My worry about vouchers

by on March 22, 2007 at 5:06 pm in Education | Permalink

Here is one good bit, you can trace back an interesting debate through Kevin Drum, Matt, Ezra (can’t find the link), and Jane.  I have two worries:

1. The federal government will pay for vouchers, to some extent, and thus extend its control over schooling.  Admittedly this is happening anyway.

2. No politically feasible vouchers program will apply immediate depth charges to current public schools or even reduce their initial budgets ("oh, you aren’t letting public schools compete…).  That means the new money must come from somewhere.  That means our taxes will go up.

Vouchers would create a new middle class entitlement, ostensibly aimed at education but often simply capitalized in the form of cash.  In the meantime public schools would require additional subsidies to stay open.  How pretty a picture is this?

For sure, I favor selective vouchers for inner cities and voucher experiments.  But Yana is finishing high school now, and we have had quite a cozy local arrangement in Fairfax County.  I don’t wish we had had vouchers, and I’m a libertarian (Bryan can laugh if he wants).  That’s why the vouchers idea has not really gotten off the ground.

I would be happier with vouchers if we were starting from scratch in designing educational institutions.  And while I agree with Jane that children have a positive right to an education, I think the out-and-out laissez-faire option doesn’t get enough attention.  Keep the public schools we have, but make them charge tuition.  I’m not sure that the number of good educations obtained would actually go down.  Even if we can’t institute this reform today, might it become possible at some level of per capita income?

When it comes to teachers’ unions, I don’t have much sympathy.

1 Jake March 22, 2007 at 5:34 pm

Most areas, aside from highly urbanized ones, probably aren’t dense enough to sustain the competition necessary to make vouchers viable. In other words, the high time and energy cost of transport means that a limited number of students wouldn’t make a real market feasible. The exception to that, however, is highly urbanized areas, as there are probably enough students in them to make sure the market works. Metropolitan areas with more than 250,000 residents are probably near the minimum.

In addition, such schools probably have the least to lose because such school districts already perform so poorly. Certainly that’s the case in Seattle, where I live, and the public school district regularly underperforms neighboring suburbs and private schools. To some extent that’s because of the differences in student composition, but vouchers would help attract some high-performing students back into the system. An article by Daniel Golden headlined “Affluent Families Have Ways to Sway School Assignments” appeared in the December 4, 2006 Wall Street Journal about the contortions currently being performed in pursuit of that goal.

Still, the article does offer one point that strongly supports Tyler Cowen’s:

“According to Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor of education, programs such as Seattle’s that let students choose schools are usually set up in ways that give an advantage to middle-class and white students. In Seattle, those who miss application deadlines tend to come from a “more transient population” of renters who are disproportionately low-income and minority, says John Vacchiery, the district’s former director of enrollment. This year 8,828 Seattle students applied for school assignments on time and 7,039 applied late or not at all, relegating them to the back of the line.”

In other words, almost half the families are too uninterested in their children’s education to even try to apply to other schools. Voucher system assume that consumers will act in their own best interests, but if so many apparently aren’t, then they might fail anyway. I’d continue to argue what I did above, however, in that the system is unlikely to get worse than it already is.

The rest of the article is behind the walled garden here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB116519951912839643.html?mod=mostpop

2 Slocum March 22, 2007 at 6:32 pm

No politically feasible vouchers program will apply immediate depth charges to current public schools or even reduce their initial budgets (“oh, you aren’t letting public schools compete…). That means the new money must come from somewhere. That means our taxes will go up.

I disagree. In Michigan we have near universal vouchers now, but you can use them only at public schools and charters, not private schools. Strictly speaking, the parents never touch the piece of paper, but the funding from the state follows the student wherever he or she goes. But most don’t go — they stay in their own local public school system because transportation is a problem and because that’s where their kids friends (and their friends kids) go.

If vouchers were extended to private schools, there is no reason to believe that public schools wouldn’t still be able to compete for and win a very high percentage of the students in most areas (Not least because the public schools start out with the enormous advantage of land and building which the upstarts would have to fund out of the vouchers).

I have kids in high-school, too, and I’m glad that we do have this limited form of vouchers, because the schools do worry about losing students (and the $10K a year that each brings in) and I believe they have become more responsive to their ‘customers’ than they were previously (where before, a student leaving meant just as much money but one less mouth to feed).

3 brianS March 22, 2007 at 6:43 pm

Keep the public schools we have, but make them charge tuition.

coupled with an elimination of the schools portion of local property taxes (not that we have that in California anyway, since it all goes into the state general fund) and a negative income tax?

I could live with that. Of course, you’d also have to blow up unified school districts, turning most schools into independently administered charter schools that could compete AND control staffing decisions.

4 GMUSL 3L March 22, 2007 at 6:49 pm

Why not just have an income tax credit for pre-college educational expenses, capped at the amount of the voucher, and make prices for public schools?

That’s “voucher-like” but doesn’t raise nearly the same problems with the establishment clause and federal money. Moreover, states could do the same thing.

5 Tom Kelly March 22, 2007 at 7:11 pm

Vouchers would not only dramatically improve education, they would also significantly improve the environment by reducing urban sprawl.

For two generations families have been fleeing first the inner cities and now the first ring suburbs in order to choose better schools for their children. A voucher system would substantially curtail this flight to the outer suburbs and dramatically revitalize conveniently located but poorly schooled urban and older suburban areas.

If the electorate cannot be persuaded by the obvious educational benefits of vouchers, perhaps they can be persuaded by the prospect of increasing their property values.

6 Matt March 22, 2007 at 10:02 pm

No vouchers. You don’t want state money messing up private schools. Tax credits are the way to go. Allow anyone in the district to take a credit for private schooling, or for homeschooling (albeit a lower amount). Allow anyone to take the credit for a child, but only for 1 child. If an older couple with no children wants to take the credit, they could pay $2,000 of a poor child’s tuition bill and deduct it off their property taxes. If the Federal government wanted to help, they could also allow deductions on income taxes. Did you know that the Education Department spends enough money to give every kid age 10 and up a significant school voucher? If the Department were abolished, and only 20% of the country wanted private schooling, the current education budget could fund it completely.

7 Eric Crampton March 22, 2007 at 10:25 pm

Jake: I grew up on a farm where the nearest neighbour was about a mile away. Within busing distance were 3 schools: I could choose a French school, a mixed school, or an English school ranging from 7 miles to 20 miles away. None of the schools had more than 250 students, Kindergarten to Grade 12. The schools were in competition for students as language of instruction was an “acceptable” reason for parents to send their kids to one school rather than another. There might be places that are low enough in population density that there’s no effective competition. But I’d be surprised if more than 5% of the population live in places so-characterized. Would have to be less dense than rural southern Manitoba; our farm had a population density of 4 people to the square mile…

8 peter jackson March 23, 2007 at 12:04 am

Friedman originally articulated vouchers as being universal, and in my opinion universality is utterly key in avoiding the redundant systems Tyler fears as well as for the ultimate success of the model. Universality levels the playing field. When underperforming public schools find themselves without students (and their vouchers) sure, the local authority can choose to subsidize it, but unless there is a shortage of seats in the district causing hardship on other schools, eventually the authorities will come to question what the point is to subsidizing empty, unneeded schools.

Like several of the other commenters, I think the term “vouchers” has been allowed to become a loaded term by the enemies of choice. My suggestion for replacing vouchers is Student-Owned Tuition Accounts.

yours/
peter.

9 Steve Sailer March 23, 2007 at 5:29 am

Talking about vouchers is putting the cart before the horse. The crucial component of any system of educational competition, one that doesn’t currently exist, is an independent testing system that objectively measures how much value each school is adding to the students it gets. Otherwise, parents are being asked to buy a pig in a poke.

10 Johan Folin March 23, 2007 at 6:52 am

By the way, the size of the city/county population doesn’t matter. People in small villages send their kids to the nearest large town anyway where there are enough schools to choose from. The county population median in Sweden is 15000 and the average is 31000, so population density is clearly not a problem.

11 Slocum March 23, 2007 at 7:33 am

I find it hard to understand why school vouchers are such a big issue in the US.

Well, that’s easy — because the teacher’s unions (out of self-interest) are dead-set against vouchers, and the teacher’s unions are a major Democratic Party constituency (much more important now than the fading industrial unions).

And to a lesser extent, voters (like Tyler) who have (or think they have) excellent local public schools are not in really proponents because they’ve already got a good thing and a major change to the system might mess that up.

12 JoshK March 23, 2007 at 9:02 am

Sell these public schools to Blackstone and then be done with it.

13 exlitigator March 23, 2007 at 12:54 pm

While the quality of teachers are important (I am a teacher) a bigger factor is the quality of students. If all schools can easily accept or students, then there will be a lot of students rejected by everyone. How is this a good thing? Also interesting to me in this debate is the assumption that competition automatically improves everything. Is this true on the college level? Is the quality of education at Harvard 10 times better than a state school? Would colleges be better if they had to take everyone?
As for teachers unions, most of the stories are urban legends (Cadillac driving welfare moms). Most States don’t have strong unions (ironically usually with poorer educational outcomes i.e. the south). The biggest problem with quality teachers is that so many leave within 3-5 years of being hired. (20-50% depending on area). Removing teacher protection by busting unions does not seem to me likely to encourage more and better teachers.

14 mik March 23, 2007 at 7:15 pm

“don’t wish we had had vouchers, and I’m a libertarian”

You essentially are a government bureaucrat and a deluded person.
A libertarian you are not.

15 JPC March 24, 2007 at 1:50 pm

Let’s examine the economics of the education system as it exists in grades 3-8. We know the teachers are not paid very well, in comparison to other professionals. Why? Could it be that the market has discovered that teaching is only effective in those happy instances when it is unnecessary? IE if teachers have very little impact on outcomes and are essentially disciplinarians – why pay them? The voucher argument seems to be fine as a way to make the market for disciplinarians more competitive. But people tend to learn when and if they want to – it can’t really be forced. An exception here is probably parental influence, but the idea of teachers as a parental substitute is a fantasy, made for TV movies not withstanding. Further down the road, the selection system of university admissions produces a cohort willing to learn [in “elite” schools anyway]. There, teachers begin to be paid, and that market is very competitive.

16 anon July 15, 2007 at 1:07 pm

Could it be that the market has discovered that teaching is only effective in those happy instances when it is unnecessary?

What market? The whole point of introducing school vouchers is creating an actual market for K12 education.

17 sdfs August 6, 2007 at 9:52 pm

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18 dchjc November 13, 2007 at 4:42 am
19 likaida March 17, 2009 at 10:10 pm
20 likaida March 17, 2009 at 10:12 pm
21 likaida March 17, 2009 at 10:21 pm
22 likaida March 17, 2009 at 10:22 pm

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