Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Utah Vouchers Referendum, Yea or Nay?

So what do you Utahns think about the impending voucher referendum? Yea or nay? I think I would be a yea. Please read this persuasive post by Megan McArdle over at Assymetrical Information. She does an excellent job refuting the major anti-voucher arguments. Here's her rebuttal to a common argument I've heard against the Utah voucher bill.

6) There aren't enough private schools. Right. Do you realize that in 1995, not a single iPod had been manufactured? That must mean that the iPod I am currently holding in my hand doesn't actually exist! I'm living a lie . . ."

The fact that there are not now enough private schools to educate kids doesn't mean that there won't be, if we offer to pay private schools to educate kids.

This sort of goes back to my last post on government regulations messing up agriculture. Why are we so afraid of letting people choose something different with their tax dollars? Whose interests are we looking out for? Who will be hurt if 5 or 10 percent more of the kids in Utah choose a private education? I know this is a complex issue and I still need to read through the comments of her readers because I'm sure they contain some good counter-arguments, but in general I prefer to give people more choices than not.


  1. This is a really good question, and I actually want to ask my mom what she thinks about it (when I have about a half hour to spare). I wonder if the homeschooling families fit into this? That's a little bit of a scary question, because how do you prove that you're actually homeschooling and not just keeping your kids home to do the dishes all day or something? Testing I guess. Anyway, I'm of the opinion that I'll want to send my kids to private schools over public, at least for elementary and middle school. But will this weaken the existing public schools until they just turn into a terrible disaster? I don't know much about it at this point. I'd better go read that link that you posted.

  2. I am a nay. I'd like to see that money go into something more productive, like improving public schools for the people who really don't have any other option (which seems to be the majority of the population). Why are people so quick to abandon public education?

  3. Ginna,
    I think in a lot of areas (inner city schools) the government schools are already a disaster. Luckily Utah is not like that. If there was more flexibility just think of the opportunities for homeschoolers and neighborhood schools. Why do we need to have busing, cafeterias, offices, etc. We're just duplicating what's already out there. Why couldn't the parents of ten 2nd grade students in my neighborhood hire a teacher to hold class in her home? We'd save on land/building costs, transportation costs, administrative overhead costs, etc. If the state spends $4-5000 a pupil (I don't know the number in Utah, but it's much higher elsewhere) we could pay that teacher $35000 a year and she wouldn't have to commute. She'd be nearby and a member of our community so we would have oversite. Anyway, of course there would be details to work out, but imagine how efficient we could be, especially at the grade school level.

    See point 5 in the article I linked. I view public education as a means, not an ends. There has to be a more productive way to do things than a one-size fits all government monopoly. Why does my 5-year old daughter need to be out of the home for 8-hours 5-days a week? How many of those hours are actually productive? 2 or 3? I just want alternatives since the government is using my money to fund it. Who wouldn't want an alternative to sending their kid to Dixon Middle School. Don't get rid of Dixon, create alternatives.

  4. I see your point, Rob. This is why I think we should be spending money and time on reforming public schools to make them more efficient. The alternatives are already there for people who don't want to choose public school. I read McArdle's post, and found it very unpersuasive. Her sarcasm and the way she addressed the opposing view was off-putting and diminished her credibility. This is the type of post I would use as a bad example of persuasion when teaching my students how to build their ethos with their audience. I see where you are coming from and respect your opinion, though. This is such a tricky issue and people have really strong feelings about it. I hope that if vouchers are adopted, at least some good will come of it.

  5. I'm not in Utah and I don't know the details of the voucher system under discussion. However, I am vehemently opposed to voucher systems in general. Obviously, the issue is too complex to discuss in a blog comment--but, basically, I agree with Carly.

    Public education has lots of problems. As a former teacher, I'm the first to discuss the topic of problems with public schools. But, they have redeeming qualities--like national standards, educational opportunities for special needs children, etc.

  6. 1) Isn't it funny how differently you can perceive an article's tone depending on your feelings on an issue? You're right though, if I didn't agree with her I would have found her style obnoxious as well.

    2) I just don't think it is realistic to hope that giving an inefficient organization more money will somehow make it more efficient. Government schools have had a monopoly for a good century now and I think we need to explore alternatives.

    3) What alternatives are available to a young family like mine?. Charter schools? Yes, more please. Besides that the only alternatives for someone with an average income are a)homeschooling or b)having Mom work full-time to afford private school tuition. I mean even the liberal utopia of Sweden has a voucher program. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/3717744.stm

  7. I totally see where you are coming from. I know vouchers will help people, but I would like to do more for the higher risk people, those who couldn't afford to pay the difference in private school tuition even if they had a voucher. Call me unrealistic, but I don't think it's right to just give up on public schools because they have problems that are hard to fix. Maybe vouchers are part of the solution, but I'd like to see more solutions in addition to vouchers. (For the record, I didn't dislike the article simply because I disagreed with the points. I disliked it because she sounds arrogant.) I think we can both agree that our kids deserve the best education possible. I hope that we can achieve that goal in whatever ways are best.

  8. Oh, I totally knew you didn't like her style/arrogance. I just meant that when I agree with someone I'm usually oblivious to how their attitude might come off to someone on the other side of whatever issue they're writing about.

  9. I'm all for vouchers, what else can you expect from a libertarian? In general I think that by semi-forcing people into a one-size-fits-all system like public schools (through the carrot of "it's free") you end up with an education that isn't as personalized nor as good because there's no real competition. The NEA ensures that no matter the skill of the teacher, they're kept around because of things like tenure. It's created a system that doesn't respond well to demand. On top of that you have huge fiefdoms that are nigh unto impossible to break up (the school districts) that make it even more difficult to customize your education. Vouchers may not be the only solution to this problem, but they are better than what we're doing (and actually give the schools more money on a per student basis because the money for the vouchers is coming from the general fund, not the education fund). Unfortunately they're going to go down in a blaze of glory here in a few days.

  10. I am for vouchers, because as you mentioned, it gives people more choices. Also, voucher systems result in more money in the public schools on a per student basis. If you take a voucher instead of putting your child in public school, the voucher they give you is only for a fraction of the cost of the public school system to educate your child. So over time, public schools should benefit and improve (although there may be less of them).

  11. I'm probably a little late in the discussion, but have to weigh in. Free public education was part of what the ideals of this country were founded on (I don't have a source at hand, but Benjamin Franklin was behind it) and I don't think we should abandon that. After 5 years schools will lose the funding for the students that leave. Teachers who are working themselves to death (I used to be one of them) for meager pay will be laid off because there will be no money. Class sizes will go back up and the same problems we're facing now will only resurface without being solved. I think we need more charter schools. Regular public schools are not given enough permission to deal with problems effectively. Public schools need to be designed more like the charter schools for them to succeed. The voucher system is too comprehensive as it is. It would need to be whittled down quite a bit for me to support it.

    FYI--I'm PHS class of '98, so not a complete stranger.

  12. If Jordan is late, then I'm really late since vouchers were defeated handily on Tuesday. The problem is that I can't just sit on the sidelines and watch an argument -- I have to be in it. So here's my two cents.

    Vouchers in general are a bad idea. I agree with Rob that public education should be a means not an end but I would say the same about any efforts that we take to improve education. Too many voucher proponents unfortunately view vouchers, rather than improved education for our children, as the goal.

    If we can agree that the goal should be a better education for as many people as possible, how do vouchers move us toward achieving that goal? The group that did the independent analysis in the Utah voter guide studied voucher programs across the country and internationally and found that there is no correlation between voucher programs and better scores on standardized tests. So in what way do vouchers improve education?

    Proponents of vouchers argue that per-pupil funding will be increased because the amount of the voucher is less than the WPU (the per-pupil funding). The problem is that elementary schools in the Provo School District, for example, have fixed costs of $400,000. So, while removing a student from the school may increase per-pupil funding, it also increases per-pupil costs. I think it is too simplistic to say that funding will increase because it really will depend on the numbers of students who are taken out of the system and the current cost structure of a particular school.

    Additionally, the argument that we should just hire individual teachers for neighborhoods is quite arrogant, isn't it? While it may be possible for you to do so in your neighborhood, it certainly isn't realistic in many neighborhoods. Thus the need for public education. So while you may argue that we should keep Dixon and expand our options, I would argue that we should fund what we care about and what will provide the most benefit to the most people. We as a society benefit from the education of our populace. Private neighborhood programs may benefit you, but they will not provide the most benefit to the most people. In fact, creating a system like vouchers that provides incentives to educated, middle-class parents to remove their children from the system damages the system.

    Of all of the claims from both sides of the voucher argument, the one result that has been documented is that vouchers tend to increase socio-economic stratification in communities. Let's remember that most poor families send their children where the buses take them and giving them partial tuition for a private school across town doesn't really provide them with the ability to attend. This increases the likelihood that the support system that is so important to a school will be weakened by a voucher system.

    Let's use our funds to do what we can to improve education. Let's implement some free market ideas like merit pay into the public education system. Let's do something that will actually improve education in a meaningful way rather than implement vouchers for the sake of vouchers.

  13. Christian,
    Thanks for your comment it’s given me a lot to consider. I don’t claim to have all the answers and talking through a complex issue is what this is all about—regardless of the referendum outcome. Here are my thoughts on some of your points.

    1. Vouchers don’t improve test scores.
    As long as they don’t hurt test scores vouchers win because they will probably be more cost effective in the long run—and parent and student satisfaction could be higher because there is more choice available. For example, if a child gets the same standardized test scores in either school, but can have a more enriching experience at a private school (for example not putting up with obnoxious kids at Dixon) then a parent should be able to make that choice.

    2. Per-pupil costs wouldn’t necessarily go down.
    You’re right that the numbers are more complex then just straight per-pupil funding but I don’t think the fixed costs argument holds. If 5% of kids opt out of government elementary schools and you have 20 elementary schools then you eventually close one of the schools. School districts with declining populations deal with this all the time. If you don’t close the schools then at the very least you’ve effectively decreased class sizes, a perennial goal of government education advocates.

    3. Individual teachers for small groups in neighborhoods won’t help the most people.
    I’m not trying to be arrogant, it’s just an idea I’d heard somewhere. I think it was suggested for rural areas where there are long busing times. At any rate, I don’t buy the argument that home-schooling co-ops or small neighborhood schools couldn’t work in many situations. If their test scores are as good as those from government schools then give them back their tax dollars and let them educate their kids how they want. Private schools could provide busing or “vaning” and why wouldn’t private schools form in poorer areas? I just think there is an infinite supply of creativity and unique solutions out there that central planning prevents us from considering and trying (this is probably more of an ideological argument on my part).

    4. Incentives for leaving the system damage the system.
    Maybe in Utah this could happen where there is a pretty decent school system in place. I need to study this more. Outside of Utah the damage has already been done in inner cities and kids need more alternatives.

    5. Vouchers increase social stratification.
    If you can point me to where this has been documented, I’d love to read the study. My guess is that in many places school districts reinforce social stratification by distorting housing prices. Neighborhoods around good schools become more expensive and price out poorer families. (I concede that this is a bit of a chicken and egg argument—what came first, the good school or the expensive neighborhood?) If people can live wherever they want and still attend a quality school it may actually allow more integration of wealthy and poor (no study here, just my guess).

    6. Let’s introduce merit pay, etc.

  14. In regards to #1:I'm afraid that there are going to be obnoxious kids EVERYWHERE, even in private school, especially at the junior high level. Isn't it important that we teach our kids how to handle being around obnoxious kids? I would think that if protecting our kids from other kids is a high priority, then home school, not private school, is the best choice. And stop dissing Dixon! It was the happiest time of my life.

  15. There is definitely an important socialization aspect of school—but I think it can come through other avenues just fine. It’s good to have an alternative if you are the kid that everyone picks on or bullies and home schooling is just not an option for a lot of kids. How flexible is the school system in letting a kid transfer in these situations? (That’s not a rhetorical question, I don’t know the answer.) Anyway, my main point there is that some kids thrive in different learning environments—i.e. formats besides lecture—and I want those options to be available. (I had fun at Dixon but I know some folks who just wish they could have skipped from 6th to 9th grade.)

  16. No, Dixon really was awful. I remember this obnoxious group of boys in my 8th grade English class who liked to make animal noises....the WORST.

  17. I wasn't one of those, was I Carly?

  18. Rob,

    Good comments. While I shouldn't lump your thoughts and those of other voucher proponents together, I do believe there is a common thread that can be addressed. In the various voucher discussions that I've been involved in, informed proponents tend to make arguments much like yours. In the end they concede that test scores aren't going to improve but focus on the "enriched experience" that you mentioned. They also talk about choice and how even though vouchers don't increase choice, they do subsidize choice for a small group of people. Most proponents eventually agree that vouchers do not actually help those who are in the most need, but help those who find private school tuition just out of reach. And for that group, the only measurable results are unimproved by attending private schools.

    So in the end, I agree with most of what the proponents argue. I do not believe that vouchers will destroy education, but I do think they weaken our public education system. Saying "the damage is done" isn't quite right -- you can always make things worse by degrees. I think too many voucher proponents believe that fighting the teachers union is a worthy cause in and of itself. Unfortunately, this is a bad way to make policy.

    If we were to start with the goal of improving education for the most people rather than starting with the goal of vouchers, I do not believe that vouchers would enter into the discussion. The upside of vouchers is too limited to be useful and the downside is documented. (The independent analysis in the Utah Voter Guide has the info that you are looking for.)

    Your comment (based on the article you quote in the original post) that public education is a means not an end is the key. Let's determine that the end is to improve education and then use your good ideas to make it better. It sounds like we agree on merit pay and we probably agree on a lot of things that would make a real difference.