Who is vouching for school vouchers?

I am neither pro or anti voucher even though there is strong visceral feelings and image signaling from educators around this topic.

I wonder if it is only treating a symptom of our education disease and that external factors like the internet and population growth have created a dynamic that will far more transform public education.

Mostly, I am not convinced yet by either side that it would better or worse for students.

Here are some questions where I still struggle:

Why would students and parents choose another school?

One thing that many anti-voucher proponents really need to ask is “Why would students and parents choose to go somewhere else?” Yes, they will counter that the system of standardized tests have tied the hands of public schools and the charters and private schools do not play by these rules. But the rules must be close enough or the data they are continually citing stating that these “other” schools do not improve test scores is meaningless. (Also, are these schools better or worse at preparing students for things not measured on the standardized test than public schools?)

The question is not only about test scores, it is about the purpose and relevancy of schools. It is why Matt Damon espouses public schools while continuing to send his own children to private schools.  Damon does state that it was a moral dilemma and ultimately public schools were not what they once were and he wants to send his children to the best school possible. Multiply that thinking across all parents, including ones who cannot afford $36,000 dollars per year tuition, and you get the ideology of vouchers.

Often not talked about is the fact that parents involved in school choice are quite satisfied.

“To be sure, we’re still not sure how well vouchers work, and I would suggest continuing experimentation rather than full-on commitment.  Frankly, I find a lot of the voucher advocates unconvincing, but let’s not forget the single most overwhelming (yet neglected) empirical fact about vouchers: they improve parent satisfaction.”

Those choosing to go to another school, desire the type of school that already exists for those often against or indifferent concerning vouchers.

What about equality?

The argument that vouchers will make schools unequal, is a straw man. Schools already are not equal. Choose three schools one rural, one suburban, and one urban. Visit them. Observe the resources and the curriculum. You will not apply words like fairness, equality, and meritocracy.

Often suburban schools have far better resources and out perform other schools and feel no need for choice.

“But other analysts suggest that suburbanites simply aren’t looking for alternatives because they’re already satisfied with their traditional public schools. After all, studies show that suburban schools, on average, outperform their urban counterparts.”

Nor, do I expect, most suburbanites want to pay higher taxes so these underserved students have better choices.

So maybe the argument is that it will make them even more unequal. Well then be convincing to how that will happen.

Still the arguments that vouchers will increase segregation are still not settled and I wonder if vouchers would ultimately contribute more or at least reinforce the income inequality in our culture.

Education proponents for vouchers and economists need to provide more proof that vouchers would level the playing field.

Who do you want to control the curriculum?

There is a boogey man made out of what will be taught in private schools, especially concerning science. Currently, 79% of private school students attend religious-affiliated private schools and most of those are Catholic and they are teaching Big Bang Theory, evolution, and climate change. Not even low hanging fruit for a solid argument, just an appeal to cultural emotion.

That specific worry is superficial but I can get behind that type of questioning. Who do you want to control the curriculum?

What if someone proposed an education system that is compulsive for all children with a pre-determined path of learning that would be controlled through local branches but regulated with money and measures by a single government. Sounds horrible? Now what  if you think the government is run by the wrong people. “My child will be another brick in the wall,” or if you are younger “My child will be a battery in the Matrix.”-Well, that is exactly the system we have now.

Who controls curriculum now?

Is it the teachers? Teachers say they no longer have autonomy.

What about the students? When did they ever have control over the curriculum?

Local communities then? Often they are too apathetic or too trusting in regards to public education.

Expert agreement? Hardly, we cannot even agree what should be taught in literature class.

Has to be democratic.

American of you, but don’t forget in our form of democracy there are lobbyists. Some think it is textbook companies guiding curriculum and creating closed loop systems of content, methods, assessments, and even the remediation. These companies are even becoming involved in teacher certification.

You can try to scare me that the religious zealots are taking over schools to teach un-sciencey things and control who go into which restrooms and I’ll shrug.

You know what makes me wide-awake at three in the morning questioning the existential crisis facing public education? This. (Excerpt below.)

“But the company (Pearson) has its eye on much, much more. Investment firm GSV Advisors recently estimated the annual global outlay on education at $5.5 trillion and growing rapidly. Let that number sink in for a second—it’s a doozy. The figure is nearly on par with the global health care industry, but there is no Big Pharma yet in education. Most of that money circulates within government bureaucracies.

Pearson would like to become education’s first major conglomerate, serving as the largest private provider of standardized tests, software, materials, and now the schools themselves.

There is a vacuum in educating children with cost (and profit) being a considerable factor and if Pearson does not fill the void something like this will. Maybe school choice is only shuffling of the deck, maybe it will facilitate the Big Pharma of eduction. I don’t know. I do know that vacuums get filled.  I also know the difference between a teacher and a proctor. I am not convinced the education equivalent of Big Pharma would. Ask a doctor or a psychiatrist how much of their job is now influenced by Big Pharma. 

Don’t forget, Pearson and companies like them already are in public schools.

Are we stealing money from public schools?

This argument is painted in broad strokes and it begins to sound like there is an elite wealthy cabal dismantling public education. Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, the Waltons, Betsy Devos, and Mark Zuckerberg have all been despised for meddling in public education. They are seen as pundits over-stepping or grabbing at a money opportunity for themselves or cronies.

I have difficulty seeing this as a concerted effort or part of a nefarious plan. Teachers squint and hate Bill Gates from a thousand paces while they hold their Pearson textbook in their arms. Perhaps this comes more from a populist sentiment rather than anything grounded in facts. (I can understand the argument that when these billionaires donate large amounts of money and avoid taxes they circumnavigate democracy and this concern should go beyond education to all their contributions and not just the ones you agree with.)

I am not an economist, but I think many educators take the automatic leap that vouchers are stealing money. Exactly what are we stealing and from whom if students are being served?

Maybe I am wrong, but I have to wonder if the real concern is that vouchers will steal money from teachers. This may be a valid point, but state that directly.

Salaries make up the biggest category in education budgets, and rightly so. Take a look at Ohio for example and it seems to fall within the average range. If we are using around 80% of the $600 billion we spend on education for salaries where is the other going? Well part of it is already going toward private companies including textbook and testing companies. So is the worry that private companies will continue to take more of the pie and teachers will get less? I am not convinced this would not happen in the present public education system, especially with personalized learning being considered. I am also not convinced if providing choice in education leads to efficiencies that save money, that teachers would not benefit from that as well. As is, spending more money on public education is not positively affecting teacher salaries when it should be.

Also, out of the current private and charter schools what percentage is non-profit and what percentage is for-profit? Go ahead look it up. My guess is that it will not be what you assume it is.

Will it make schools better?

This question should be the crucial one and maybe the real issue is what do you mean by better? Better test scores. Well nothing we have done has made much affect on that in the last thirty years. Even with the government throwing money at it.

The argument around vouchers is a distraction with both sides wanting to restore public education, mainly disagreeing with how it should be done.

Maybe both sides need to let go of the idea of restoring public education in exchange of making it into something different, public or private. Maybe we need to risk experimenting with school choice and other interventions more. As educators “we roar like lions, and sacrifice like lambs,” and miss the disruption we need.

Regardless, our students are starting to have other choices in their learning and the idea of not letting school get in the way of your education is not a new one. And if public schools are unwilling or unable to change, people will choose something else.

I know I am missing some questions and valid points. Add them in the comments.


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Using what I know about learning to help others.

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