January 31st, 2006
I was surprised to discover that in over 1600 posts, I had not dedicated one to public and private schools and the whole voucher matter. Or at least not that my search engine can detect. I cannot understand the strange attraction to universal private schools and the desire to dismantle or discount the public school system. It seems so obvious that such a plan would not work. I can only assume that the apparent success of a few private schools just dazzles many who do not think the whole thing through. In the 60's, we knew different. It was the space age, and we were funding education well. We encouraged kids (well, at least boys) to study math and science. We built good college systems--California had a great one, still good today, but deteriorating. In the 70's, people started grouching about property taxes, Prop 13 got passed, and things went downhill from there. I still recall hearing an educator back then predict that Prop 13 would be the beginning of the end. It also revolts me as to how right-wingers can be all about giving huge amounts of money in the form of tax breaks to rich people and corporations as if that were the cure to everything, and then squeal about how education problems can't be solved by "throwing money" at them. Somehow, paying a corporate executive $50 million a year instead of $20 million a year will solve all our problems, but the principle apparently never applies when it comes to teachers' salaries. And somehow, our economy can be fixed by giving already-flush oil companies billions of dollars in new tax breaks, but when schools can't afford to buy textbooks for their students, "throwing money at them," as if it would only go to waste, is never a solution. Clearly, that doesn't track. And just as clearly, education must be funded far better than it is. And even more clearly, to me at least, is the fact that private schools and vouchers simply will not work. The most apparent reasons include the illusion of success and the availability of resources. Let's talk about illusion first. Private schools are regarded as superior. We all feel a touch of awe if someone says they went to a private school, especially one of the expensive ones. Different attitudes apply to parochial private schools, but those aren't the ones we usually imagine when we hear the words "private school." So how do these schools get to be so successful? One of the major reasons is the fact that they can screen their students. They have waiting lists a mile long. They can pick and choose who they take in. They can accept the best and the brightest, the most promising kids. Which means that the fact that kids in private schools perform better on average is a self-fulfilling image. It's a matter of input and output: you admit only smart kids, and smart kids will come out. Surprise! In fact, a recent government study (don't know how Bush let this one slip through) found that once you factor out the artificial weeding of poorer students at private and charter schools, kids at public schools actually perform better than at private schools. Kevin Drum has a good chart showing the results, taken directly from the study (PDF file). But it's not just admitting the good, it's also keeping out the bad and the costly. Private schools are not required to take difficult cases. Kids with problems. Kids with attitude. Kids with special needs. Kids with disabilities. Kids that the public schools have no choice to take. These kids require special attention, and they can wind up costing a lot of money. Most private schools simply reject them, which increases their own productivity while burdening public schools. Not because they teach better, but because they get to pick the best and easiest to teach. Which leads us to resources. Private schools can charge a lot of money. Even parochial schools, which are cheaper, often depend on church staffs, which cuts costs for them by large amounts. By weeding out the needful and disruptive kids, these schools can avoid many of the costs that, in the end, must be borne by someone else. Furthermore, public schools are weighted down by politicians, who sometimes use the school system as a cash register, or burden the schools with expensive and often useless mandates; private schools can start clean, negotiate much tighter contracts and policies, and save a lot of money that way. And the private schools can hire better teachers. Now, those resources sound pretty real, no illusions. So why not have all schools go private? The answer is simple: those resources are both artificially supported and they are severely limited. There are only X number of people who can pay those kinds of fees; few families can support those costs. There are only X number of the best teachers; try to expand and you lower their quality. And if you go universal, then the artificial supports created by accepting only the best kids disappear. Trying to apply the benefits of private schools to all students is like trying to give all workers an above-average salary. It is simply mathematically impossible. Those are the quick points, the ones that are immediately apparent to me. I don't understand why most people don't see them. From there, you can predict what would happen if conservatives got their way and we started handing out vouchers nationwide. The first effect would be tied to the factor of availability: private schools are already swamped. If the government suddenly announced that they would make billions of dollars of government vouchers open to everyone, there would be few established private schools that could take any students, much less a few million of them. Suddenly you would have millions of parents trying to put their kids into private schools, and no schools with openings. As a result, thousands of new "private schools" would open up nationwide as entrepreneurs scrambled to take those billions out of the hands of parents. These schools would likely not be held to any standards, and as a result of that, profit-taking, and overnight industry-building, their average quality would be poor, much poorer than public schools today. Unlike most people imagine, we would never be able to take the most prestigious private schools and clone them everywhere. Another problem would be costs: vouchers would rarely, if ever, pay the entire bill. Few private schools provide full education for the amount the government will be willing to pay, which means that many families with little income will be forced to pay thousands of dollars per year per child for a few decades in order to participate. As time goes on, that will only get worse as people want more tax cuts and inflation cuts into the budgets. Public schools, in the meantime, would find themselves in dire straits: they would be forced to deal with the lowest-scoring, most expensive and most problematic students. To add insult to injury, public schools would also have their budgets slashed mercilessly because of the lowered number of students. As a result, the students who need the most help would be abandoned to a public gutted school system without the resources to serve them. However, the courts might rule that any private school that takes government money must take in any child that applies. If that happens, then the advantages of private schools will be even further reduced, and the costs higher. Meanwhile, market forces would dominate the private school sector. The schools that do a decent job teaching children would find themselves in high demand. As a result, they would raise their prices. Which means that in addition to paying taxes to fund the vouchers in the first place, parents would have to pay a premium to get their kids into a school that comes close even to today's public school standards. This would fuel a class divide, with upper-class and upper-middle class parents being able to get a decent education for their kids, while lower-middle class and poorer families are left in the cold, having to choose either a substandard private school, or send their kids back to a decimated and hellish public school system. There are all kinds of other problems that would arise as well. Either the private schools would go unregulated (and as is true with any unregulated business, the quality would suffer in many as the school tried to become more profitable), or there would be government regulation and sooner or later the private schools would be bound to the same expensive and troubling bureaucratic morass that public schools find themselves in. And since profit-taking would become part of the equation, a large chunk of money that would not be needed in a public school system would be subtracted, further degrading the quality of education for most, or it would alternately jack up the price. In short, universal private schools are a dangerously attractive illusion which would destroy the public school system and replace it with something far worse. And, as mentioned above, even private schools today don't deliver a better result than public schools in any case. So what's the solution? Easy: face reality, and understand that you get what you pay for. There's no free lunch here. You want a good education for our kids, then pay for it. And a public school system, well-run, is the best answer to that. Already we have class divides in the public school system because most of the funding comes from the local level. Poorer districts, especially urban ones with high costs, deliver poorer education; wealthier neighborhoods fund their own local districts, meaning better schools. This is spread out a little because such varying neighborhoods are often mixed in the same district, but overall there is definitely a class division effect that penalizes children from poorer families. The answer: switch funding to the federal level, and distribute money on the basis of the cost of local resources. If people want a better education for their kids, then all the schools would have to be bumped up, making for better incentive. Next: streamline the schools. This might take an act of Congress or something even more drastic, but the current state of public schools must be re-evaluated and re-written from the ground up. One example is staffing, faculty and administrative, and pay scales. Some school districts have more administrators than teachers, and administrators usually get higher salaries, not to mention control. Supposedly, we respect and prize good teachers, but that's not true. As Bill Maher says, we call them heroes, but we pay them like chumps. Reverse that. A new teacher would have minimal classes and a high administrative load at the lowest pay scale. If the teacher performs well in class, they will be awarded more classes, fewer administrative duties, higher pay, and more say in decision-making in the school. The post of full-time teacher should be the highest-paid and most sought-after position, and talent should be the means to achieve that position. The position of public school teacher should be one that young adults aspire to. Next: de-politicize education. The politicians from the local school boards to the Congress must be cut out, completely, from the curriculum decision-making process. We don't want politicians making our medical decisions for us, why should we want them to make educational decisions for us? Only practicing educators, the professionals, should be making those decisions. Next: fix the curriculum--but as covered in the previous point, this should be left to the experts. One thing they'd likely do first is throw out standardized testing for the failure that it is. But all that is a whole 'nother post. And finally: throw money at it. Lots of money. Tons of money. Throw money at education until it hurts, and then throw some more. Teachers must be paid handsomely. Schools must be outfitted with the materials they need. I'm not saying just dump the cash on the school doorstep without a plan, but fully fund the program, dammit. Education is one of the best investments you can possibly make. It pays off a thousandfold twenty years down the line. Stop bitching about your taxes and realize that your penny-pinching today will cut the legs out from the national economy a generation from now. Along with public infrastructure and the space program, education is the most profitable investment we can make. And in the long run, the public school system is the only way to cash in.