September 30, 2022

School Vouchers: Solution or Problem?

DEVASTATED: St Mark's pupil Evie Kircos, 11...

Megan McArdle says she doesn’t get angry about politics often.  But fail to mention the V-word when discussing education reform and you might get on her list pretty quick!

every time I see some middle class parent prattling about vouchers "destroying" the public schools by "cherry picking" the best students, when they’ve made damn sure that their own precious little cherries have been plucked out of the failing school systems, I seethe with barely controllable inward rage. It is the vilest hypocrisy on display in American politics today.

Come now, Meg.  School vouchers are the "vilest hypocrisy" going today?  S-CHIP, Iraq, torture, domestic surveillance – any of these ring any bells?  A little perspective, please!

But, he said, dismounting from his high horse, Ms. McArdle does bring up an interesting topic.  Why is it that most American students are forced to attend publicly-funded schools based entirely on where they live?  Why is there no choice whatever for most families in regards to their children’s education?

It was this editorial in which David Nicholson belatedly began to wonder the same question that set Megan off.  I’m not sure why – there’s absolutely nothing surprising or new in Nicholson’s tale of battling the system.  Megan’s red flag, middle class parents who take – read "move" – their kids out of non-performing schools and oppose the implementation of voucher plans, doesn’t move me at all.  What is the problem with that? 

Commenter Marshall makes an excellent point in response to Megan’s post:

The problem with vouchers is that it completely misses the supposed causal mechanism. It isn’t ‘schools’, per se, it is the resources within them–teachers, students, involved, educated parents…

The three elements in that list effectively make up "schools".  Teachers, parents, and kids.  That’s a school, not a building.  Moving those elements to a different structure across town or across the tracks isn’t going to make the least bit of difference in regard to educational outcomes. 

Kids and parents go together when they move to a new school.  Expecting either group to leave their problems at the old school and start anew seems a bit naive.  If Johnny couldn’t read before, what’s going to make him care enough to learn to read now?  And if dad didn’t make him do his homework at the last school or take the time to help him when he got stuck, what’s going to change when the lesson is given in a different place?

Vouchers simply move the problem around because many of the problems with schools have nothing to do with the schools at all – they are caused by the students who attend them and the parents of these students who fail to get and keep their children engaged with the process.

The teacher’s job, you understand, is primarily to present the material to students in the best possible manner, tailoring it to the extent possible to individual students’ needs, and to manage the classroom in such a way as to foster a good learning environment.  Many good teachers genuinely care about their students and can help them become interested in the course work.  But in the final analysis, teachers cannot make apathetic, uninterested, undisciplined students care about school.  That desire to learn has to come from within and the people most responsible for nurturing that love of learning are parents.

Instead what seems to happen is that parents send their kids into the maw of the public school system and expect schools to make up for all of the shortcomings in the kids’ lives.  Many parents are simply too busy to interact with their kids properly or perhaps they simply do not care what happens to them.  It’s dreadfully easy to pick out the students whose parents view public schools as a free form of child care – their homework and test scores point them out within the first two weeks of the school year.  Rarely does the situation improve over time, even when the child changes schools.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that people generally do not care about things they view as being free and theirs by right.  When education was a privilege it was highly valued; now that it is free it is disdained by those who it should benefit the most – the children – and the parents allow this to occur because schooling has no value.  If it did it would cost something.

So what is the solution?  I’d be lying if I claimed to have it figured out.  The problems with public schools are complex and it must be said that many have nothing to do with parents or factors they can control.  Government interference, mandatory attendance, bad neighborhoods, unionized teachers, non-English speaking students – all of these factors also weigh heavily against American schools’ ability to produce world-class graduates.

The system, it seems, has failed.  So the question must be asked:  What would happen if we simply stopped playing the game as it is defined now? 

Cancel the public school system completely.  Eliminate the Department of Education.  Disband local school districts.  Roll back property taxes.  Sell the system’s assets and give the money back to the residents who paid for them in past years.  Drop out, in other words.

What would happen?

It’s impossible to say – and almost impossible to imagine, given big government’s penchant for taking control and refusing to relinquish it – but certainly the following would occur if such an experiment were allowed to run its course:

  • Neighborhood parents would band together to form multi-family home schools.  Education quality would vary widely but overall students under the age of 15 would probably receive as good or better and education than they do now.  Advanced classes in upper grades would suffer in many of these schools because parents capable of teaching trig, chemistry, etc., would not be available to teach, at least during the normal work week.
  • Children of parents who did not value education would receive substantially less education than they do now, though many of these would be no worse off because they learn so little today
  • Teachers, bereft of employment and pensions, would form their own independent private schools.  Most of these would be much smaller than today’s schools and would be far cheaper than the current private school options.  Unsafe neighborhoods would likely receive little service from independent schools and/or pay higher rates to compensate teachers for the increased risk.
  • Both kinds of small schools would gradually merge together and increase in size and quality.  Left free of government oversight they would adopt local norms as their guiding principles, some of which would undoubtedly offend some parents and students.  Over time like would seek like.
  • Neighborhood groups and independent schools would refuse service to "uncooperative" students and education quality would rise in proportion to the decline in discipline problems.
  • Education for "special needs" students would decrease substantially because independent schools would either not accept them or require parents to pay the true cost of their education.
  • Religious groups would become more involved in mainstream education in the absence of government restrictions.  In response, anti-religious advocacy groups would provide religion-free educational options.
  • The current system’s inappropriate emphasis on extracurricular activities such as sports would be largely eliminated as a result of parents becoming aware of their true cost in terms of equipment and liability.

And undoubtedly a lot more.  Comments?  I’d like to hear from anyone who has good ideas for positive change.

What about vouchers?  Well, what about them?  It’s obvious that they are merely a band-aid sort of solution and only worth discussing if we’ve given up on real reform.

marc

Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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