Still More on School Choice…

I don’t know if you’ve been following the conversation that two of my readers Jake and Mike are having over on my "More on School Choice" post, but I’ve really been challenged by their thinking.  Both are clearly delinating two alternative positions about what is quickly becoming a critical issue in education.  Their thoughts are worth a read for everyone involved in educational policy conversations.

Jake Savage, who blogs over at The Stackable Bards, argues in favor of school choice as a means of driving change in education—and perhaps more importantly, giving parents more control over how their tax dollars are spent—when he writes:

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….[this] gives people more say in how the government spends their money.

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.

Mike—who has got to be blogging somewhere because he’s brilliant—argues against school choice as a diversion of tax dollars to organizations that are not being held to the same standards as public schools when he writes:

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. Therefore, conservatives 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….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…

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…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 anything but conservative."

Let’s continue this conversation.  Where do you stand on school choice?  Leave us a comment to share your thinking.  It’ll be fun to see how we polish our positions.  Articulating your point of view will force you to reflect—and challenge others at the same time.  It’s a two-for-one bargain I hope you won’t pass up!

6 thoughts on “Still More on School Choice…

  1. Jake Savage

    Thanks, Mike. Sorry about that last sentence; I was probably not as clear as I could have been. I’ll leave any further clarification or discussion for another day though. Good luck to you and your students on the testing process!

  2. Mike

    Dear Bill (and Jake):
    Thanks again for sponsoring this thread. With mandatory state testing upon all of us in Texas, I’m going to have to bow out of this one for now. I suspect that anyone interested in this topic can glean our relative positions and ideas from what has already passed.
    Thanks too to Jake for a worthwhile and civil exchange. I’d add only in closing that I don’t believe I’ve tried to impose any restrictions on private schools, rather merely tried to describe the social and economic forces at work in all schooling. Finally, I’d respond to your last sentence in your last post, but I have no idea what you’re saying there.

  3. Jake Savage

    A few replies to some specific comments, while they’re on my mind:
    “As to KIPP academies…they seem to be far from businesses supporting themselves in a free market.”
    That would be because we do not have a free market in education. We have a government-directed monopoly which sets a price ceiling at zero dollars, driving potential competition out of the market. Every tax payer already pays for public education through their tax dollars, so most of them take advantage of the “free” schools rather than double-pay by covering everyone else’s public education as well as a private tuition of their own. In a true free-market for education, the amount that an individual spends on education would be determined by their willingness to pay for it. As you recognize, such a system would likely price some people out of the market, since it costs more to provide an education than some are able to pay. However, if we believe in public funding of education, a simple subsidy would enable these people to obtain one as well, without requiring that government run the entire system. Think food stamps, subsidized housing (mortgage tax writeoffs, for example), Medicare, federal loans for higher education, etc. All of these programs provide people help without mandating exactly where the money be spent and allow the market to maintain some type of pricing. Think about what would happen if the Post Office mailed everything for free. Would UPS and FedEx be able to exist as they currently do?
    “And while the government, as Jake uses the term, does mandate where children attend school, that is our mandate and, in large part, our choice.”
    “Our choice” is a deceptive phrase. Individuals’ preferences do not aggregate nicely enough to indicate that the choice of where a child goes to school accurately represents the will of the community, and definitely not the will of the parents. In practice, “our choice” means the choice made by a bureaucrat based on the demands of several competing special interests, the loudest of which tend to receive the majority of the consideration. There is no place in the system for poor parents who work full time and have no advocacy group to support their wishes. Look at the breakdown of schools by neighborhood in cities across the country and try to tell me that it is fair. Furthermore, majority rule is not a good measure of priorities. What is the parent of a disabled child to do if the rest of the parents in the school don’t want the school to adequately accommodate her child? No matter how much she advocates, her interests are in conflict with those of the majority and will not be heard (this is why legislation and court cases are required to force local school districts to accommodate children with disabilities).
    “Few governmental entities are closer to direct democracy than local school districts. Seats on school boards are routinely won by mere handfulls of votes, sometimes, even a single vote can determine such elections.”
    So, in other words, school board members are elected, not by the community at large, but by the handful of voters who take the time to learn about the candidates and the issues and who have the time during the day to get to the polls. Also, if a decision is made by a single vote, then there is either a small number of votes, or a large percentage of the voters (just under fifty percent, at least) did not get the choice that they preferred.
    “And if one does not like their schools, they have the option of moving. Yes, I know that not everyone can easily move, but the option remains.”
    So, you support school choice if the person is wealthy enough to move to a more expensive school district, but not if they’re too poor to do so. In the latter case, they get whatever the government deigns to give them. Is that right?
    “This would greatly exceed, in most school districts, the $2000.00 per year or so that voucher advocates currently advocate and could easily run $5000.00 per year or more per pupil.”
    Utah’s voucher program is $3000 per pupil, and I’d imagine that the cost of living there is lower than in many other parts of the country. Even if the costs were to run to $5000 per pupil, it would be significantly less than the $6-8000 per pupil that is spent in a traditional public school. Many public schools even spend upwards of $10,000 per pupil and get horrible results (cf. Washington, DC public schools). If the value to the public of a child’s education is around $8000, why would we only spend $2000 on a voucher?
    “Public schools exist as they do because without universal public support, there would be no universal schooling for American children. Schools are not and cannot be for profit enterprises. For such businesses to thrive, they would have to utterly violate the laws of supply and demand by charging far more in tuition than the overwhelming majority of Americans could possibly afford to pay.”
    If this is truly your primary argument, then I partly agree (aside from “schools are not and cannot be for profit enterprises,” which only holds if you assume that they must receive low tuition, have no outside funding, and face a government monopoly). Specifically, I agree that universal schooling would not happen without some form of public funding since there are some who wouldn’t be able to pay the minimum amount it costs to educate a child. I disagree, however, with the idea that this schooling must take place in a government-run institution and that it must be done by using government funds to pay the entire amount. The financial argument you have posited has nothing to do with school choice (which merely says that parents should be allowed to direct the use of public funds in educating their children) and only really addresses the current lack of private competition for public schools absent any sort of school choice. I don’t believe anyone is arguing that a vast private school network should exist under current legal and economic conditions without the introduction of school choice, so I don’t really know why you would think it important to refute such a stance.

  4. Jake Savage

    Thanks for this post. I believe it presents your clearest argument yet and demonstrates where our primary disagreements lie. Specifically, I think that we disagree on what school choice is. To me, school choice means allowing the public funds that are allocated to a child’s education to follow that child to whatever school he or she attends, whether that school is run by the government or by a business or non-profit organization. To you, school choice consists of taking a small fraction of the public funds for educating a child and transferring it to a for-profit business. You place several restrictions on these schools to determine whether you consider them successful:
    1. They must be a for-profit business;
    2. They must not receive funding other than tuition;
    3. The voucher amount dedicated to each child must be significantly lower than the amount that would be spent on that child in a public school.
    Once you have placed these strictures on school choice, you declare that no such schools exist and therefore that no voucher program will be successful. However, I do not see why any of these are necessary for a school choice program. If you could explain why you consider these to be necessary, perhaps we can discuss those assumptions (or, if I have mischaracterized your argument, please describe what you believe are the requirements that a private school under a voucher program must meet to be considered successful). If a voucher program is more like the school choice that I describe, I see no reason why any of your arguments should rule it out as emphatically as you seem to believe they do. I am talking about a change in governance structure, whereas you seem to be focusing on a difference in dollar amounts.
    A second area of disagreement is the influence that the public should have on how a child is educated, and here I think we could have a good discussion. First, you seem to believe that having an elected (or appointed) school board provides a more effective method for parents to advocate for their children than would a system under which they could move to a better school if they chose. I don’t see this at all. A parent has much more power in a school if that parent has the option of removing the student (along with the voucher) than if the government has mandated that the student must attend that school. Exit trumps voice in terms of parental power, especially for parents of at-risk children. Second, and far more interesting for future discussion, you argue that the public has a stake in a child’s education and should have a say that may differ from the parent’s wishes. This is absolutely a valid argument and is one that I think we should pursue. What is the public’s interest in a child’s education and how should that interest be expressed, either in a school choice system or in current schools? Could a regulated school choice system provide the same level of public oversight as a government-only system? Is there value in providing uniform cultural values that would be lost if we allow individuals to attend schools that are more in line with their parents’ preferences? Who gets to make the decisions as to what those cultural values are? Do we lose more from the lack of diversity that might result from a school choice system than we gain in academic improvement? These are very interesting questions and I believe it would be valuable to discuss them.
    I would welcome input on any of these issues from any of the other readers of this site, so that we do not merely cover old ground, but move on to a greater understanding of the many disagreements that characterize the school choice debate. I look forward to seeing what others have to say.

  5. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    Thanks indeed for your kind comments and your willingness to sponsor this thread. I’m afraid I’m not a blogger, but a high school English teacher in Texas.
    To continue this thread, I’ll address Jake’s last comments from our earlier posts, but first, a bit of clarification.
    I’ve not suggested that private schools are financially impossible, just that schools are not businesses and that the public schools exist in recognition of the fact that one cannot make a profit on them. Those private schools that exist and that have sustained themselves over time, and this applies to private universities as well, are almost all supported primarily through enormous gifts and endowments. Tuition is simply not sufficient to build, maintain and run schools. When the entities supplying the overwhelming majority of funds for private schools are no longer able to supply that funding, as in the contemporary case of Catholic schools, the schools close.
    Rather than suggesting that sectarian and other private schools “don’t count,” I’m suggesting directly that they do. In fact, their existance is eloquent testimony that it is possible to have high quality, sustainable private schools. The point is that they cannot exist as a for-profit business. If this was possible, would there not be high quality private schools in every American community, competing tooth and nail with public schools? And if the argument is that these schools do not exist in large part due to the lack of public money to establish and support them, are we not admitting that they can’t stand on their own without becoming, in essence, publically supported schools, but without accountability to the public?
    As to KIPP academies, I’m hardly an expert in their finances, but it would appear that they are also supported (though perhaps not entirely) through large financial donations through entities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. A visit to their website indicates that only 52 of these academies currently exist. If they do require public money as well, this also supports the assertion that schools aren’t businesses. These schools seem to have some success and apparently employ an academically rigorous, back to basics sort of curriculum. This I would generally–because I am not intimately familiar with these schools and their methods–support, but again, they seem to be far from businesses supporting themselves in a free market.
    In another thread Jake asked “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…”
    I believe Jake is making a fundamental error here. The government, particularly in terms of local school districts, is not some monolithic, negligently harmful behemoth (though in some ways, and on some levels, the very definition of incompetence and neglect might be “government”), but us. And while the government, as Jake uses the term, does mandate where children attend school, that is our mandate and, in large part, our choice.
    Few governmental entities are closer to direct democracy than local school districts. Seats on school boards are routinely won by mere handfulls of votes, sometimes, even a single vote can determine such elections. If we don’t like a school board decision, we might literally walk next door and have a few words with our local school board member. Nowhere in American democracy is the individual more powerful, and nowhere does the individual have more influence on governmental decisions. And if one does not like their schools, they have the option of moving. Yes, I know that not everyone can easily move, but the option remains.
    There is no parallel between a school district requiring that little Johhny attend Abraham Lincoln Elementary rather than George Washington Elementary and the government assigning housing. We allow the former because of our recognition that schools are not for profit enterprises and that the orderly administration of schools–for the benefit of our student and society–requires rules that some individuals may not like, yet this part of the social contract is necessary for all to live together and to allow the opportunites for prosperity we enjoy in abundance. The latter governmental power does not exist (thankfully), and does not apply to this disucssion, because the power to do it is seen only in communist or otherwise totalitarian societies. I am certainly not arguing for that, and I’m sure Jake is not.
    In his most recent post, Jake admits that tuition would not be sufficient. He suggests that it would be necessary to provide public funds in addition to tuition in the form of vouchers “… to help defray/repay start-up costs.” He also suggests that the vouchers would have to equal the amount a given school spends per pupil per year. This would greatly exceed, in most school districts, the $2000.00 per year or so that voucher advocates currently advocate and could easily run $5000.00 per year or more per pupil.
    Again, Jake continues to inadvertently support the status quo, which is that public schools require substaintial initial and continuing financial support that the free market cannot possibly provide. Many “school choice” (voucher) advocates disingenuously suggest (yes, I know that Jake has not) that vouchers will not take money from the public schools, but if not, from where will that money come? Highway funding? Park maintenance? Would the public support less funding in these areas if they would not support less funding in the schools? And notice, we’re not addressing the legal and constitutional issues inherent in this debate.
    In making my case, I am not suggesting that public schools cannot and should not exist, and I am making no specific claim as to such issues as curriculum and relative outcomes. I am merely making two primary assertions (or in this case, for this new thread, reassertions):
    (1) Public schools exist as they do because without universal public support, there would be no universal schooling for American children. Schools are not and cannot be for profit enterprises. For such businesses to thrive, they would have to utterly violate the laws of supply and demand by charging far more in tuition than the overwhelming majority of Americans could possibly afford to pay.
    (2) Successful private schools of long standing exist because they recognize that #1 is true and they obtain operating funding that far outstrips the money available through tuition in the form of grants, endowments, and outright gifts from those wealthy enough to provide the substantial sums of money necessary to keep their doors open from year to year.
    Should Jake, or anyone else, be able to explain how a voucher dollar is not a dollar removed from the operating budget of a public school, then we have a new issue over which to formulate arguments. But for the time being, it would seem that we’re covering old ground, hopefully in new and interesting ways, but the same dust is still gathering on our shoes.

  6. Jake Savage

    Thanks for your generosity in allowing Mike and I to take over your previous comment thread and for creating a site where reasoned discourse and debate is expected behavior.
    For those who don’t want to read through the comments in the other post, I thought I would provide a quick summary of the arguments. I’ll try to be objective in my presentation, but I’m sure Mike will let me know if I have anything wrong.
    Mike argued in his initial comment that public schooling is something only government can do because of the high fixed costs of building construction. Since private enterprises would not have this money available, the schools that they operate using public funds (through vouchers or similar programs) would have to cut corners, setting up shop in unsafe or low-quality buildings, hiring unqualified teachers, ignoring standard background checks that would keep criminals out of the classroom, not providing extracurricular activities, and preferring store-bought curricula to effective teachers. Furthermore, since these schools would not be able to truly function, they would open their doors, attract a lot of students, then shut down a year or two later, leaving the children with an inferior education and a lot of lost time.
    To respond to this argument, I suggested that private schools that receive the same amount of per-student funding as similar public schools (including an portion to help defray/repay start-up costs) should have no trouble providing all of these resources, and indeed that competition for students would encourage private schools to provide better education than their competitors. Businesses in many fields incur high start-up costs, but they believe that the return on investment justifies the initial expense. Furthermore, the private schools that have succeeded contradict Mike’s suggestion that this is impossible. Mike listed sectarian schools and wealthy private schools (saying that they don’t count), and I cited the KIPP Academies (as an example) and private success in other areas of education, such as private universities.
    That’s a quick summary of the main issue. There were several other issues debated (including the discussion Bill quoted on whether school choice is “conservative”). I would welcome anyone else’s thoughts. Is it truly impossible to create private schools? How will competition function in education? Is school choice more or less “conservative” than the status quo? I look forward to the conversation.

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