Wednesday, January 05, 2005

COLUMN -- School choice enhances public education

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:17 AM |  

Wednesday, Jan. 05, 2005

"Few ideas," wrote the Pioneer Press editorial board about public education in January 2004, "have raised public ire so predictably in the past decade in Minnesota." My recent columns promoting school choice have certainly not smoothed the waters any. That's a good thing.

For too long the education discussion has been a battle between partisan forces for control of the government education system. The school choice debate changes the ground. However, it is a gross misrepresentation to contend that school choice is a means "to destroy public education."

"Public education," that is, education in the public interest, is not the same as the system that delivers knowledge and skills. Government-run schools are part of a public education system that includes private and religious schools and other options.

A strong public education system necessarily demands strong government schools.

Even with the implementation of a voucher or tax credit program for K-12 education, the existing infrastructure of government schools will remain the predominant supplier of education for a majority of Minnesota children. That's been the case in cities with established voucher programs, like Milwaukee and Cleveland, and that will be the case here.

A major rationale for school choice, and a requirement for its ultimate justification, is that rather than harm government schools, it creates an environment conducive to strengthening the public education subsystem. School choice offers an opportunity to break the monopoly that hinders improvement of government schools.

The first, most obvious way is through competition. Money leaves the public school district only when students elect to leave. Keeping students means providing a level of education and services parents expect. Parents let schools know what they want by voting with their feet. When students are leaving a district, reform for political gain is no longer acceptable. Reform must make a visible difference or students will continue to leave — taking dollars with them.

But, goes the argument against school choice, reform costs money, and school choice removes money from public schools. That argument is only partially true.

A responsible school choice system funded through vouchers or tax credits is capped at a percentage (generally one-half or less) of the state-determined average cost to educate a student. Thus, when a student leaves the district for an alternative school, the district is left with a portion of the budget for that student and fewer students to drive expenses. For the district, that means more money per student to improve its existing programs.

A corollary objection was posed in a recent letter to the editor — "Explain how a voucher system can cheaply assimilate public school programs such as English Language Learners, special ed, learning disabilities, school counselors, social workers, free or reduced lunch/breakfast and much more."

First, it's valid to note here that when talking about today's government schools and all the programs they have in place, we are not talking about programs that are working. Progress is being made, but the achievement gap between white children and children of color is still at "crisis" levels. If what government schools are doing were producing acceptable results, this argument might have more merit. They are not.

Nonetheless, the short answer to the challenge is that it is not necessary for every nongovernmental school to assimilate entirely all the programs now carried by government schools. Families will make choices about education based on their needs. Private schools will offer services that government schools aren't providing or aren't providing well. Government schools will continue to provide the services they provide today, but with more money per student.

To ask specifically how private schools would assimilate programs now provided by government schools misses the point. Each individual school would accommodate special needs students as it judged best in order to attract students. In government-run education there can be only one answer that must be right for everyone (more likely to be wrong for anyone). In an individualized school system — where money follows the child from government schools — many programs can be tried, the failures quickly eliminated and the successful programs replicated.

There are many more questions that swirl around the school choice issue. But it is the right debate to have. It's a debate about serving kids, not enslaving them to a system. Feel free to continue the debate at the Web site below.

UPDATE: Here's another log for the fire passed along from a reader. It speaks to the monopoly attitude of government schools. From the Center for Education Reform Newsletter --

STEPPING UP. Michigan State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins stepped up this week when he responded to claims in The Grand Rapid Press that charter schools were taking kids away from public schools: "Does some of it happen? Sure. But let's take a look at traditional schools. Some of them will complain about losing 300 to a charter, but you won't hear a peep out of them when 3,000 go to the streets and drop out," he said. Well put, Mr. Superintendent.

UPDATE ON COMMENTS: Note to the Doctor --

Your questions are clearly coming from the angle of someone who is searching for reasons why vouchers or tax credits won't work, not from the angle of what's best for the kids. You're setting up strawmen based on arguments that aren't being made.

Any voucher or tax credit plan would be phased in and would be fully funded at some low-income level with staggered percentages beyond that. Yes, there are some kids attending private school today on their own nickel, because their parents are making extreme sacrifices to send them there (which really says something about some government schools), who would qualify for vouchers. But there is no voucher proposal anywhere that says throw open the flood gates and pay for every kid currently enrolled in private or religious schools.

You realize, one could flip your argument. As public schools pay higher wages to teachers and offer more programs using increased tax dollars, they siphon teachers and kids out of private schools into the public system and OH MY GOD! where are we going to get the $40 billion (twice your $20 billion, roughly the difference in cost of private and government per pupil spending) to educate all those kids who have a right to "free" education by state law? Hmmmmmm . . . .

There are hundreds of legitimate voucher questions to debate -- for example, what happens to the 50 percent of the per pupil funds that stay with the state? Do they go to the school a child would be assigned to? Do they go into a state fund to spend as they see fit? Distributed by district? Used for private school K-12 scholarships for low-income kids? I don't have an answer to that one.

COMMENT UPDATE: Should money be left with a state-run education system when a student uses a voucher or tax credit?

That's a valid and valuable debate to have. Here’s my rationale for "yes."

First, the state per-pupil cost includes school overhead, which includes an averaged sum for many of the mandates that may or may not apply to a particular child. The funds that should properly follow a child are instructional costs, which is roughly 50 percent of the per-pupil “cost to educate.” Student’s, and the private school they may ultimately attend, should not be rewarded for the inefficiency of state education.

Second, it’s socially unacceptable to go “cold turkey” on a system that’s been in place for years. There needs to be a “methadone” weaning of the public’s addiction to state-run education, otherwise, we’re not going to improve “public education” in the broader public interest sense, but only change the faces of the victims.

In a perfect world, I agree -- no taxes, no government involvement in education -- but now we’re smack dab in the middle of Madison’s “if men were angels” discussion. If anything, the school choice debate is proving they are not.

Third, here’s where I depart from libertarian orthodoxy, there is a role for government in providing criteria-based “public good.” (We can discuss those criteria if you like.) Education is such a public good. A government education system ought to be in place to handle “orphan” cohorts -- those children who, for whatever reason, cannot find a school in the expanded private/religious sector of an expanded notion of “public education.”

And finally, the reason most people put first (but which I list last because I consider it the least principled) stripping all the funds from the current “public” system is politically infeasible. It stymies the debate at “Vouchers or no Vouchers” in which no one wins. The debate we want to drive is “Vouchers -- how much, how fast?”

Howard Fuller (if you haven’t guessed, I really admire this man) calls it the “Harriet Tubman” approach -- he wants to end the “slavery” of kids to a government education system, but until that day comes, he’s going to rescue as many kids as he can, one kid at a time. I think that’s how we should look at vouchers and tax credits.

Have at it.