Thursday, November 01, 2007

Archduke Comments, Xtra Offers Tepid Response

Archduke has engaged in a long and thoughtful comment on why he thinks vouchers are crap. I disagree with him that they are crap but thus far I don’t think the evidence bears out that vouchers are a silver bullet. So let me go ahead and address some of his points (he was commenting on a post by Megan McArdle that I linked to).

"First, she doesn't give, nor does she link to, any conclusive study that says that vouchers work. She gives no evidence other than that she says that they do, so we should believe her."

I guess this goes with the medium which is informal and immediate but here is one study from GAO on the Cleveland and Milwaukee programs (which I believe are the longest running publicly funded programs). Their finding are that the difference of achievement of students who take the vouchers is from negligible to a modest improvement. Not much there and to the extent that I have looked at other studies, consistent with the literature. That said, this finding should be put in context, the vouchers provided are always less than the per capita expenditure per student and often significantly less. Thus, less money= same result. I would say this is a good alternative to more money= same result. But maybe that’s just me.

"Second, and this may just be from my own experience, but the reason that private school costs less per student than public school has a lot to do with the fact that, unless it's an elite private school, the teachers don't make jack shit. My college roommate went to a private school where two different pairs of married teachers were living in the same house, sharing the same car, because they couldn't afford their own."

This is interesting point, not so much as it is an effective rebuttal, which it is not, but it does present a question of scalability. The reason that I am glib on its merits is that it doesn’t address the central question, which is how to educate our kids? (really, the lower income kids that are trapped in crappy urban school districts). If teacher A is willing to teach for 25k at a private school and ends up achieving the same outcome as teacher B who gets 10k more, is that bad? Well, for teacher A but not for the taxpayer. I think where it is problematic is the question of scale, can vouchers scale to a massive program. Maybe, maybe not. I have my doubts, but the status quo is certainly not tenable.

"Why do these teachers do it, if it's so crappy financially? I'm playing a guessing game here, but I think it's the quality of the students. Private schools are allowed to select whoever they want and deny whoever they want. Public schools, of course, are forced to take anyone within their district, no matter how much trouble they cause or how far behind their grade level they are."

Ah, the creaming theory. This one has always seemed so counterintuitive to me and I would refer you to the GAO study because it is also untrue. Just think of it in real terms. What does a parent say when their child is excelling in school, probably one of two things : "Johnny is a fricking genius, I need to send him to Brainiac and World Beaters Prep." or "Johnny is doing really well at School, we are happy with the status quo". I think most parents opt for the latter. I have always thought the more plausible scenario is “Johnny is failing, he needs a different school”.

"If vouchers become commonplace, either the public schools will become even worse--since only the unacceptable students will go there--or the private schools will start taking crappy students. Teachers, of course, will hate this and start demanding more money, which will lead to a raise in teachers' salaries, which will in turn cause a rise in tuition, which will price out the smart, good, poor kids whose parents can't afford to go above and beyone the vouchers, which will lead us back to where we were in the first place."

First, let’s restate where we are in the first place. Lower income inner city kids are receiving absolutely piss poor educations and can’t exit the system except for on the heroic efforts on the parts of parents and the community and charity from private schools. So where we are now sucks. The question is, will public schools become worse necessarily because students exit the system. Possibly, but they could also improve, by actually being, what’s the word I am looking for…Competitive. As it stands now, public schools have a monopoly and they deliver piss poor service. I do however think you could have a good deal of screening for students occur if it were a full blown program and this has in fact occurred in Chile where they do have a full blown voucher program.

"Another problem, irrespective of the ones I've outlined above, is that unless the vouchers are for full tuition price, there's no way lower middle-class parents could afford them. Even if my parents wanted my siblings and I to go to private school, they wouldn't have been able to afford even 1000/year per student. When you're running a deficit and only catch up in the summer, it's pretty unlikely that you'll be able to afford to apportion enough money for kids to go to school. Living paycheck-to-paycheck (which a significant portion of the middle-class does, even though their income is in the 40-50 K range) isn't conducive to paying school tuition when your kids can get educated for free at the public school."

This seems like a self-defeating argument as to the extent that vouchers have been implemented they have been means-tested (typically between 175-200% of the poverty line and below). Somehow people are doing it. And we have to remember, not every private school is an Exeter or Andover. Most private schools are parochial schools that do a pretty good job on a shoestring budget.

I don’t think Vouchers are the solution, but I think they are part of the solution, along with Charters, and decentralizing school administrations, accountability that makes sense unlike NCLB, and paying teachers more so that eventually teaching becomes a prestigious profession and attracts brighter bulbs (there are some really good teachers and their efforts are heroic but we can’t build a system on the basis of the expectation of heroism).

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