More on School Choice….

Mike, one of my readers, left this comment yesterday on the negative consequences of school choice. I thought it was well worth highlighting because it paints a solid picture of some of the real challenges of school choice as a policy for education reform:

It may be useful to consider that there are very good reasons why our public school system has evolved to its current state. Among them is that running schools in terms of facilities and supplies is extraordinarily expensive. So expensive, in fact, that private business simply can’t, with few exceptions, do it properly. Yes, there are those privately funded schools with decent facilities, but those are limited in the number of students they accept, and cannot offer the range of activities that the average public school offers. Indeed, many private schools sue their local governments for access to activites such as sports, band, choir, dance, etc., books and various other supplies for their students.

Should the wildest dreams of the voucher crowd come to fruition, we’d find private schools popping up in church basements, abandoned storefronts, condemned school buildings, and dilapidated warehouses throughout the nation. And who would teach in these paragons of capitalism? People willing to accept starvation wages, perhaps well intentioned, perhaps merely willing to accept the ideology, religious or otherwise, of their "schools." Would there be education requirements for teachers? certification? Criminal records checks? Unlikely, as private schools have no such strictures.

Great! We’ll buy computer programs and engage in direct instruction. We don’ need no stinkin’ teachers!

And in the meantime, public schools will be bleeding money, which will have a significant negative effect on their ability to do their jobs. They’ll have no choice–they have to remain open and serve every student who knocks on the front door. Private schools can open and fold as the free market dictates, and they will open and fold with stunning rapidity, leaving wasted years of kid’s learning lives in the dust, while true accountability remains with the public schools, on your corner, in your town, taught by your friends and neighbors, and by the school boards you can elect or turn out of office, just as it always has.

Choice? Yes. Parents can make the choice to get involved, positively, in their children’s educations and in the operation of their schools. Students can make the choice to be involved in their own educations and to take advantage of the many opportunities their schools daily provide.

There are indeed some fine private schools, but in a voucher laden, free market for private schools, many private school students will find themselves in the same predicament as hour old McDonald’s hamburgers: relegated to the education trash bin when those running private schools learn in short order that running a school is not, inherently, a for profit enterprise.

So what do you think? Is Mike on target about school choice? Which of his arguments carry the most weight with you?  Which do you think are fundamentally weak?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts….

6 comments

  1. Jake Savage

    Mike,
    I thought I’d respond to the following comment here, because I don’t really think it’s an argument worthy of any serious consideration over at the new post.
    “I believe that you may confuse what passes for conservatism among some these days with actual conservatism. Contemporary conservatives, for example, often advocate the abolishment, even the criminalization of abortion. Real conservatives may revile the practice, but believe that allowing government to intrude in such a private decision is unconscionable. The same holds true in education matters.”
    First, any brand of conservatism you care to mention will allow laws to prohibit one person from harming another. The contemporary conservatives you mention believe that a human fetus is a human being and is endowed with the rights granted by that status. Thus, they believe that abortion is a violent act committed by one person against another. Establishing laws to limit or prohibit such an act is very much in line with a conservative (or indeed most any) political philosophy. Your opinion on abortion has nothing to do with the role of the government and everything to do with your beliefs about the status of the fetus.
    Second, I am surprised that you do not recognize the irony of stating that the government should not “intrude” in a private matter regarding parents’ decisions about their unborn children while arguing that it is mandatory for the government to intrude on parents’ decisions about how to raise their children after they are born. If “the same hold[s] true in education matters,” then you should be in favor of complete school choice, not overbearing government intrusion.
    However, as I have said, I don’t think your argument is really worthy of this discussion, so I see no reason to discuss it here any further.
    Jake

  2. Jake Savage

    Mike,
    I don’t have time to provide a lengthy response right now, so I’ll ask a couple of quick questions:
    1. Where do KIPP Academies and other similar schools fall in your classification of schools?
    2. In which situation is the government more intrusive, when it decides where a child will attend school or when it gives the parents money and allows them to make the decision? As a thought experiment, would it be less intrusive for the government to assign housing to every American or to subsidize the choice of housing that they make (if we thought that was advisable)?
    We can continue this discussion on the new post Bill has added. Thanks again for the good conversation thus far.
    Jake

  3. Mike

    Dear Jake:
    Overgeneralizing from anecdotal experience? No. Merely providing the benefit of experience to whichever degree one finds it helpful. I offer that experience not to absolutely prove any particular issue, but simply because we all benefit from the experience of others, particularly if that experience is informed and relevant to the issues under discussion. It is a truism that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, yet truisms are, in fact, true.
    Please understand too that I was not suggesting that the hiring of criminals in American private schools is widespread. I was and am merely stating that without proper screening of school personnel, which may well need to be mandated under law, such problems are more likely, and surely a concern for any education professional, to say nothing of parents.
    The primary thrust of my posts here has always been and remains that building and operating a school is nothing at all like building and operating a business. Schools are and must be non-profit enterprises. Private schools that have been in existance for decades tend to fall into one of two categories: Non-sectarian schools founded by and supported through substantial endowments and/or regular gifts by the wealthy for the wealthy, or sectarian schools whose enormous deficits (tuition can’t possibly provide sufficient money) are backstopped through the infusion of cash from their sponsoring, associated entities.
    Possibly the best example of the latter is the Catholic school system. But even these schools have recently fallen on hard times, and as dioceses have run into financial difficulties for a variety of reasons, as fewer and fewer young men and women have become priests and nuns (teachers for the Catholic schools), a number of catholic schools around the nation have had to obey the dictates of the free enterprise system–a system within which they absolutely cannot compete–and close their doors.
    Finally, as to conservatism. Bedrock conservative principle is absolute minimal government involvement in the personal lives of its citizens. Conservatives generally concede that public schools are necessary and allowable under that principle. So too do they believe in representative government, direct democracy being impractical in contemporary America.
    Therefore, conservatives have no problem with electing school boards who hire superintendents, who hire principals who hire teachers. They also have no difficulty, understanding the necessity of schools, with supporting them through some public means. They may quibble over the best and least intrusive means, but the general practice ruffles few conservative feathers.
    One cannot argue that conservatives would then support the taking of the public funds they know are necessary for the schools for any alternate form of education one might prefer. This is so even if the intent of those seeking public funds is noble or that their intentions might benefit a few, or even many. Conservatives know that the power to dissimenate funds is a mighty power, and that when one accepts government funding rather than relying on their own means, they are empowering government and weakening themselves. With government funding comes government control. It is truly a sword that cuts both ways and one edge of the sword cannot be rendered harmless without effecting the other as well.
    You see, Sir, I understand “school choice” and conservatism all too well. School choice is merely one of many euphemisms for the diversion of public tax money to private ends which in some circumstances, might well be unconstitutional (those darned conservatives tend to be sticklers for the Constitution too). Conservatives are very much for the accountability of government, particularly in its use of tax funds. Giving money to certain favored individuals with few or no means of accounting for its use–and this is exactly what those who support “school choice” want, is it not?–is anything but conservative.
    I believe that you may confuse what passes for conservatism among some these days with actual conservatism. Contemporary conservatives, for example, often advocate the abolishment, even the criminalization of abortion. Real conservatives may revile the practice, but believe that allowing government to intrude in such a private decision is unconscionable. The same holds true in education matters.

  4. Jake Savage

    Mike,
    Thanks for the response. I appreciate your relaying your experience with private schools and your thoughts on the effects of school choice. However, I still find most of your assertions unconvincing, since I suspect you may be overgeneralizing from your own anecdotal experience with a few specific schools and programs.
    The high start-up cost of schooling is formidible, but no more so than the start-up cost of many other businesses in which people invest. Restaurants, hospitals, universities, fitness centers, etc. all have to put a great deal of expense into initial building construction before they can open their doors, and yet private businesses seem willing to invest this money, expecting to make it back over time.
    If voucher programs are providing $2000 per student and are not able to entice businesses to supply a quality education, perhaps it is because they set the price too low. The average per pupil expenditure of a typical public school is currently, I believe, between $6000 and $8000. Any school choice program would, of course, have to provide enough money to make it worthwhile for the private schools that would open. Depending on the real rate of interest, a community could even save money by paying more for voucher students than for public school students if it meant they didn’t have to construct a $50,000,000 building now.
    Regarding the opportunities that a school can provide, first I do not believe that private schools need to offer fewer opportunities. Since they respond to the needs of the children who attend, not the desires of the community at large, they will provide what those students and their parents want. I also share the opinion (as discussed in Bill’s latest post) that schools have been asked to do too much. Would it really be so bad if schools taught children what they’re supposed to teach them and forgot about the extracurricular activities that could better be provided by another type of organization?
    Regarding private schools hiring teachers with fewer “credentials,” I would suggest that the current credentialling system does not really tell us that much about teacher quality and that a school system that has to compete for students will tend to provide better service to students and parents, including providing better teachers. While I’m sure you’ve seen anecdotal cases of private schools trying to cut costs with lower quality teachers, I would also expect that you have seen anecdotal evidence of public school teachers who are not fit to be in the classroom either. Of course, it is much harder to get rid of a poor teacher in a unionized public school than it is in a private or charter school.
    Have the “acquaintences” you mention been creating schools under a true school choice system, or are you talking about people starting private schools that have to cater to a different audience? Assuming the former (since the latter would completely invalidate your point), I’m sorry they didn’t succeed, but that is the effect of competition in the marketplace. If you are truly right that creating a private school will never be possible given the inherent requirements for educating a child, then you have nothing to fear from a school choice system, since no one will be able to take advantage of it. The fact that charter and private schools do succeed means that the task can’t be impossible.
    I’m sorry to hear that you know of schools that have hired criminals, but I would be very surprised if this were at all widespread. As I mentioned previously, there is nothing to gain and a whole lot to lose from such indiscriminate hiring, and I very much doubt that it would be as common among private schools as you suggest.
    Finally, regarding your comment: “Ultimately, if one counts themself to be conservative, how does one justify asking the government for handouts in this or any other matter?”
    You seem to be deeply confused about what school choice would mean relative to the current system if you believe that it would represent “asking for handouts.” Under the current system, money is taken from everyone and then spent at the government’s discretion. Under a school choice system, the same amount of money (or less) would be taken from everyone and then spent at the discretion of each child’s parents. How does this constitute a handout? It only gives people more say in how the government spends their money. It does not ask the government for additional money (i.e. a handout) unless the educational establishment refuses to allow parents this measure of control over their child’s education.
    Of course, there are methods of school funding that would be even more conservative and free market focused, including tuition tax credits and simply removing the redistributive aspect altogether by eliminating public funds. The latter is not at all likely given the general public’s belief in education as a right and a public good. The former has the benefit of enabling more efficient pricing of education, but may also be unpalatable to many.
    Regardless, any school choice program is more “conservative” than a system that is entirely government-run, and your suggestion to the contrary belies a lack of understanding either of conservatism or of school choice or of both.
    Jake

  5. Mike

    Dear Jake:
    Just a brief comment here on your reponse. Money from the state provided for individual students does not, with very few exceptions in a few states, go toward facility, maintenance and salary expenses. Building a high school, for example, for a medium sized student body, can easily top $50,000,000 these days. Even if I wanted to start a private school and had 200 students willing to enroll with their $2000 vouchers in hand, I wouldn’t have enough money to pave a small parking lot, let alone build or maintain proper school facilities.
    And of course, we could go on at length about the kind of opportunities such a school could offer. Sports? Music? Drama? Computers? And yes, many private schools hire people to teach who have few if any educational credentials because many private schools rely almost entirely on pre-packaged curriculums that, according to the companies that sell them, essentially remove any need for competence and creativity in teaching. Of course, they seldom couch their sales pitches in such blatant terms, that that’s the upshot of what they’re doing.
    Extreme predictions? Not at all. In fact, among my friends and acquaintences over the years have been decent, smart hardworking people who have tried to make a go of establishing private schools, only to fail badly for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned. And I’ve also had direct experience with private schools who actually (not on purpose, thankfully) hired criminals to work in their schools because on first blush, they seemed to have the attitudes and beliefs that those running the schools were seeking.
    Ultimately, if one counts themself to be conservative, how does one justify asking the government for handouts in this or any other matter?

  6. Jake Savage

    I’ll respond to a few of these:
    1. Running schools is too expensive for private schools under a voucher system to afford to provide decent facilities.
    If a voucher system were to provide the same amount of funding per child to a government-run public school and to a private or charter school, how is the cost of operating a school going to be too expensive for one but not for the other? Certainly there may be some economies of scale here, but a private school serving the same number of students and receiving the same amount of money as a public school shouldn’t generally face a different cost structure. If anything, one would expect the relative lack of restrictions on private schools to mean that they could provide greater value for the cost.
    2. Vouchers would lead to unqualified teachers and criminals placed in charge of instruction.
    Really now. First, given the state of legal liability, what private school would open itself to claims of having criminals teaching children, especially when avoiding it would be so cheap. Second, would you send your child to a school where the teachers were unqualified? If not, why would you expect that other people would? Private schools that are interested in attracting students would likely employ higher-skilled teachers than local schools and would be willing to pay more to attract such teachers. Look at any similar free market enterprise: would you expect private universities to hire bad professors, private hospitals to hire incompetent doctors, private restaurants to hire people who can’t cook, or any other competitive business to handicap itself in such a way as to remove any possibility of success?
    3. Vouchers will cause public schools to bleed money.
    A public school receives a certain amount of money to educate a child. If the public school is not educating that child, it does not receive the money. In other words, the public is not funding a school; it’s funding a child’s education. If a school with 100 students and $500,000 to educate them has half of their students leave to attend other schools, do you believe that the school should still receive $500,000 for the remaining 50 students?
    4. Private schools funded by vouchers will open and close with “stunning rapidity,” leaving the students that attended them with a fragmented and worthless education.
    I think this is the strongest argument in the piece. Indeed, one of my concerns about school choice is the danger of wasting a year of a child’s education on a school that fails to educate her at all. However, I think there are a few additional factors to consider:
    – This already happens to many children in poor public schools, but rather than being able to leave after a year for a better education, they are stuck in those bad schools for their entire K-12 experience. In addition, the only students who would attend a bad school under a full voucher program would be those whose parents chose that school. Parents who did the research and cared about the outcome would make better choices for their children.
    – At the outset, private schools will have a much greater variance in quality than public schools currently, but the schools at the bottom of the distribution will close and the ones at the top will attract more students. Over time, private schools should improve on average as this process continues.
    – Given the massive expense Mike believes is involved in running a school, what business seeking to turn a profit (or break even) would invest in the start-up costs of creating a brand new school and recruiting students, teachers, and administrators only to shut down a year or two later? Unlike the dot-com phenomenon, the start-up costs of a school are far from negligible and I believe it is unlikely that too many entrepreneurs would undertake them without an intention of a long-term existence.
    5. “True accountability remains with the public schools, on your corner, in your town, taught by your friends and neighbors, and by the school boards you can elect or turn out of office, just as it always has.”
    So am I to take this to mean that schools funded by vouchers will not be “in your town,” and their teachers won’t be “your friends and neighbors?” Virtual classrooms aside, this is just silly. Schools that aren’t managed in the same way as traditional public schools still provide a public service and most schools under school choice will still be physical buildings close by and staffed by real live people who live in the same neighborhoods as you.
    6. Parents can make the choice to vote for school board members and change their school.
    Not easily, and not effectively in many areas. In contrast, school choice gives the parents of every child the right to vote with their feet and choose the education that they believe is best for their child, not what the members of the school board think is best or what some bureaucrat with a map and a Sharpie decides based on pressure from local interest groups.
    7. “Students can make the choice to be involved in their own educations and to take advantage of the many opportunities their schools daily provide.”
    Not in many poor urban districts where the school provides no opportunities and the “education” the children receive is actually hindering them from learning, and definitely not in schools where gang violence means that survival is a higher priority than learning.
    8. “…running a school is not, inherently, a for profit enterprise.”
    First, many private/charter schools operate as non-profits. Second, there is nothing inherent about education not being a for-profit enterprise. Witness private colleges and universities, private tutoring programs, as well as the “fine private schools” Mike mentions.