Thursday, August 24, 2006

Response to Spot -- Buesgens and vouchers (updated)

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:47 PM |  

I used to respond to the somewhat rabid ranting over at the "cucking stool." I thought it was the ill-informed, immature opinions of some young wannabe Power Liberal type, so I held out hope. But turns out Spot is no puppy, but an old dog incapable of learning new tricks. I stopped wasting my time. I don’t really care what other people think of me, as long as they get me right. In this post, Spotty is too far off the mark to ignore.

He goes after Rep. Mark Buesgens letter in the Star Tribune and follows a cut and paste of the letter with his own comments. My comments in bold

Who indeed would deny opportunity to low-income children? Why, Spotty says it's you, Rep. Buesgens! Spot has said it before and will say it again: the goal of No Child's Behind Left and school vouchers is the destruction of public education. Period. Buesgens will give you that sad puppy smile if you say that to his face, but don't be fooled. The inner-city children that Buesgens - and Katie, Captain Fishsticks, and Geoff MIchel, for that matter - appear to champion are just so many little black stalking horses for them.

Well I don’t know about Katie and Geoff, but speaking for Buesgens and certainly for myself, little black kids are not stalking horses, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that they are. Okay, Spotty, you got me. I’m out to destroy public education and don’t give a damn about little black kids, other than that they learn to read their own arrest reports so my tax dollars aren’t wasted in expediting jailing them. Please, how does that make any difference in the argument that denying these kids the opportunity to escape a failing school is better for them than enabling them to attend a private school that might actually provide them with an education? Nobody is forcing them to leave. They can remain if they want.

I can be the most despicable of individuals, and my motives the most sinister imaginable, but that doesn’t change the equation for these kids. You prefer to keep them where they are not learning rather than helping them get somewhere where they can learn. You’re not biting here, just barking.

No Child's Behind Left is actually a moniker applied to the slow-motion homicide of public schools by Greg Palast in his recent book Armed Madhouse.

Haven’t read the book, but you had me at “No.” Aside from raising the visibility of the achievement gap, there is very little in NCLB of value. I’d even agree that by virtue of being a federal program, it is slow-motion homicide for public schools. But it’s your breed that wants the federal government involved in education. If you’re lucky, only half the time will that government be in control of “the bad guys.” So when your people get in you can change the system, and when conservatives get in they will change it back. And while you guys are all licking yourselves, the kids are the one’s getting whip-sawed between changing education philosophies and standards. How does that do kids any good?

Most of the people who show up at Rep. Buesgens' little pep fests for school vouchers already have kids in private, most often sectarian schools. They're just looking for a subsidy for something they already do. According to Palast, and the source NCLB expert Scott Young, 76% of the voucher money handed out in an Arizona voucher program went to students already in private schools. Just a subsidy.

That may be Arizona, but read the damn Minnesota bill before you comment. The Hann/Buesgens proposal is limited to only kids from low income families that are NOT already in private schools. To me, that is one of the unfair aspects of the bill -- a family scrimping and saving to send their kids to private schools today wouldn’t be helped by the bill. Haven't seen you at any pep fests, more commonly refered to as "committee hearings" but I have seen a lot of Somali immigrants, Hispanics, and African-American residents of North Minneapolis in attendance. I've also seen some families of color that do have the means to put their kids in private schools -- they are they lobbying for their not-so-fortunate neighbors. I've also seen administrators from private schools that would benefit from vouchers at the hearings -- kind of interesting to see a Catholic, Lutheran, Muslum and Jew talking together about the common vision (nice ring, huh?) of educating kids to be contributing members of society while keeping their religious heritage. Tell me again why this is bad?

It is also laughable, especially when the idea is raised in an election year, to think that the feds are going to sink $100 million into vouchers. Heck, these clowns don't pay enough money to the states to cover the cost of the mandated testing under NCLB. Again, according to Palast, fifteen states have sued the federal government on these grounds.

You’re talking federal government here -- which does have no constitutional authority to muck about in education. Buesgens proposal is a state program. Get your clowns straight.

What is the effect of vouchers on public schools? Let's assume for a minute they actually do what proponents say: persuade kids to transfer to private schools. Every time a child leaves a public school, the per-pupil funding attached to that child also leaves.

Get your facts right. When a child under the current open enrollment system leaves one public school district and goes to another, the first district loses all state funding. If a child picks up, under the current system, and goes to private school, the district loses all funding. (BTW if you do the math and multiply state education obligation for every student voluntarily in private schools, those kids are saving taxpayers a hellueva lot of money.) Under the Buesgens bill, when a child took a voucher it was only for the state educational funds -- about half of all the money allocated per student. The rest remained with the district for one year. In addition, the bill in its last incarnation allocated $3,000 per year per voucher student for three years to cover transition costs. Pretty generous.

Because Republicans like them so much, Spot is now going to use some business concepts.

In microeconomics, there is a concept called the "shut-down" point. An enterprise arrives at the shut-down point when its revenue no longer covers its variable costs. Notice, Gs and Gettes, the shut-down point is under the point where the enterprise is merely in the red. An enterprise may be in the red, yet earning enough money to pay its variable costs and eat up some of its fixed costs, the so-called overhead items, or to entrepreneurs, the "nut." In other words, you shut down when you lose more money by operating than closing.

Even attractive suburban schools, like the ones on Spot's hometown, are in on the dogpile on inner-city schools. The district loves open enrollment, right up to where the schools are full, because it maximizes revenue and minimizes per-pupil costs, and there is a bigger herd over which to amortize fixed costs.
Well, that was brutal, but that's the way it works.

Every student that leaves drives the marginal revenue down a lot more than the marginal cost of that student. It pushes the school closer to the shut-down point. This is the end zone for the public school killers.

Correct analysis -- now tell me why this is bad. If a school or a district (not public education or government schools at large) is so bad that students voluntarily leave, why is that bad? And don’t forget to consider that under the Buesgens voucher program the district is getting $3,000 to cover the costs of a kid it’s not responsible for and the number of vouchers granted each year is limited. Ya think when a district is getting transition money for kids not attending school and the number of kids that get vouchers is limited that it can’t make improvements over three years? I think it can. So who’s the one running down public education?

Vouchers are not about sending poor little black kids to Blake, or The Blake School, as it likes to call itself. (Spotty says that anything with "the" in the front of it usually comes with a price premium of at least 25%.)

No vouchers are not about sending poor kids to Blake, or SPA or any other elite school. They were never advertised as such except by the likes of Nick Coleman and his bow-tie crack. Vouchers are about providing low-income families with funds so they can escape really bad schools. PCE did a study and the $4,601 maximum voucher in the last Buesgens bill would cover total tuition at about 85 percent of the private schools in the Twin Cities, which includes a mix of various sectarian schools from Jewish to Islamic plus secular schools, which meets the U.S. Supreme Court requirement for a vocher program that parents choose the school and have a variety of alternatives.

They are about easing the burden to well off parents who already send their kids there.

Not true, people that already have their kids in private schools do not qualify for vouchers in the Buesgens bill. Plus, the Buesgens program was a means-tested program only for low-income families.

That, and putting additional financial pressure on already-strapped inner-city public schools.

Not true, there are transition funds paid to school districts and a limit on the number of vouchers available. Schools will have financial pressure only if they fail to improve enough to keep kids from voluntarily leaving.

So there you have it. That’s what it’s all about. Don’t like vouchers? Fine. Think I’m out to destroy public education? So be it. But get your facts straight and address the basic question -- regardless of what my motives might be, why is it better for a kid to be in a failing school when he or she might be learning better in a private school? There is one reason -- individual children must be sacrificed, the funds attached to them must stay in the system, in order that others that follow might possibly get a better education. Sorry, but I find even metaphoric human sacrifice to the state just a little barbaric and immoral.

Update: Spotty replies over at his site by again attacking my motives and those of others, motives I hypothetically conceded in this post for the sake of argument. No where does Spotty answer the question of how denying a relatively few individual kids from low-income families vouchers to escape failing schools is better for them?

In fact, he addresses nothing of substance written above. His one non-abusive thought is it is better to stick it out with public schools. Okay -- better for whom? Better for a kid trapped in a failing school? Better for a kid who will enter school in three or four years when the school is somehow better? Better for the system and the people working in it that will benefit from more dollars?

Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee school superintendent, a black man and a school choice advocate calls vouchers the Harriet Tubman approach to education -- they won’t save every kid suffering in a failing public school, but a voucher program can save one kid at a time. Spot’s philosophy is that those “one kids at a time” must be sacrificed to stick it out with public schools.
The point is -- even if we dumped how ever much money Spot et al. think we should dump on public schools, even if we dumped it today, it would take a period of time for public schools to show any improvement -- you can dump all the money you want in a program like Q-comp, and it still takes time to train a teacher, for the teacher to incorporate that training into his/her teaching, become good at it, and transfer that to students -- and that’s assuming the state chooses the right training, the teachers take it to heart and the kids respond. Meanwhile, what happens to the kids that have to wait for the improvement and then become, without any choice, the objects of the state’s latest educational experiment. Meanwhile, the administration changes hands, a new Commissioner of Education is appointed, and the program is revamped to reflect a different set of values. How does that benefit kids?

Those are real problems inherent in Spots arguments -- not imaginary conversations or personal attacks. Sure there are problems with voucher programs at 10,000 feet. But down on the ground, as Howard Fuller notes, a voucher program can rescue one kid at a time. Spot does not need to delve into my motives -- he just needs to answer the question -- why is that bad? Thus far, his only answer is the money must stay in the system; from that, the only conclusion is some kids are expendable, and it’s not me that is saying that.