Vouchers: An Alternative Endgame

I wonder if Jonah Goldberg knew how much gasoline he was throwing onto the voucher fire in Utah when he penned this recent editorial calling for the end of public schools. Davis County Watch picked up on it almost immediately and Davis Didjeridu wasn't far behind, albeit they are most definitely on opposite sides of the issue. I've made it no secret that I support the voucher system myself and I believe they should be the beginning of the end of publicly financed education as we know it. I, however, see a much different picture than Davis Didjeridu does.

Compulsory education in the United States is based largely on the Prussian Model of education, a model designed to turn out factory workers rather than creative thinkers. This model was also adopted by Japan, often cited as an example of what education should be. However, Japanese schools are regularly operating at 1/3 of their student capacity with classroom sizes of 35-45, well beyond what we consider acceptable in our own country. Even though there are regular comparisons to India, the country fails to instill a sense of creativity in students. This is a common complaint from companies who outsource IT jobs and find it takes a lot of oversight to get the job done simply because they have not been taught how to act independently. We see the emphasis on rote learning churning out good factory workers but not good critical thinkers.

Modern education theory tells us that children learn in many different ways, yet we attempt to instruct them all in the exact same fashion. While some students respond well to this highly-structured learning environment, all too many struggle to keep up with it. Expecting teachers to re-tailor lessons to be taught in 4 or 5 different ways is also highly impractical. Not only does it require a teacher somehow finding a way to do the work of 5 teachers, it also leaves insufficient time to use all of the methods to repeat the same material within a 45-minute class. School districts more concerned with balancing budgets and filling empty job positions don't have the time or motivation to tackle this incredibly complex task either.

The knee-jerk reaction is to spend more money on educational systems. This has, however, not proven to be very effective. Despite a doubling of inflation-adjusted education spending since 1970, student achievement has largely stayed flat. It's also telling that teacher pay has stayed flat during that time period, a damning indictment of how inefficient school district bureaucracies waste education money without anything to show for it. Here in our own backyard, school districts were highly dishonest in reporting how many "teachers" they had to include administrators and other related support staff, diluting the promised raises and bonuses for teachers so that the same pencil-pushers who've been stiffing them could get a cut of the $100M action.

We're now left in a dire situation. We aren't paying enough money to attract and retain quality teachers. Administrators are to blame for this gross mismanagement of our public funds and public trust. Kids aren't graduating as productive workers in the economy. The tech sector is particularly livid. Despite Utah's numbers looking relatively good compared to other states, we're simply standing at the high point of the sinking ship without a life vest. What's a state to do?

Enter Vouchers

The idea of educational vouchers has been around since at least the 1950's when Milton Friedman first proposed them. Ever since that point, the issue raises high emotions from both supporters and detractors of the idea. We've witnesses a firestorm of activity here in Utah over the issue that's resulted in heated words and plenty of venom.

From the opposition, we hear a lot about how vouchers will result in a host of social ills, everything from segregation to degraded educational quality to reinforced religious extremism. I've even heard accusations that vouchers could lead to increased cases of child abuse as well as education for only the wealthy. Most of it sounds completely over the top, but I'd like to take some time to address these concerns.

The first point is concern that minorities and the poor will be attending separate schools for all of the rich white kids a la the segregationist South. I consider this a conjoined point as socio-economic status is much more of a determinant of education than is race; it just happens that minorities comprise a larger percentage of the poor. Because of this, I do not regard the accusations of racism as holding any kind of water. It is true, however, that it can be very difficult for poor families to afford to send their children to private schools, even with assistance from vouchers. What we have is a "chicken and egg" scenario: private schools catering to lower-class students don't exist because there currently isn't a market for it or not enough of the existing schools can make up the difference between the value of a voucher and the cost of tuition.

This much is clear: nobody is going to build private schools catering to poor students until there is an assured source of income. It may sound very "build it and they will come", but I believe without a voucher system in place to ensure a stream of students, most are not willing to take the financial risks involved in starting a new private school. It's also true that there are a lot of wealthy students who attend public schools currently. Since these students can afford to go to private school and have opted not to, it seems unlikely that a potential $500 voucher is really going to do the trick.

That said, I went to private schools until 4th grade. This is despite living in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama in what can best be described as the depths of poverty. We did not have fresh milk in the fridge because we could only afford powdered. (I can still remember what the plastic milk pitcher looked like and icing the milk to get it cold faster.) Liver was a regular meat because of how cheap it was. My mom would regularly collect pecans from our backyard to sell for a little bit of extra money to make ends meet. It was most certainly the most humble of circumstances and my parents later switched us to public schools after we moved to California and then to Las Vegas because it was simply too much to try and provide a solid private school education. (When we first moved to Las Vegas, my parents looked into private schools and determined they were just out of reach.) My parents did what they had to do, including working three jobs between them, so that we could get a quality education. Had vouchers been available at the time, it most certainly would have been much easier for my parents to afford sending us to school without so much sacrifice.

The second point of concern is a potential for degraded educational quality. This probably all depends on what metrics are being used to determine the quality of education. I've seen everything from graduation rates to average SAT/ACT scores to per-pupil spending used to quantify educational goals. What's most important to consider is that no matter what the metric, our current course has been leading us further and further down the rankings when compared internationally. It's become obvious that what we've been doing isn't working anymore and we need to do something about it. We're on a path of decay and aren't doing anything to reverse course.
In my own neighborhood, the local elementary school is in the top 5%, but the middle and high schools are all performing below state average when comparing Iowa Test of Basic Skills scores.

I have, to date, heard no concrete proposals beyond "spend more money" from voucher opponents. (If I'm wrong, please by all means correct me.) Given the poor track record of fiscal management by our public education system, I'm naturally resistant to spending even more money on the issue. My suspicion is that little (if any) of the money would make its way down for teacher raises to attract and retain top talent. In the end, spending on mission statements, computers or additional training will not make up for the lack of compensation compounded over 35+ years. Absent concrete alternative proposals, it seems best for us to try something, anything to see if it works and then scrap it if it doesn't.

The third point is the accusation that money appropriated for education would be spent to indoctrinate children with extreme religious views. Taking a glance at the list of private schools in Utah, it appears that about 60% of them, tops, are religious schools. The list includes several Catholic, Baptist and Lutheran schools, hardly extreme. There's even a Jewish academy on the list. Catholic schools have been known for offering a solid education at bargain prices. (The private school I went to was Catholic and they offered an accelerated program for gifted kids, quite something when each grade had no more than 60 children.)

When looking at figures from the Department of Education, they list that 24% of all private schools are nonsectarian, 28% are Catholic and of the remaining 48%, only 19% were classified as "conservative Christian", presumably the type of schools raising the fears. Private schools are also more numerous and mainstream than you might think. Private schools currently comprise about 23% of all schools and educate 10% of the nation's children with another 2.2% participating in homeschooling programs. The primary concern for parents choosing private schools or homeschooling is the quality of the education with religious/moral reasons coming in second. It would appear that the stereotype of the rich kid or religious whacko isn't entirely true at all.

These aren't meant to be the end-all be-all of addressing the concerns of voucher opponents, but rather at least providing some more data for consideration in the matter. I don't have all of the answers and neither does anyone. The more information and hard facts we can bring to the table, the better clarity we will all have.

The Real Endgame

We know that what we're doing isn't working. We know that we can't keep playing the money game. We know that we can't trust entrenched school administrators with the money. What's to be done? Remove as many administrators from the equation as possible.

It seems a Herculean task to strip down public schools of all extraneous personnel, but I'm talking of going one step further than this. Ultimately, teachers should be in charge of the classrooms. To this end, I think we need to take a look at how the health care market works.

When you pick a doctor, you have a lot of options available. You can pick a doctor in a private or group practice. You can pick a doctor from a hospital. You can even pick a doctor from a publicly-subsidized or county-run facility. (If you think you sacrifice quality when doing that, I would invite you to reconsider the U's hospitals, arguably on par with UC Davis or UCLA.) This plethora of choice extends to both patients and doctors: patients can choose which type of care they prefer, doctors can choose which kind of working environment suits them best.

I think the same thing can work for teachers. Teachers, once picking up their license and teaching credentials, could opt to form their own "private practice"-style classes, join with several other teachers to form a small school with specialized teachers, join a larger private school in a more traditional setting or opt for a traditional public school. This provides new teachers with the chance to cut their teeth and then go into business for themselves. Let's crunch some numbers to see how well some of these models work for them.

A teacher decides to go into private practice and take on 30 students. Each student has about $5,000 in funding attached to them. This gives the teacher an annual budget of $150,000 with which to work. In order to stay focused, the teacher runs this as a neighborhood school, taking students within easy walking distance. He rents a modest-sized classroom to use for instruction at the rate of $2,500 per month and sets a budget of $500 per month for classroom materials. To equip the classroom, the teacher takes out a small business loan to buy 30 textbooks in each of 5 subjects at $80 each, 30 laptop computers at $800 each, and about $10,000 in office furniture. The loan is for $60,000 to cover these costs and provide some operating capital and has a monthly interest payment of $600. After the first year, the teacher will have paid off the loan and covered operating expenses while pocketing $45,000 for the year. Without the loan to pay off next year, the teacher easily earns over $100,000 the second year even with a high replacement cost for furniture, books and other materials.

A group of 7 teachers decides to form their own school with classes for grades 1-6 and specialized classes for music and art. They decide to take on a slightly smaller class size, around 25 students per grade or 150 total students. This gives them a budget of $750,000 to work with. They rent enough space for the separate classes as well as a large common area for around $20,000 per month. As part of the school, they buy a used bus for about $35,000 and hire a bus driver for $20,000 per year. They also hire an administrator to balance the books and make sure regulations are being met for $40,000 per year. After spending $60,000 on new textbooks and $60,000 on a 30-seat computer lab, they have a loan out for $200,000 to cover the initial costs and operating expenses and pay $2,000 per month in interest. The total costs after fixed expenses are around $340,000 per year, leaving $415,000 to be split between debt service and seven teachers. Figuring that they would each like to earn around $50,000 per year to start, much more than they had been making previously. With $65,000 per year paying off the debt, they will have paid off the debt in less than three years, leaving them with an operating budget of $89,000 per year for bonuses, raises and miscellaneous expenses.

What do these two examples show? I see teachers being treated as the professionals they are and earning a significantly higher amount than they would have under the current system. I see that parents will be free to choose exactly how and by whom their children will be taught. I see that we will have eliminated a significant amount of the overhead currently dominating our public education system. This leaves room for exploring all kinds of new education models to find out what works best for each student while increasing the amount of personal attention a teacher can provide.

Checks and Balances

Of course, such a system only works with a dedicated system of accountability. Student achievement figures, both as a percentage of improvement and a raw score, should be readily published as well as both student and parent rankings of the teachers and/or schools. An accounting of where money is spent, classified by area, should be published annually to provide insight as to how much is spent on materials, instruction/salaries and overhead. Teachers should still be required to pass background checks and have met certification standards to be in the field, much as we do for doctors.  These systems wherein we provide a s
ubstantial degree of choice and freedom can only work with unprecedented transparency.

There will, of course, be problem teachers in the field. We have them now and we're not likely to be able to screen out all of the bad apples before something horrible happens. You cannot, however, fault a new system for that problem when the current system has the same problem. The idea is that publishing a significant amount of data out in the open and regularly auditing it will balance this.

Conclusion

Is such a outcome likely? I don't know. I hope so. I think it would bring a better sense of community to our neighborhoods and schools with smaller class sizes and more attention to fulfilling the needs of students, teachers and parents without hordes of red tape to cut through. Unlike some have asserted, the idea is not to destroy public education. The public funding of education, Constitutional requirement aside, is a hallmark of our nation and the main means by which men and women of humble circumstances have gone on to make something of themselves. It is my hope that a robust ecosystem of diverse choices will better meet the needs of all parties involved.

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5 Responses to Vouchers: An Alternative Endgame

  1. This is the most reasoned, well-thought-out pro-voucher argument I have ever read. However, it has not changed my mind. I still fundamentally believe vouchers are tied inextricably to the modern conservative movement to privatize all those services and functions that were historically the responsibility of the nation-state (health care, pensions, education, etc.) but which have grown prohibitively expensive. That’s right…I said they are prohibitively expensive. However, I still think reform is the right approach, not replacement. Evolution, not revolution.

    I still believe it is possible for meaningful reform to take place at the local and state school board level, reform which would require greater economic and operational efficiencies within the context of existing spending levels. If we do it in business (and we have to, else our business fails), why can’t we insist on it in public education?

    I think I know the answer, and if you are a young parent, you will likely resent it: ultimately, the responsibility for how well our local schools perform lies with the parents of the children that attend them. In my opinion, the sad fact is that today parents are too busy (e.g., working longer hours or multiple jobs) to get involved, either with their local school board or with their children. Parents have abdicated that responsibility to the nanny state.

    Of course I’m stereotyping here, and that’s shameful. If you happen to be the exception to the rule I am describing, then you are likely to be doubly resentful, but the fact (according to me, anyway) is most parents are not fully engaged in the maintenance of the public education system. Besides, it’s much easier to blame public ed than roll up your sleeves and fix it.

    In my view, vouchers will only incentivize more parents to disengage from fixing public education. Indeed, it will be the parents who are the exception to my rule, the ones who are currently actively involved in their childrens’ education, who are most likely to take advantage of vouchers (they are the ones who are better educated and more prosperous). As a result, public ed will continue (even accelerate) to decline. Eventually only the poorest, least gifted and hardest-to-educate children will be left in public schools. That will signal the end of public education…another milestone ticked off on the conservative agenda.

    I guess you could call me a “residual nationalist”…I liked the way things were when I was growing up. I’m not sure I want to be part of this new 21st century conservative super-empowered global economy market-state. I’m not so sure it’s an improvement over the 20th century nation-state. Are you?

  2. Jesse says:

    I agree that parents abdicating the ultimate responsibility for their children’s education is why we are where we are. The question is how to re-engage them to make the process as effective as it used to be. I believe that forcing them to make some choices through vouchers is a solid way to get them back into the process and choosing how they want their children educated and participating in the process.

    If you have ideas on how to entice parents back into being involved in the current system, I’m definitely all ears. Vouchers are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. The end is and always should be improving the quality of education by whatever means make the most sense. That’s why I want to hear ideas and open discussion. Pass or fail, I hope the voucher issue will spur more open debate about changing existing processes, radically if need be, to ensure we’re delivering a solid product that’s flexible enough to meet diverse needs.

    As I had stated, part of my unwillingness to continue to try and fix the system is based on past performance. Thirty plus years of increased spending without increased teacher pay and flat performance makes me suspicious of those in charge. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to kindle enough anger from parents to try ousting the scoundrels and replacing them with folks who are more apt to increase efficiency. Even if we elected new school board leaders, the process of changing an organization’s culture from the top down is an almost insurmountable task. (Witness what Lou Gerstner did with IBM for how rarely this can occur.) It’s something that needs to start from the bottom up if it is to occur at all.

    I can see your point that parents may choose to abandon public schools as opposed to try and fix them. My thoughts are that if we end up with smaller and fewer schools, it could very well become more likely for the aforementioned culture change to take place. Also bear in mind that around half of Utahns oppose vouchers and would not take advantage of them and I don’t doubt that a significant number of voucher supporters want the option available but would not exercise it. We won’t know for sure unless they go into place, and we won’t know how many poor students will be taking advantage of them (or what facilities will be available for them) until that time. (See the chicken-and-egg scenario above.)

    Also, I forgot to add into my post that teachers send their children to private schools at a rate twice that of everyone else. I would argue connoisseurship (kind of like buying the same kind of car that mechanics do), though that is certainly up for debate.

  3. I wish I had the answer to how to get parents more involved. I guess the simplistic approach would be to make it mandatory (much the way some private schools require parental participation, ironically enough). Look, I actually have mixed feelings on vouchers. I would hate to take an education option away from any parent. I just fear that providing a tax subsidy (and that’s all it is) is going to result in more kids attending whacko religious schools, and I can’t stand the thought of public tax money supporting them. Of couse, when I wrote about vouchers on my blog, a certain commenter made mention of the fact that Pell Grants are provided for students to attend BYU, TCU and Notre Dame…all private religious schools. I don’t have an answer for that…I just don’t think it’s right. I concur that if it is OK to attend a religious college with tax money, then it is OK to attend a religious grade school too.

  4. brent says:

    Jesse,

    This is fantastic. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to link to it from my blog. And let me just add my two cents in response to voucher opponents.

    “Public tax money” just so happens to be my money. It just so happens to be your money. It just so happens to be the money of parents with school-age kids.

    There can be no moral or legal opposition to the idea that parents should be able to spend that money for any purpose they choose. Do we really think that parents who invest time, money and energy in their children’s education are going to choose a school that teaches their kids to be religious kooks or hatemongers? Only a miniscule number of parents would be likely to make such a decision.

    And the argument that the government has a say in how parents can and cannot raise their children is frightening.

  5. Jesse says:

    Link away, Brent! I don’t mind trackbacks at all.

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