Wednesday, December 01, 2004

READER RESPONSE -- Private schools don't take "problem" students

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:23 AM |  

I don’t mind leading with my chin, but it does get a little painful to keep banging one’s head against a wall. Here is a very typical response that I receive from readers to the “moral” issue of school choice. My response follows.

I read your article today in the St Paul Pioneer Press about the morality or lack thereof of denying school choice.

My first thought to note how you had framed the issue. Not endorsing vouchers is not the same as denying choice. There is no prohibition on someone deciding to take his kid to a private school, nor to home school. That should be obvious so your failure to acknowledge that suggests that you have an agenda which is to obfuscate the truth or perhaps your own schooling experience was less than entirely satisfactory. On the chance that you do not intentionally obfuscate the issue, I offer the following comments.

It seems to me that if the private schools offered what the public schools are mandated to do that your points would then be well taken. There are problems within the public school system that money will not solve. If the private schools would take all the physically and mentally handicapped that the public school is required to and would accept all the economically disadvantaged as well as the incorrigibles, then I think that they should be entitled to the same funding. Under the proposed system the handicapped and incorrigibles do not have a choice, they must attend the public school as the private sector will not take them. (Try that in your anti-choice message)

What vouchers would do is decrease public funding for the public schools which have a mandate to educate all (including the high risk segment). The voucher system would be similar to a health insurance company offering a great health insurance plan but only to the healthy. It could cost less and provide more. That sounds great except that it leaves the other health insurance carriers with a greater percentage of at risk patients which would in turn cause an increase in their premiums and a decrease in quality of service. Perhaps I am being too simplistic. The above seems so elementary to me that I almost did not bother to point it out. If I am missing something, I would welcome your comments.
My response --

Thanks for reading and writing.

Here's the issue and why school choice is a moral issue.

Yes, there is school choice for those who are well off and can afford to send their kids to private schools. There is school choice for those who can afford to pick where they live based on school districts. There is school choice for middle-class families willing to make sacrifices to send their kids to private school and pay taxes to support a school system they choose not to use. There is no school choice for low-income families or for many of the "handicapped" students you mention. Why?

First, understand that private schools are not a centralized "system." They are individual entities, each catering to a specific market. Because primarily only the well-to-do can afford private school -- duh? -- that's where the majority of the market will be. However, there are many Catholic schools and some private schools that take "handicapped" students and many that have large minority populations, low-income students, and English-as-a-second-language students. I will be doing a column on this somewhere down the line.

The main reason more private schools do not take "problem" students is that the funding for these students does not follow them from public schools (as it would with a voucher/tax credit program), and their parents can't afford private school tuition. In some cases, private schools would accept these children with only the instructional funding. They are not even asking for all the additional special education money, but the public school system remains steadfast on controlling education funding. The classic case is NY City, but such resistance by public schools to part with funding -- even if the child might benefit -- occurs every where.

Yes, some private schools do not take "problem" children, but it is a gross generalization to say that all do not and that more would not if voucher/tax credit funding for those students were available.

In terms of gross funding, yes, vouchers would educe funding to public schools. However, even the most aggressive voucher programs being proposed or that have been implemented seek only about a third to less than half of the amount public school systems spend per student. In the case of "handicapped" children, that percentage might be far less. Thus, under a well-planned voucher system (with a means-tested phased in approach), every time a student left the public schools, the system would be left with more money per student and fewer students to manage. How is that bad?

(BTW -- in cities like Milwaukee with active school choice/voucher programs, "problem" students and "top" students leave the public school system in about the same proportions.)

The structure of the private school "gestalt" today is a function of the fact that it operates under a government monopoly system. Vouchers/tax credits would create a free-market environment. What would private schools look like in that case? No one can really say, but you can bet that schools would be established that catered to "problem" children because a) there is an unmet need and b) money would be available.

The moral issue is that public schools will not enable low-income students to opt for education that might better meet their needs. They will not part with even a portion of their funding even if means denying a child a better education outside the public school system. That is the issue the education establishment will not face.

Again -- Thanks for writing your views and for being involved.
One interesting point to note about the readers letter, because it is becoming more common in public discourse is the “argument from Intimidation” form of the ad hominem logical fallacy. The reader implies that only someone with “an agenda” to “obfuscate the truth” or with an axe to grind about his own education experience would support school choice. He gives me the benefit of the doubt, I think -- I’m not a liar, just vindictive.

It also strikes me as ironic that the tone of the letter, which is again typical of those I've received from people against school choice, that implies "handicapped" and "incorrigible" kids as problems that interfere with the education process, rather than children who need to be educated. That’s an attitude I’d expect from an “eat-my-young conservative“ not a supporter of public education.

UPDATE: Sometimes a little missionary work pays off. The reader responds --

Your arguments make some sense.

Perhaps the bigger problem is the system that tries to do too much. If the private schools would abide by all the federal and state mandates (funded or otherwise) that the public schools are required to, your proposal makes more sense. However, the public schools do not get to permanently expel kids and I think that issue needs to be addressed as wherever these kids go, they eat up resources at an alarming rate and diminish the quality of education the others can receive.

Another issue, largely ignored is the impact vouchers would have on the athletic programs. I fear that this type of system would bring out the worst with kids transferring as they are recruited to join better hockey, football and basketball etc. programs. This would create the need for high school versions of the NCAA which I feel has done a huge disservice to students. It would likely also lead to more huge athletic inequities as we have here with Cretin-Durham having to be evicted from the city conference because they have too many athletic resources to pour into football and baseball for city (public) schools to be competitive. For sports where they do not put their resources (like wrestling), they are actually one of the poorer caliber city teams.

Too force the public city schools to compete in football against the Cretin's of the world is not just, nor would having Cretin have to wrestle schools with high powered wrestling or other programs (assuming Cretin does not put its resources there). If we believe that athletics should be a valuable part of many kids education, that should be part of the discussion. We might have to go back to separate systems for athletics which would of course diminish any egalitarian ideals we might have about education.
My follow-up --

Thanks for the response.

Your comments as well express genuine concerns, but I think they reflect a lack of faith in parents and students to recognize what really is a good education. Yes, when you open education to free-market forces, you're going to get not only schools that cater to athletes but schools with rigidly fundamentalist curriculums and schools with wildly progressive philosophies -- none of which will provide a great education.

Taking the good with the bad is a risk of the free-market -- a risk that is not obviated simply because we put education in the hands of “experts.“ There are great public schools, but there are also a lot of bad ones. The difference is, in a free-market environment parents get to decide based on the performance of their children as opposed to “experts” based on statistical averages.

We need to remember that “life is a bell-shaped curve.” The majority of educational opportunities desired by parents, and thus the market that schools will strive to serve, will be somewhere in the middle -- as it should be. Morally, we can’t justify forcing other people to educate their kids the way we think best. We can debate them, but we can’t force them. Enabling all parents to provide the kind of education they want for their children is “moral” approach to education.

Thanks again for your response.
It’s nice to find a critic who, confronted with a reasonable response starts to modify his testiness. Nonetheless, for every objection met, it seems another concern is raised. And that will continue to be a problem for the school choice proponents unless they (or “we“ if you haven’t guessed my position) can change the focus from details to desire -- Once people see both the moral and pragmatic aspects of school choice -- once the desire it as a good thing -- human ingenuity will make it work.

UPDATE: However, we're not there yet. Last response --

I do not fault you for concern that some school systems seem to value their dollars more than the students' education. I believe that you are correct on that count. However, again I think it would be immoral to downgrade the public schools which have a mandate to service even those that do not want service.I think that by allowing the private schools to cherry pick their students, this would be the result.

Also, in my opinion the NCAA has done a great job of marketing its product, if the product is sports proformance and income, and a horrible job of contributing to the students' education. To further extend this cancerous mentality to the high schools or even lower level would also in my opinion be immoral.
Time for an asprin.