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School Vouchers: Necessary for Effective Public Education

A few months ago, John Stossel did a 20/20 special report called "Stupid in America," which examined the state of American public education today. The conclusion: the American public education system is terrible and in need of major reforms. One reform is school vouchers. A pilot program was implemented in the Washington DC school system last year, and The New York Times (shock!) has an article about the positive effects of the program.

More than half of the students in the program use the vouchers to attend religious schools, mostly Catholic. Among secular schools, Rock Creek International School, a language-immersion school that teaches French, Spanish and Arabic, has been the most generous in subsidizing students.


In accepting 29 students this year, officials said Rock Creek committed itself to helping the children fit into a middle and upper-class environment. Last year, the school raised enough donations for all the voucher students who wanted to go to join class trips to Greece, Costa Rica and Qatar, said Josh Schmidt, the admissions director...

Patricia William, a single mother, said that at first she liked her son Fransoir's public school, John Quincy Adams Elementary School, a tall sprawling building in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Teachers seemed good, but overwhelmed. It was other parents, not teachers, Ms. William said, who told her that Fransoir was hyperactive. "I was not getting quality information from them on time," she said. "For some reason, it was not working."

Fransoir is one of 62 students with vouchers attending Sacred Heart Elementary, a Catholic school of 210 students, where he learns prayers along with five-digit multiplication and long division. He takes medication for his hyperactivity. Last year, he teamed up with another child to research the sinking of the Titanic. This year, he is interested in reptiles. Ms. William said her son today has nothing in common with the boy who once lay on the floor, turning in circles like a clock wound too tight. Now she is learning from him, about more than just math or reading or a sinking ship.

"All the effort he's making every night makes me want to sit with him and study," said Ms. William, a high-school dropout. "I'm learning academically, but also about making an effort."

Competition is the only way to improve the quality of public education. In fact, so many Washington DC students are opting out of the public schools, the schools are forced to adapt.

At Fransoir's old school, Adams Elementary, the principal, Pedro A. Cartagena, said that about 70 students had left for charters, and with just 200 students remaining, Adams was one of many public schools designated an "underutilized school" at risk of being closed. To survive, Dr. Cartagena said he was exploring the possibility of teaming up with a popular dual-language public elementary school, the Oyster School, to transform Adams into a dual-language middle school.

The results of the pilot program will determine whether vouchers will be included in the No Child Left Behind Act when it is renewed next year:

The Washington program is being watched closely because when Congress must tackle reauthorizing President Bush's signature education law, No Child Left Behind, in 2007, the program could become a model for Republican efforts to extend vouchers nationally. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said Wednesday in an appearance in New York City that the Bush administration wanted "to help spread this experiment."

Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters points out the importance of vouchers for the 2006 mid-term elections:

The GOP still has a window of opportunity to create meaningful educational reform through competition. When the New York Times reports on how successful such a program has been for disadvantaged children, it indicates that the old politics of education no longer apply. The Republicans can get ahead of the curve if they act quickly and decisively before the 2006 elections, after which their control of Congress may be in doubt. However, they can establish themselves as the champions of true economic freedom and anti-poverty reformers by creating many more opportunities for these parents to ensure the success for their children.


These parents will vote for hope, not for yet another outlay of billions into a system they know from painful experience has failed them, their children, and their grandchildren. If the GOP wants to get serious about winning a bigger share of the urban vote, they need to act now to do so. So far, campaigning as Democrats on education has won them nothing.


Comments (13)

today's NY Sun had a <a hre... (Below threshold)
Marine Engineer:

today's NY Sun had a follow up by Stossel. He was challenged by Randi Weingarten, the NYC teachers union leader, to "teach for a week", which Stossel agreed to. Needless to say, it never happened, and not on Stossels account.

Free version of <a href="ht... (Below threshold)
kbiel:

Free version of the follow up that Marine Engineer linked. In fact, clicking on John Stossel's by-line will list all of his recent columns with more than 4 follow ups to his "Stupid in America" story.

Better hope Repubs retain c... (Below threshold)

Better hope Repubs retain control of Congress or this program goes bye bye.

Wavemaker, so true. Unfortu... (Below threshold)
bryanD:

Wavemaker, so true. Unfortunately, W has associatiated the Republican party with the suspension of Habeus Corpus. So: school choice vs. the right to trail by jury of my peers and safety from mandated torture. The BASTARD!

my girlfriend is a teacher ... (Below threshold)
sean nyc/aa:

my girlfriend is a teacher with the Teach for America program at a DC public elementary school and one of her roommates teaches at a charter school. One of the main problems at her school very simply is lack of teachers. At least 3 left after first semester, and she will leave after next year once she completes the TFA program. She's talked to the other special ed teacher who will likely be leaving after next year as well.

I'm not as familiar with the status of the situation as the charter school her rm works at, but I can tell you for sure that special ed students have a very hard time getting and keeping the vouchers since the schools are funded based on performance and special ed kids make it harder to keep the standards up.

Furthermore, vouchers do help some students, but I have still yet to hear of a voucher program in which there was No Student Left Behind. In fact, it seems to me that the voucher program is based exactly on that, leaving some students behind. Otherwise all students would be using vouchers and we'd be back where we started, overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded schools.

I agree that the system is broken and something needs to change, I just don't think vouchers are the clear-cut solution. First off, there need to be more teachers to ensure classes aren't condensed mid-year (as happened to my gf). Secondly, we need to make incentives for people to teach and for good teaching. One of the problems that faces public schools is the complacency that sets in because there is no reward for better performance (and conversely, its hard to punish for bad teaching). Possibly having a multi-leveled pension program where consistent high level performance earns you a better retirement package.

Of course, some of this is dependent on the students a teacher gets each year, but I'm sure we could come up with other metrics as well. All in all, we need to look beyond the idea that school vouchers are the simple solution to a profound problem because I don't see how vouchers can ensure equity for all students.

Sean, the problem with ince... (Below threshold)

Sean, the problem with incentive programs for teachers is that they are hard to keep uncorrupted. If it is based upon student grades, all a teacher has to do is "curve" or otherwise manipulate the grades and/or create easier tests and assignments. If a school district relies upon a district-generated standardized test, it still won't take into account student improvement. A teacher needs to be measured by how much a student improves in his/her class, not by how much a student knows. Pinning that concept or figure down is very difficult.

Still, I would like to see somebody figure it out.

bubble,you're absolu... (Below threshold)
sean nyc/aa:

bubble,
you're absolutely right and my proposal was not meant to be the only feasible option. I'm just pointing out that vouchers don't solve all the problems that confront our educational system. And buying into them without considering other possibilities is, in my opinion, a mistake. We could have parent surveys or incremental testing instead of one yearly test. I'm sure there are many more ideas and to start at solving the problems we need to consider these as well and not expect vouchers to solve them all for us.

First off, there ... (Below threshold)
MikeB:


First off, there need to be more teachers to ensure classes aren't condensed mid-year (as happened to my gf). Secondly, we need to make incentives for people to teach and for good teaching. One of the problems that faces public schools is the complacency that sets in because there is no reward for better performance (and conversely, its hard to punish for bad teaching). Possibly having a multi-leveled pension program where consistent high level performance earns you a better retirement package.

These are exactly the reasons that the school system shouldn't be run as a monopoly (i.e. by government). Where competition does not exist, performance is guaranteed to suffer. If there were competition, the better teachers would be in higher demand and would be paid accordingly because there would be more dollars competing for their service. Inadequate teachers would be paid accordingly because there would be fewer dollars competing for their services. As the salaries rose, so would the number of people willing to consider a career as a teacher.

The voucher program is a step in the right direction. It's much more democratic that the current system. The parents decide whether or not the school is doing an acceptable job and vote with their dollars (or vouchers in this case). Why should there be testing ? Isn't it (theoretically) the parents' money that's being spent to begin with ? Shouldn't it be up to the parents to see that their money is spent as they see fit ?

According to Stossel,
If you divide the U.S. Department of Education's figure for total spending on K-12 education by the department's count of K-12 students, it works out to about $10,000 per student.

How many kids were in your classes growing up ? Mine were probably about 30 large. That's $300,000 per classroom. Clearly, there's something wrong because there's no way that money is winding up where it belongs... in the classroom. Government bureaucracy? You've got it!

Government is the only entity that can continue to run a losing business over any length of time. In the private sector, a losing business is allowed to die, as it should, so that the assets can be put to better use. Government isn't the solution, it's the problem.

Imagine a system whereby parents have $10k per child at their disposal. Is it conceivable that teachers could be paid better ? ($10k x 20 = $200k per class) Wouldn't that in turn attract more talented individuals into the teaching profession ? Wouldn't having the school face the possibility of having the parent move their child and therefore their money to another school motivate the schools to spend more money where it matters (i.e. the classroom) ?

IMO, reforming our education system is one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation if we want to remain competitive in a global economy.

- MikeB

mike b,I agree with ... (Below threshold)
sean nyc/aa:

mike b,
I agree with some of your comments, but not all. first of all, the $10,000 per kid might be a reasonable number but it can't go all to the teacher. There are also the principal, janitors, bus drivers, lunch ladies, supplies, music, art, and gym teachers, countless people in dept of education bureaucracy, school lunch programs for low income students, and probably a dozen or more things I'm forgetting.

secondly, I'm not saying vouchers can't work. but I'm pretty sure they can't work for everyone. the whole idea of vouchers is money is taken out of the public school system to help pay part of some students' tuitions at private or charter schools. This leaves the students that don't get vouchers (or are pushed out of the program) to return to a now underfunded and likely understaffed and possibly overcrowded public school system. That doesn't sound very democratic to me, and it is logically impossible to implement a voucher program that includes every student. Democracy is about equity and equal rights, not benefitting the few at the expense of the many. Now private schools are different as long as they are funded by private dollars. That is free-market capitalism, not necessarily democracy. And let's say a charter school does fail and is allowed to die, what happens to the students who went there? They would now have to return to a public school and exacerbate the existing problem.

Finally, the reason the amount for each student is $10,000 is because of federal funding, there is no way the average parent spends $10,000 a year on K-12 education per student. You cannot remove the gov't from the process, so as much as a problem it may be, gov't has to be part of the solution. I just peaves me that some think that vouchers can solve all the problems when I have yet to see a convincing argument that they can provide for the general educational welfare of all students.

Still, I would like to s... (Below threshold)
Phinn:

Still, I would like to see somebody figure it out.

Somebody already has. It's called "private school."

Governmental education was started as an openly socialist idea. They have tried to scrub away or otherwise hide the essesntial socialistic character of government-run and -funded schools, but they can't. That's what it is, in its creation and daily operation.

All socialist schemes fail. The economic incentives that are built in to the system guarantee that it will fail.

Why do people have trouble accepting this? It's obvious to everyone (except the lunatic Left) that socialism fails when it comes to government-run medical care. People have no trouble seeing the inherent failures of socialism when it comes to government-run news media.

Why would any rational person think the outcome would be any different when it comes to government-run schools?

So-called "vouchers" are no better. They are based on the infantile fantasy that government will pay for something but miraculously resist the urge to control it. I'd laugh if I weren't busy puking.

All "vouchers" will do is destroy what remains of the private school system in this country, which (as usual) is the only viable form of schooling. The government will use its financial leverage that it has over the once-private schools to control them.

Show me one example where government has ever done any differently.

Sean NYC wrote:<b... (Below threshold)
MikeB:

Sean NYC wrote:

And let's say a charter school does fail and is allowed to die, what happens to the students who went there? They would now have to return to a public school and exacerbate the existing problem.

If the school fails, there's money still there... when one business collapses due to its own failure the entire industry doesn't just go away. Another business ususaly picks up the assets and the business.

To borrow someone else's analogy....
Imagine if the grocery stores were government run. Everyone was assigned a grocery store at which they were required to get their goods. The government would tax people and send the money to their designated grocery stores. Can you imagine what those stores might be like ? There's no incentive for the grocer to work harder to keep your business because the government decides who your grocer is. Of course, you could shop at one of those private grocery stores but you're alreay paying taxes to support the government run store and those private groceries are so 'expensive'. What kind of variety do you think the grocery store would have ? Of course, you could lobby your politicians to have them carry your favorite kind of snack/ bread/ whatever. Maybe there would be a Dept of Groceries to oversee the quality of the food.... of course, that money has to come from somewhere so the grocery stores will have to get by with a little less.

As bizarre as a government run grocery store may sound, government run schools are similar institutions but because we don't have experience in a world where the government doesn't run them... it's seem acceptable.... kinda like black and white television did at one time.

- MikeB

mike,I kinda see wha... (Below threshold)
sean nyc/aa:

mike,
I kinda see what you're saying, but I don't think supermarkets and schools are very comprable. One thing is that in many places, public schools are good. At least in my hometown, some of the public schools performed better than the private schools. Also, with businesses, they have customers who can find another store, but schools have students, and you can't just mess with their education because a private company didn't succeed. What if no outside investor does want to invest in the school, are the students screwed?

The system definitely needs some work, but let's not throw the cart out before the horse.

One thing is that... (Below threshold)
MikeB:


One thing is that in many places, public schools are good.

Good is a relative and subjective term. And as the saying goes, "good is not acceptable where better is possible".


Also, with businesses, they have customers who can find another store, but schools have students, and you can't just mess with their education because a private company didn't succeed. What if no outside investor does want to invest in the school, are the students screwed?

When a grocery store closes, people don't starve. They find their supplies elsewhere. More often than not, the store closing is the result of a better store entering the market and taking the business.

- MikeB




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