance since 1985.

At first (in the late 70s and early 80s) I was all gung-ho on vouchers, but the more I think about it, the less practicable I think vouchers are, as a solution to public school poor performance, anyway.

I think the element that Milton Friedman missed in his early enthusiasm for vouchers was how un-nimble schools (independent, private, religious, or public) are.

In other words, Friedman was naive. He thought that schooling was more like a manufacturing process (which can respond nimbly to a change in environment) than it was like...oh, I don't know, a religion, in which changing direction is slow and cumbersome.

Public schools are meant to be...identical. If you transfer from PS 101 to PS 202, the experience should be the same. That does not hold true for private schools. (If you'd like more about the taxonomy of private schools, please go read What Is A "Private School"?) Private schools are supposed to be unique. The idea is, you find the program that fits your child's intellectual, social, temperamental, and athletic needs.

Let's say you are in a setting that has an array of public and private schools, and you have a child who is not an athlete and who is low-achieving compared to her capacity for academic achievement. If you are thinking about private schools, do you send her to Big Name Athletic Powerhouse, where the athletic successes are really an important part of school culture and the teaching methods are rather draconian (if you don't take 3 APs in sophomore year you are a disappointment to the school) or do you send her to Every Child Blooms Academy, where every single one of the teachers has been through Mel Levine's Schools Attuned program and are feverishly rewriting curricula based upon Universal Design?

Well duh.

Another point that Friedman didn't get, that I didn't get for a couple of years, is that most private schools in admissions "build classes". In other words, Friedman assumed that students were interchangeable, but private schools don't.

Let us posit that the voucher fairy visited a particular locale with 5 private schools, who all agreed to take the vouchers. And each had the capacity (for the sake of argument) of admitting 60 kids per entry point (let us say 9th grade here, to keep things easy to think about). And also for the sake of argument, let's say the applicant pool for each school increased from 120 to 240.

Now, can each school respond quickly to the increase in the applicant pool? Well, no. For private schools, class size is more-or-less a step function (ie, each school would rather go from 60 to 80) not a linear function.

I suspect this is another area where Friedman was naive. Bear with me here.

Public schools can and do regard class size as a linear function (where class size can increase incrementally)--but private schools are different.

Private schools typically have an admissions season, with applications coming in from fall until some point early in the year -- say January 15. Then the admissions staff evaluate each of the applications, and make decisions -- say, admit / waitlist / reject letters letters being mailed March 15, with a requirement that parents respond by May 1 with a binding contract (including a substantial deposit, as much as 10% of the whole year's tuition) by May 1.

Meanwhile, the board of trustees is setting the budget and tuition -- usually tuition is set in advance of the admit date (for argumentation's sake, here posited as March 15).

So suddenly there's this increase in applications, thanks to the voucher fairy. Do the private schools just take "the most qualified students"? No. They want to "build a class" so that student aptitudes, talents, liabilities, and temperaments are balanced in some way.

Doing admisssions is kind of like one of those 4x4 slider puzzles--you know, you slot the pieces through a 4x4 grid to make a coherent picture. Let me give you some hints: "Oh, wait, we have 5 kids with ADHD in the admit pile, that's more than we want!" "Oh, wait, we have 11 kids from HooDoo Elementary School -- that's too many from one school!" "Oh, wait, we don't have any really strong kids in math in the admit pile!" "Oh, wait, all our violinists are graduating this year, and we haven't admitted one violinist!" "Oh, wait, our admit list is 75% male!" -- well, you get the picture. There are a lot of factors to balance as you "build a class". Public schools don't even get on the puzzle page.

And here's another piece where Friedman (and the rest of the school choice folk) are naive: starting a school is hard. It's probably harder than starting a new restaurant or any other new enterprise.

I think that education tax credits are a better bet than vouchers. In other words, making any money spent on non-public education being 100% deductible from your earned income, would be a better bet than vouchers.

I don't think there's any good answer, especially for urban schools.

6/28/2006 7:42 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Liz, thank you for giving us your intelligent and well-informed perspective on this!

6/29/2006 3:22 AM  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

I regret I found this thread so late.

Friedman assumes that competition between producing/manufacturing entities produces a better product. Generally, that's a good view of a free-market economy. But there are caveats.

One of the biggest things about free marketry is that it produces a lot of waste. If someone comes along with a true innovation that makes a product better for less cost, the "other" manufacturer is stuck with stock that can't be sold at retail, and often not even at greatly reduced cost. Sometimes this waste produces terrible social disruption, such as when a manufacturer moves the television tube manufacturing facility from Paris, Texas, to Mexico. Sure, everybody else gets cheapter TVs. And, as Alan Greenspan was fond of noting, in the longrun, the workers in Paris, Texas, benefit from overall cheaper costs, and they find other jobs. In reality, as Greenspan also noted, the workers who find other jobs are the next generation of workers, and there are a few dozens, or hundreds, of old TV tube makers who are not retirement age, but are permanently and counterproductively out of the job market. Consider Kodak -- great company for nearly 100 years. But it couldn't move from film fast enough. Cameras now are made in the orient -- the high-education jobs in Rochester, New York, are still vacant; those workers didn't move to Korea.

We have learned over the years that there are some enterprises that simply do not lend themselves well to competition. National defense and foreign policy are two such areas. Water supply to a city is often another such area (though now there are a few experiments in "deregulation" which allows different water "retailers" to use the same pipes and water intake). Electricity. Garbage collection.

And education. Remember, we have public schools in the U.S. because there was a consensus that education is essential to the health of our democratic republic. Private schools could not provide the mass education needed -- and they still can't. One of the chief values of public education is that it takes everybody and makes some improvement. That's critical if we are to have a well-trained army, navy and air force to defend our nation, and if we are to have mostly-productive workers in the factories. One key advantage of private schools is that they do not take everybody. Even if we had a voucher system that provided parents the opportunity to move kids, we still need public schools for everybody else.

In the end, a kid's education is not a product that lends itself to mass production. And the more we push toward such a model, the more we run the risks of other competition models -- massive waste (more than the current dropout rate? Hard to know), and the fact that the "waste" in such a system still is required to act as a citizen, raising children and, we hope, voting.

A final problem I want to just briefly note is that schools that get labeled as "failing" do not have the authority to compete against a private school. Even in very small school systems, making change is not up to the teachers and on-site management, but instead must undergo a gauntlet of elected officials, yelling parents, skeptical state poobahs, and vagaries of the economy. Our present system tends to hold teachers and principals accountable for failures that they don't create and can't prevent, while not rewarding them for the miracles they do create.

Vouchers fix any of those problems exactly how?

8/10/2006 11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I think that you should form a group that is called "The Educators Who Think That The Free Market Shouldn't Apply To Their Profession."

9/08/2006 2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or how about "Public School Teachers Who Know In Their Hearts That Everyone Else Is Just Too Stupid To Know Anything About Education,"

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