Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Responding to "principled" objections to school choice

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:02 AM |  

John Brandl (Opinion Exchange, Oct. 17) is wrong when he states that there are few "principled objections" remaining to giving poor kids the choice to attend private schools. Here are a few "principled" objections:
So leads an opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (via a comment by J. Ewing) responding to a column supporting school choice. As one reads through the author’s comments (“Rob Levine, of Minneapolis, is a website editor“), one is tempted to ask, “What doesn’t he understand about the word “principle”? Let’s take his objections one-by-one.
1 New studies, including ones from the federal government, have shown that students at charter and voucher schools do worse on standardized tests and have smaller academic gains than students who attend regular public schools.
This is a hard objection to refute because the studies aren’t cited, so all I can say is I haven’t seen them. Regardless, this is an aggregate statement that camouflages individual situations. For example, in one area the public school might be “better” than a private or charter school. However, no one forces a parent to send his or her child to the private school. In another area, a private or charter school might be “better” than the neighborhood public school. However, in this case, the low-income family is required to send its children to the worse school.

But to my main point, what is the principle at work here, as these are supposedly “principled” objections? Is it that people should not be allowed to make (allegedly) bad choices? That government should determine a decision as personal as the kind of education a parent wants for his or her child? What is the principle that the author is defending?
2 Private and charter schools are much less accountable and reliable than public schools. In Milwaukee, which has the nation's largest voucher program, there has been no ongoing monitoring of private schools since 1995, though they got more than $83 million in public subsidy this year alone. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series detailed the woes of voucher schools: "Based on firsthand observations ... at least 10 of the 106 schools ... appeared to lack the ability, resources, knowledge or will to offer children even a mediocre education. ... Nine other schools would not allow reporters to observe their work ... . " In Minnesota two charter school operators have been convicted of fraud. In California last year an operator of 60 schools also went out of business just as the academic year was set to begin.
Again, I can question the facts -- Milwaukee schools are probably the most monitored in the country (or how else did the author obtain his “facts”?). When school choice proponents have requested more study, the education establishment has blocked it. Fraud in some charters -- yes, but have we forgotten from just a few years ago the millions of dollars that Minneapolis public schools could not account for? Again, however, I must ask, what is the principle that the author is defending? Certainly it is not a belief in free markets or the right and ability of parents to decide what’s best for their children? If there is a principle here, it is that government knows best and one government approach to education is better than a diversity of approaches generated from individual desires.
3 Vouchers force taxpayers to subsidize religious education, and parents don't choose the best academic school for their children, as voucher proponents assert. In Milwaukee, one conclusion of the Journal Sentinel's series was that, almost above all else, parents chose schools that matched their own religion or chose the school closest to their homes.
We’re getting closer to defining the principle that has only been hinted at before -- parents don’t choose the best academic school for their children -- so government must do it for them. (I’ll ignore the author’s misreading of the establishment clause, which is a principle.) Rather make that some parents don't choose correctly -- parents that agree with the author choose correctly; parents that don't choose like the author are wrong and must be forced to make the correct decision. Is that really the principle the author wants to defend?
4 The voucher push is part of a larger national movement to destroy teachers' unions and expose the $500 billion spent annually on public primary and secondary education to private profit. Republicans are trying to destroy teachers' unions because they are one of only two remaining sectors of the U.S. economy that are heavily unionized. If conservatives can destroy the teachers' unions they will help to defund a primary constituency and funding source for the Democratic Party.
This is an amazing lack of understanding of what one is actually saying. The author lambastes Republicans for making a political move to counteract a political stronghold of Democrats. What’s the principle at stake here? It seems the author’s concerns is that private profit is bad. No mention of what is best for kids. It’s also interesting to note that while teachers’ unions, a Democrat interest group, opposes school choice, families of color, another Democrat interest group, strongly favor school choice. The internal conflict of interest groups is indicative of interest-focus of the Democrat party and the lack of a unifying principle of action. Ironically, John Brandl is a Democrat in the traditon of Hubert Humphrey.
5 There aren't enough private schools to offer choice to all students. Roughly 90 percent of all students attend regular public schools. Efforts to rapidly create new private schools have led to corruption and disruption around the country.
Again, not a principle nor a fact, but a fear. The first statement is correct, but I’ve seen no voucher proposal that does not include phased implementation. More to the point, the Hann-Buesgens bill proposed in the last legislative session provided transition funds for school districts to compensate for families that elected to use vouchers at private schools. Under the current system, the school districts receive no compensation when a child leaves the district whether for private school or a public school in another district. Again, I can’t comment on a study that is not referenced.
6 Public schools have endured withering budget cuts over the past decade while simultaneously forced to deal with more social ills. Public schools must accept all who come to their doors, while private schools are free to reject difficult-to-teach or handicapped children. In Minneapolis alone tens of millions of dollars have been cut from budgets over the past few years, while new unfunded burdens, such as conformance with the Orwellian-named "No Child Left Behind Act," have been foisted on it.
Sooner or later the “public schools accept everybody” deceit will be put to rest. As I noted in my column on the Al-Amal school and in this post, “taking everybody” and “adequately educating everybody” are two different things. To varying degrees, private schools do take handicapped kids, kids with severe behavioral problems and maintain a diverse population including children whose families are not native English speaking people. They educate them without the extraordinary expenditures of public schools. When “the dollar follows the scholar,” economies of scale kick in and private schools will have the economic incentive and ability to not only “take” but also to educate special needs children.

Again, what’s the principle the author is defending? Is it educating children or defending a system? I’m not a big fan of “No Child Left Behaind,” but the author’s objection to it is more than a little ironic. His entire column makes the case that government is better able to determine how children should be educated than are parents, but then when government makes a decision the author doesn’t like, well then government is bad. Or is it just Republicans that are bad? Is the author making a political case against school choice? What about the kids? Just what is the principle he is defending?
According to Brandl, objections to the facts that voucher students do poorly academically, that voucher schools are unaccountable and unreliable, and that taxpayers are already underwriting religious education aren't principled. I'd like to know what "principles" allow Brandl to ignore these unpleasant voucher facts, and to brand his ideological opponents as unprincipled.
I think the author’s column speaks for itself. Brandl is not equating “unprincipled” with some connotation of intentional “evil.” He is simply noting that opponents of school choice really have no fundamental foundation for their arguments beyond "big government knows best" (except, it appears, when it is controlled by Republicans). School choice, on the other hand, is based on free market principles, individual choice principles, and the principle that individuals of all economic levels have an unalienable right to pursue their own version of happiness including the education of their children.