Search Results

Thursday, November 13, 2008

School Vouchers, An Overview (Part 1)

"A mind without instruction can bear no more fruit than can a field, however fertile, without cultivation" - Cicero

Earlier, the subject of education was raised - among other subjects, the issue of school vouchers was raised. Like many issues in politics, the subject of school vouchers is a complex one, where reasonable people can disagree, and even the facts themselves are sometimes unclear.

As discussed earlier, most governmental philosophies maintain a place for collectively funded education. If we agree on this, though, there is still the question of provision: should such education be directly provided by the government, in state-run schools, or should the government simply act as a 'single payer' (the fancy economics term for this, a sort of 'buyer side monopoly,' is monopsony) and purchase education on the open market, or should a combination of the two be used? Of course, the same question can be asked of any government service: should the government maintain its own military, or should it use taxes to hire private mercenaries, or both?

Ignoring the existence of school vouchers for the moment, the current system in the US follows mainly the first approach. To grossly oversimplify, all individuals are taxed, these monies are pooled at some level, and then spent to fund state-owned and operated schools for all the children in a community. Additionally, while students are required (under most circumstances) to attend school, parents can opt to send their children to a privately owned and operated school, so long as the school meets certain government standards, and the parents are willing to pay the prices charged by the private institution. Of course, should they choose this option, parents are essentially paying for their child's education twice, or are giving up the 'free' option of public schooling.

Voucher programs offer an alternative to this, with a simple mechanism - funding 'follows the child.' The specifics of programs are more complex in practice: some may place a cap on the tuition which may be charged, while others may simply pay a fixed amount of per-child funding to all schools. Regardless of the details, though, there are some fundamental concepts common to all voucher programs, and corresponding arguments for and against them.

(NOTE: In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I attended a public magnet high school, the Bergen County Academies (school site, Wikipedia page). I leave it to you, our readers, to judge whether this has biased my view of the subject.)


The Pro-Voucher Arguments

1. Competition

Generally the central argument used by proponents of school choice, the 'competition' theory says that when schools, both public and private, must fight for students - and the government funding that follows them - tuition decreases, the quality increases, and innovation is encouraged. But is this really the case?

Testing this empirically is notoriously difficult, because of issues such as selection bias. Imagine a private school in a district has higher mean SAT scores than the public schools in the district. Does this mean that teacher quality is higher at the private school? Or does it mean that the students who tend to go there would score better no matter where they are? Or, does it mean that the private school simply teaches more to the SAT than to other tests or subjects? Or, do the students who go there tend to be from higher income families, and are therefore more likely to get outside tutoring and assistance for the SATs? Or, does the fact that a private school even exists reflect some factor unique to this community?

Nevertheless, we can examine these issues, and many studies have done so. In a review of the existing literature, Belfield and Levin (Belfield and Levin, 2002) examine 41 empirical studies, and find that "a sizable majority of these studies report beneficial effects of competition across all outcomes." Of course, the study also cautions against the "validity of inference from point estimates to public policy."

Another natural consequence of the competition argument is that failing schools must be allowed to close, and, should a school close, both public and private entities should be given the opportunity to take over and reopen the school.

2. Empowerment

Another argument advanced by proponents of voucher programs is that of empowerment, on both an economic and a moral basis. Voucher programs, combined with policies that give public school administrators more freedom to develop their own curricula and approaches to education, allow the people 'on the ground,' those actually educating our children, to develop innovative approaches to the problems facing our educational system today. The needs of children in suburban Portland are different than the needs of children in south central L.A., proponents argue, and principles - and teachers as well - should have the freedom to address those needs differently, and they should be allowed to fail or succeed in the open market.

Additionally, supporters claim that voucher programs recognize that parents, not bureaucrats, are the ultimate judges of what is best for their children. By allowing parents to choose the school their children attend, voucher programs encourage parental involvement in education, which, according to some studies, has been found to have a significant, positive impact on educational outcomes (though there is at least one study, I believe, that has found the opposite result).

Incentives may be more properly aligned under a competitive system, as well. The past decade has seen a rise in the use of standardized testing and regulations, not least of all in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB). Under such a system, powerful incentives exist to simply "teach to the test," a phenomenon that has been seen in response to NCLB, as well as the increasing importance of the Advance Placement (AP) Program, with its standardized exams. With a voucher program, as long as schools meet some minimum standards set by the government, the market - i.e. parents - ultimately decide what aspects are important, and may include standardized test scores, facilities, extracurricular offerings, job or college counselling and support, or a host of other factors.

3. Other arguments

There are many other arguments made in support of vouchers. Among them:

- Teacher unions hurt students, and may hurt teachers as well. As private school teachers are generally not unionized, this may also encourage public schools to be 'deregulated' away from being closed shops.

- Systems could be designed that reward parents for choosing less expensive schools, thus helping to control the costs of education on the whole. Such systems include Educational Savings Accounts, which allow parents to use the excess of the voucher minus school tuition to hire tutors, offset the cost of tuition later in the child's life, or cover other educational expenses.

- School choice teaches students democratic values through real-life experiences. Some proponents even point to studies that show private schools are more likely to teach civics than their public counterparts are direct evidence of this.

- Although the original idea of public education was to provide broad, universal education that would put all citizens on a more equal footing, the current system actually has the opposite effect, magnifying the socioeconomic disparities in our society.


Next post: School Vouchers, An Overview (Part 2), which covers the major anti-vouchers arguments, and includes some concluding remarks.

-- Marcus Tullius Tiro

No comments: