Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why School Vouchers?

This past week I debated for school vouchers on Tory Gattis’ blog. I won some points, but only changed one opponent's perspective a little, so I was inspired to think about it this week.

First, though, an excerpt from an article in the Economist on New York’s successful charter schools and expansion of a more market based system. It adds to my belief that market based education under charter schools and then vouchers is inevitable.

--Excellence is an independently run public school that has been allowed greater flexibility in its operations in return for greater accountability, though it cannot select its pupils, instead choosing them by lottery. If it fails, the principal (head teacher) will be held accountable, and the school could be closed. Three years old, Excellence is living up to its name: 92% of its third-grade scholars (eight-year-olds, the oldest boys it has, so far) scored “advanced” or “proficient” in New York state English language exams this year, compared to an average (for fourth-graders) across the state of 68% and only 62% in the Big Apple. They did even better in mathematics.

This is the sort of performance that the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, now wants to extend from New York's 60 charter schools to all of the city's schools. On November 5th, the mayor and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, announced what is in effect the final piece in their grand plan to charterise the entire city school system.--

Proponents of vouchers do a good job of arguing why we need a change in our schools, but we have not painted a clear picture of what life will be like with vouchers and why this picture is better than the just using Charter schools.

The limit to Charter schools is the school district boundary. A charter school cannot take kids from other districts, nor can a child cross district lines to attend a charter school except in rare cases. While cities like New York have dozens of charter and magnet schools, other districts are too small to offer a wide array of school choice. There simply are not enough kids to justify a diverse offering. Different kids need different teaching styles. The more diverse the choice the more likely that parents will be able to find the niche that suits their child best.

This past year, a bill submitted in the Texas Legislature would have given state funded vouchers for kids with autism to attend public, charter, and private schools that specialize in the education of autistic children. Few districts have programs specifically for autism. Right now, these students are rarely afforded the opportunity to cross district lines because it is so expensive to help them. The result is that autistic children cannot receive the best treatment available. Unfortunately, the public school establishment venomously attacked this bill and it died after being passed in a Senate committee.

Another advantage is that vouchers can solve much of the debate on religion in schools by giving parents a choice. While the news cherry picks horror stories of propaganda in public schools, the result that I see more often is a dullness of consensus. The only acceptable values are those that do not offend anyone. Some see vouchers as a way for parents to isolate their child in environments that stifle free thought (church schools). I disagree, but even without allowing religious schools to receive voucher funds, a diverse array of private school environments will allow parents to find one that does not suppress their moral values and beliefs.

Because of the geographic monopoly that public schools hold, regulation makes sense to many as a way to protect their kids from the problems that are more common amongst the poor. They passed minimum lot size zoning to prevent low-income homes. They restricted the development of inexpensive apartments to keep out poor and transient residents. Both practices are now illegal. Parents in the suburbs are not horrible people for trying to keep violent kids out of their schools and away from their children, but the result is continued segregation on racial and class lines. Schools in poor neighborhoods are jammed with problem students because those who care about education, and can afford it, move away.

With vouchers, geography matters less. Where you live would not dictate the quality of school your child attends. If a private school has high standards of discipline and shares many of their values, parents do not have to live in a far-flung suburb to know that their child is safe. They can live somewhere more convenient to work and less affected by what someone is building across town. According to a 2005 poll done in Philadelphia, 59% said living near good schools was very important in deciding where to live, but only 30% said that living near people like themselves was important. This implies that schools may be a more powerful component of our self-imposed segregation than prejudice.

Public School offers too much of a one-size-fits-all education. Vouchers break down barriers between the diverse needs of the students and the ability of teachers to meet those needs. Vouchers are more effective than Charter Schools at meeting those needs by offering a more diverse approach to education. Public Schools cannot appease the values of an increasingly diverse society without suppressing some and limiting free speech. Vouchers allow private schools to offer a wide array of value systems from which parents can choose. The geographic monopoly of public schools reinforces racial and class segregation. Vouchers break down the barriers of education, break down the barriers to the free exchange of ideas, and break down the barriers of segregation.

As always, let me know what you think.

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