Conservative groups always seem to have plenty of money, don’t they? One is the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), which, among other endeavors, produces a slick magazine, Wisconsin Interest. The latest issue includes an article by Richard Esenberg on school vouchers that is short but sweeping in its scope and ambition. It’s also smug and wrong-headed.
Esenberg sets out to identify the fundamental differences between voucher advocates and opponents. His thesis is that views on vouchers derive from deeper beliefs than objective assessments of how well voucher schools perform or concerns about vouchers draining funds from public schools. To him, your take on vouchers depends on how you view the world.
Esenberg asserts that voucher advocates are united by their embrace of three fundamental principles: that a centralized authority is unlikely to be able to decide what is best for all; that families should be trusted to select their children’s schools since ordinary people are capable of making choices for themselves without paternalistic direction; and that “government does not do diversity, experimentation and choice very well.”
By implication, he asserts that voucher opponents think that a centralized authority will be able to decide what’s best for all, that families shouldn’t be trusted to make choices for their children, and that government control is the best way to foster innovation.
And there you have it. Your views on school voucher expansion are entirely explained by whether you prefer individual freedom, like the voucher advocates, or stultifying government control, like the voucher opponents. In cinematic terms, voucher opponents are the legions of lifeless, gray drones in Apple’s famous 1984 commercial and voucher supporters are the colorful rebel, bravely challenging the control of Big Brother and hurling her sledgehammer to smash mindless conformity. You couldn’t ask for a more sophisticated analysis than that, could you?
While his thesis invites mockery, Esenberg’s short article does present a bit of a challenge to voucher opponents like myself. Can we set out a coherent justification for our opposition that doesn’t depend on the facts that voucher schools drain needed resources from public schools and don’t perform any better? Sweeping those fairly compelling points aside, Esenberg asks, in effect, what else you got?
I imagine there are a number of possible responses. I’ll set out one reason why vouchers are bad public policy as a six-step syllogism:
1. We care about the quality of the schools that children attend. We all have a huge stake in children receiving an education that prepares them well for college, career and community. We shouldn’t be indifferent to the means by which that education is imparted.
2. Children don’t go to school simply to learn their academic subjects. Their interactions with their classmates and teachers also enable them to learn the interpersonal skills and gain the cultural competence that will equip them to function effectively in the diverse settings they are likely to encounter in their 21st century world. The development of these less-quantifiable skills benefits from children attending schools with as wide a variety of students as possible. There is sort of a network effect. This is an advantage of traditional public schools.
3. The notion that parents inherently know what school is best for their kids is an example of conservative magical thinking. It is not based on any evidence – the evidence is in fact to the contrary. As I have noted before, none other than WPRI itself published a study in 2007 that, in the words of the Institute, “did not yield the results we had hoped to find.” Instead, the report concluded that no more than ten percent of voucher-eligible parents will exercise their options in a way that is responsive to the relative quality of the schools available to them.
This isn’t a surprise. In economic terms, K-12 education is more an “experience good” than a “search good.” The quality of the education that a child will receive at a particular school is difficult to observe in advance and to compare to other schools. Charter schools and voucher schools may tout features like uniforms or slick marketing materials to create an aura designed to appeal to parents, but there is no reason to think that these sorts of superficial details are reliable signifiers of genuine educational quality.
4. For whatever reason, parents as a group tend to undervalue the benefits of diversity in the public schools their children might attend. They may refer to concerns about safety, they may say the schools don’t reflect their values, they may say that their children prefer to be with their friends. But in making choices about their children’s education, parents select schools with relatively more diversity less often than an objective measure of quality would indicate.
5. To the extent that groups of students who might otherwise attend a neighborhood public school are peeled away to attend voucher schools, the diversity of the neighborhood schools is reduced and hence the environment that fosters the development of interpersonal skills and cultural competence is diminished.
6. Therefore, it makes little sense for us to offer subsidies through vouchers and thereby encourage families to make choices that will inherently diminish the quality of the education available at our public schools.
Voucher advocates certainly disagree with my conclusion. But it would elevate the discussion above the simplistic level evident in Esenberg’s piece if they would describe where they part company from the first five steps in the argument. And remember Esenberg’s ground rules – no fair asserting that voucher schools are better or cheaper than public schools. So, how am I wrong?