Sunday, January 15, 2006

Are there any good arguments against school vouchers?

Are there any good arguments against school vouchers?
I was reading another pro-voucher post from Coyote Blog, and the thought struck me: Are there any good arguments against school vouchers?

As a long-time Economist reader, I'm afraid that I'm already biased towards market solutions, so I checked out what the folks at balancedpolitics.org had to say, as well as the folks at soyouwanna.com.

In essence, the main arguments voiced against vouchers are:

1. It takes away money from public schools.

2. Allowing parents to use vouchers to pay for parochial (religious schools) violates the separation of church and state.

3. Voucher programs favor the wealthy and religious, who previously paid for private and parochial school out of their own pockets.

4. Private schools may not provide the same quality of education.

I think that I'm being fair, as opposed to presenting a straw man; if you disagree, please comment.

Let's look at these arguments one by one:

1. It takes away money from public schools.

This may certainly be true, but I don't see why this is a negative. If the school isn't serving the needs of its customer (the parents and children), it doesn't deserve their money. One might as well say that we shouldn't buy Japanese import cars because it takes money away from GM and Ford.

2. Allowing parents to use vouchers to pay for parochial (religious schools) violates the separation of church and state.

I'm no constitutional expert, but if that's the case, why can people deduct contributions to religious charities on their tax returns? A better way of looking at this is that vouchers return to parents the choice on how to spend their tax dollars. Sure, some of them will use those tax dollars to send their kids to fundamentalist schools. I'd rather that they didn't, being a good secular humanist myself, but parents have a right to make such choices for themselves. It's not like having the government make choices for them has been without drawbacks!

3. Voucher programs favor the wealthy and religious, who previously paid for private and parochial school out of their own pockets.

Just because a program benefits the wealthy doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do. Minority parents consistently support voucher programs--one 2000 study by an African-American think tank found that 90% of younger African-Americans are in favor of vouchers.

Moreover, the argument that vouchers favor the rich is like the argument that corporate dividends should be taxed: Let's do it because it mainly impacts the wealthy. Double taxation is wrong. It alters the economic incentives (for example, encouraging companies to pursue stock buybacks or acquisitions instead of distributing cash to shareholders).

Finally, if this is such a big issue, just limit voucher programs to the poor.

4. Private schools may not provide the same quality of education.

This is absurd hypocrisy. On the one hand, voucher opponents argue that private schools may not provide a good education, but on the other hand, they decry the way that wealthy parents abandon the public school system for private schools.

Are we to believe that wealthy parents are spending money to give their kids an inferior education? Are they being sent to private schools because they want them to be taught some sort of racist, fundamentalist curriculum?

Moreover, these same voucher opponents wax eloquent on the terrible state of our public schools. Only instead of allow parents whose children go to bad schools to pull them out and find better ones, these people argue for diverting yet more money into failing schools.

Again, one might as well argue that we should be granting government subsidies to purchase GM cars, or handing extra billions to GM to build better cars.

Actually, both GM and the public schools do have one thing in common. Both have strong unions that contribute millions to political candidates. Alas, poor parents and students don't have that option.

16 comments:

MJ said...

The problem with the whole "vouchers" argument is that it casts taxation and government services in a consumer model.

Government is not in the business of providing services that people want to and can buy individually. Government is in the business of ensuring some kind of minimally supportive society.

The taxes that I pay to support public schools are not a fee to send my kid to school. They are a tax, which should be used to support some kind of common good. In this case, the common good is that society at large should not be saddled with large masses of dangerously uneducated people who are unemployable and therefore a destabilizing element.

My issue with vouchers is not that they drain money from public schools, but that they drain money from supporting a common good. If the best way to spend my tax money is to send poor kids to private schools, that's fine with me.

But if we are going to support draining money from a public utility, we had better understand what that will mean societally, not just individually.

Chris said...

Matt,

You're quite right that "society at large should not be saddled with large masses of dangerously uneducated people who are unemployable and therefore a destabilizing element." However, I don't see how school vouchers lead to that eventuality.

That seems to assume that parents will choose to send their children to private schools that do not provide a proper education, which I believe contradicts common sense.

Even private schools and home schooling are subject to certain standards...standards that many public schools are failing to meet.

Are we to believe that parents in the United States are so irrational or incompetent that they can't tell whether a school is good or bad?

As it is, rich people have choice (by sending their children to private schools or splashing a million bucks for a house in a good school district) and poor people do not. And I think that's wrong.

MJ said...

You're missing the point of my comment. It's not that avoiding the public schools is bad for those that do so -- it's that draining money from the public schools is bad for those that are left behind.

I'm all in favor of independent schooling. And I'm in favor of any program that opens up independent schooling to more kids that can't afford it. But I'm not in favor of draining tax money from public schools to do so.

If you want to use public money to send kids to private schools, why not take the money from somewhere else? Build fewer bridges to nowhere, and pay fewer farmers not to grow corn.

Chris said...

But your missing my point...if certain public school systems can't serve the market, they should be allowed to go under. The parents will find better alternatives.

It does not make sense to save something that isn't worth saving.

MJ said...

Again, you are using a market paradigm for a government service. If government services are not worth preserving, they should be shut down legislatively, not by bankrupting them through a back-door program.

Chris said...

The statement that "If government services are not worth preserving, they should be shut down legislatively, not by bankrupting them through a back-door program" is fallacious.

This implies that government services should not be subject to market forces. By the same token, we should legislate which defense contractors work on which programs. Oh wait, we do. But I don't think that either you or I think that it's a good thing that Halliburton gets no-bid contracts.

The goal of vouchers is not to bankrupt public schools. Their goal is to subject public schools to competitive pressures. If public schools can convince parents to enroll their students there, then great. But if not, why take away the parents' choice?

Chris said...

If allowing poor parents to choose where to send their children to school (because believe me, the rich are already exercising that choice) would destroy the public school system, how can the public school system be worth saving?

At their heart, the pro-choice position on abortion and the pro-voucher position on schools are the same. If anything, vouchers are more important than abortion rights, since they touch so many more people and have such a greater impact on young lives.

Why would it be right to deny parents this choice when it is wrong to deny a woman her right to choose?

MJ said...

You can subject government services to market forces, but then you should do that for everyone, not just some people.

Again, I don't believe in a competition model for government. Government is about providing services to everyone, not just to the people that want them.

Just because I don't consume a specific government service doesn't mean I get to opt out of paying for it.

The pro-choice argument is a little off here. I'm not arguing that people shouldn't be free to opt out of the public school system. All I'm saying is that that decision doesn't entitle them to a tax break.

Again, if the public schools are not worth saving, let's have a public discussion about that. If they're not working, let's shut them down.

Or, make public schools like the post office -- a hybrid public utility/private enterprise. But state upfront that that's what you're doing.

Sam said...

"You can subject government services to market forces, but then you should do that for everyone, not just some people."

It seems to me that by improving primary/secondary education in general - and that's what school vouchers would ultimately do - the government is serving everyone by the same principle that lower education should be mandatory. (Lots of ignorant people running around is bad, etc.)

Chris said...

Matt,

I think that schooling can be very successful as a public/private hybrid. I also think that pro-voucher folks like me aren't down on all public schools, just those that don't work.

For example, the public schools in Palo Alto are outstanding. Part of this is money (high property values = more funds), part of this is selection bias (the student body resembles that of an elite private schools, with 75% of parents holding a college degree), and part of this is simply that the best teachers flock to the school district because it lets them do what they love most: teach eager young students.

Even if you had vouchers, I doubt that there would be any defections from the Palo Alto School District, and that is a wonderful thing.

But in cases where the districts are poorly run, parents should have a choice. And maybe if they had a choice, the school districts would be forced to reform. Right now the only penalties for underperformance come from the horrifically flawed "No Child Left Behind Act" (a discussion of which should be left for another time).

As for the argument that the government is about providing services to everyone, why should the government be forced to own and operate schools, versus outsourcing to more efficient providers?

Medicare and Medicaid are certainly flawed in that many people are still without healthcare. But would we be better off if the government operated its own nationalized health service? I think not.

MJ said...

Interesting comparison -- there's actually been a lot of talk about opening up Medicare to non-seniors (letting people buy in) as a way to cover the uninsured. But that's a different topic.

We're kind of going around in circles here. As far as I can tell, we all agree that:

a) Generally, public schools are bad at educating people.

b) Increasing access to private schooling is a good thing.

Where we differ is in the solution:

a) Public schools should face budget cuts linked to declining enrollment as people choose to use their vouchers to attend private school, because this will either incent them to get better or run them out of business, in accordance with market principles.

or

b) The government should feel free to pay people's tuition at private schools, but linking school budgets to optional enrollment just ensures that public schools don't have the resources to improve.

Chris said...

Matt,

If you agree that public schools are bad at educating people and that increasing access to private schooling is a good thing, why would you advocate policies that protect public schools from competition and discourage parents from sending kids to private school?

Offering more money to public schools to fix their problems simply rewards them for past incompetence. This is like giving money to your problem child "because he needs it," while letting your good child fend for herself "because she can handle it."

Eliminating voucher programs means that only rich people can go to private schools.

I just don't see how your support of the status quo can lead to improvements in the education available to the poor and unprivileged.

MJ said...

My basic issue is that vouchers are a back-door way of giving up on public schools. It's a way to say "well, let them go to hell, people can send kids to private schools if they don't like them." It eliminates the public pressure to improve them.

But in general, I don't think "competition" is a useful concept applied to public services.

If I hire a private security guard, can I stop paying taxes for cops? If I hire a private fire brigade, can I stop paying taxes for firemen?

Chris said...

Matt,

What if I proposed the following hypothetical:

What if vouchers were only good for public schools? In other words, what if parents could choose whatever public school they wanted their kids to attend, regardless of geography?

In that case, the individual public schools would be subjected to market forces, but the total resources devoted to public schooling would be the same.

Would that get you to drop your opposition?

Joel said...

NYC high schools actually use such a model; just thought you'd be interested in that.

The argument here seems to come down to the question of implementation; not whether or not free market forces are beneficial; they are.

The lumbering giant that we call Gov't is quite clearly one of the most inefficient distributors of resources we know of. Their role should, ideally, be limited to regulating in the areas where free markets often fail. Anyhow, here's my take...

The Ultimate Goal: Provide the public with tools/knowledge that will enable them to live happy & productive lives.

While gov't is responsible for "providing" these tools, there needn't be restrictions on the method choosen. Regarding school vouchers, this is what I see as the major obstacle:

Tax revenue distribution becomes a major sticking point. Traditionally, municipalities collect the majority of funds used in school budgets. Do we then say to them, "The State/Federal Gov't will now be collecting these monies," and what kind of impact would this have on real estate values?

I love the concept and believe that the time should be taken to work out these details; but regarding the question of "Are there any good arguments against school vouchers?" this would be the most apparent in my eyes. Not that more complicated questions haven't been answered, but the discussion clearly should address these concerns...

P.S. I'd love to get involved in any work related to these issues that anyone is involved with. You can email me at: "1stname"@"website" Thanks!

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