Diversity Matters: Elevating the Voucher Debate Above Esenberg and Insults

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?

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11 Responses to Diversity Matters: Elevating the Voucher Debate Above Esenberg and Insults

  1. Let me add 2 other reasons why voucher schools are problematic by posting 2 blogs I have written on the topic. One is specific to the discrimination against children with disabilities so endemic to voucher schools and DPI’s failure to combat it, despite the admonition to do so by the US Dept. of Justice. http://systemschangeconsulting.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/defending-the-civil-rights-of-children-with-disabilities-in-voucher-schools/
    The other is one I wrote today about the benefits of inclusion and the consequent harmful effects of segregation. http://systemschangeconsulting.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/inclusion-as-a-path-to-friendship-time-to-end-segregated-schools/
    Voucher advocates have only 1 real goal: filling seats of private schools. That isn’t choice. It is using taxpayer money for private gain.

  2. David Blaska says:

    All of which, Ed, are great reasons to choose a public school. But you’re not about persuasion, you are about compulsion. If, after all your argument, you cannot convince X number of parents, you are quite willing to use the coercive powers of the state to force their hand — unless they have the means to opt out. Most of whom, btw, are white as Wonder Bread. In which case, that networking advantage of which you speak might be useful to the less affluent student who, in a voucher school, gets to rub up against the cashmere sweater of Richie Rich. There’s diversity for you!

    • David –Labeling the absence of a subsidy as coercion isn’t an argument. It’s a misuse of language that won’t be persuasive to anyone who isn’t already with you from the start. To be clear, I am not saying that parents shouldn’t be allowed to decide where to send their kids to school. I‘m saying that it is poor public policy to provide subsidies as a way of encouraging parents to make choices that will diminish the quality of our public schools. If your point is that a voucher is not a subsidy, then we’ll simply disagree (but I’ll have the benefit of knowing that I’m right).

      • David Blaska says:

        Subsidy? Only if you torture the word to mean something that it doesn’t. Public schools receive $12,775, on average, per pupil. Voucher schools, about half that, or $7,050. The state money follows the pupil. I’m saying it is poor public policy to discourage innovation and competition that will improve the quality of a child’s education. Right there, Ed, is how my priority is different from yours. The ultimate goal is a well educated citizen; yours is the survival of a particular system.

      • Torrey Jaeckle says:

        Ed, using your logic “free” public schools are a 100% subsidy for those who attend them. I don’t see how a voucher is more of a subsidy than that. You use the word because it has negative connotations – which serves your purpose – but it isn’t much of an argument. If the state is providing funding for the education of its citizenry you can’t say one form (vouchers) is a subsidy and another form (public education) is not.

  3. David –
    I don’t think the claim that more competition leads to better schools holds up very well. First, as I wrote, I think there is value in having all or almost all the kids in a neighborhood attend the neighborhood school. This is a sort of network effect benefit. Other things equal, atomizing this so kids go off in different directions for school is detrimental for everyone. Second, as I also wrote, it’s hard for any parents to assess the quality of the schools their children might attend. This isn’t a knock on parents – I’m one myself. It’s just a fact, and one that was underscored by Alan Borsuk’s article in the Journal Sentinel on Sunday http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/with-wide-open-school-choice-marketing-becomes-name-of-the-game-b9966782z1-218235701.html. An excerpt: “As a school strategy, better marketing can trump better educational programs.” Maybe there’s some evidence out there that supports the claim that more competition leads to overall better quality education at the K-12 level. If so, I’m not aware of it. But it’s not enough to just assert the claim as if its truth is self-evident. A lot of markets don’t work like the market for pins that Adam Smith famously wrote about in The Wealth of Nations and K-12 education seems to be one of them.

    Torrey –
    We’ve been around this block before and I think we just see things differently. According to the Wisconsin Constitution, “The legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge for tuition to all children between the ages of 4 and 20 years.” Does it make sense to say that any children who attend such “district schools” are receiving a subsidy? I don’t think so. If the constitution had instead stated that the state shall assist families in providing for the education of their children, then you’d have a point in arguing that the state should be indifferent to the educational choices that families make. But it doesn’t say that. So supplementing the state’s obligation to provide free public schools by also providing vouchers for families who choose to pursue other options is providing subsidies to those families. You can argue that this policy is good or bad, but you can’t argue that expenditures on vouchers stand on the same constitutional footing as the state’s support for public schools, or that it’s just six of one, half-dozen of the other.

    • Torrey Jaeckle says:

      Thanks for the response Ed. No, I won’t argue that vouchers are on the same constitutional footing as public schools – certainly they are not. Public schools must be established, per the state constitution, while vouchers are not constitutionally mandated. But I will argue that that goal or reasoning behind the public school establishment in the state constitution is to help ensure an equitable education for every citizen regardless of family income or ability to pay. Vouchers are just another form of achieving that same goal – a goal which we are NOT achieving right now (see “achievement gap”). And it bears repeating that there has been no study or evidence that shows that vouchers harm public schools. In fact, there are studies that show just the opposite. The constitutional requirement for public schools ensures that there is at least one option for every child; but it doesn’t say that it is the best option, nor that it be the only option offered – it is simply what must be offered at a minimum by the state.

      In your arguments you place a high value on “having all or almost all the kids in a neighborhood attend the neighborhood school.” I have pointed out before that this may be a value you hold, but I’m not sure why you feel entitled to force it on others who may not value that as highly, especially when you’ve pointed to no evidence that such a compulsion or system leads to better educational outcomes. And I will point out, by my count there are four schools (public and private) within a few miles of my house that my children could attend. Any one of those choices would still feel like a “neighborhood” school to me, given each school’s proximity to my home. Choice and the “neighborhood school” feeling aren’t mutually exclusive.

      Finally, you are in doubt over the argument that competition can and does lead to overall quality improvements in education. Have you been following the rapid educational improvements in post-Katrina New Orleans, where over 80% of students now attend charter schools? And while I know that studies on the MPCP have been mixed, it is important to note Patrick’s Wolf’s 2012 assessment of the program includes the following statement in the summary::

      “Our research revealed a pattern of school choice results that range from neutral (no significant differences between Choice and MPS) to positive (clear benefit to Choice). Although we have examined virtually every possible way that school choice could systematically affect people, schools, and neighborhoods in Milwaukee, we have found no evidence of any harmful effects of choice.”

      We can debate whether choice will work to improve educational outcomes or not, but it seems one argument of the anti-choice crowd should be off the table: That choice harms public schools.

      • Torrey –
        I’m not persuaded (duh), but you make your points well. I do take exception, though, to the notion that it is somehow “coercive” to decline to provide a voucher payment for families who may like one. In any other context, I think you’d find such a claim preposterous.

  4. Mad4Madison says:

    Ed –

    I have to say that your comments and previous posts have made me really think about school choice and my own views. I am in favor of choice, but I never really stopped to think “why.” Perhaps it is my upbringing and environment. Perhaps it was my own schooling (a mixture of private and public schools). Perhaps it was listening to my mother, who was an educator.

    In the end, I guess I have come down to the following being the why:

    What we are doing now is not working.

    Yes, we can go around and around about public / private / charter / vouchers / on-line / virtual / union / non-union / state budgets / funding formula / property tax caps and any other facet of our education system. But in the end, I have yet to hear people actually state that our current method works. Now, I have heard that it may not be perfect, but it is better than any other alternative. But that isn’t really saying that the current method is working, is it?

    Our public schools in Madison struggle with issues that most (maybe all) urban schools struggle with. And let’s not kid ourselves, MMSD is an urban district. We struggle with poverty, race related issues, economic diversity, single family struggles and special needs students. Are we really doing a good job? Again, I am on the side of no.

    And it is because of my “no” that I support choice. Something needs to change. We can continue to argue and debate and conduct open forums and quote this paper / study and statistics, but in the end I am not pleased with where were are collectively. Doing the same thing again and again will not get us closer to providing the high quality education that we all want for our children.

    And think about that last phrase – we all agree on one thing: we all want a high quality education for our children. And I want a high quality education for all children. But in the end, I am a parent of two wonderful kids that happen to be in MMSD. We have had our challenges (different schools, different quality, different educational standards and different teacher expectations to name a few). But I am a fan of public schools and I place my children’s education in the hands of professional educators that are employed by MMSD. However, I do support other parents who wish to make a different choice. And if they cannot afford the different choice, I have no problem with the use of a voucher to help them afford their choice.

    The ability to choose is good.

    • Mad –
      This is an easy one to respond to. You explain that your preference for vouchers is ultimately grounded in your belief that public schools, including those in Madison, are simply not getting the job done for many students. Those students should have vouchers available to them in the hope that they can somehow salvage an adequate education. I think of this as the triage theory. I think it has carried the day in Milwaukee. I also think it helps explain why the Governor’s budget bill attempted to justify voucher expansion on the basis of claims of “failing schools,” which turned out to be pretty dumb politically.

      Two years ago, I would have been more attuned to your position than I am today. In fact, one of the reasons I thought we should find a way to make the Madison Prep proposal work was that I thought it held promise of demonstrating success in areas where our Madison schools have foundered – like in hiring a diverse and highly-qualified staff.

      I don’t feel that way these days, though. Sometimes you’re lucky in life, and we have been very lucky in our hire of Jen Cheatham as our new superintendent. She is the real deal, and a wonderful fit for our situation. On Monday evening, for example, the School Board heard an extremely encouraging report on how the leadership at each of our schools will be developing, and will be held accountable for, school-specific, authentic and achievable improvement goals. It was a breath of fresh air. And so far, everyone –and I mean everyone – is on the bus. So, right now I’m not very sympathetic to the view that we should find a way to allow low-income students to escape from Madison schools. We don’t need diversions involving vouchers or charter school proposals or anything else. Our pendulum is swinging upwards, improvement is in the works, all students will benefit and it is a genuinely exciting time.

      • Mad4Madison says:

        Ed –

        Thanks for the note back.

        I am pleased to hear of your enthusiasm and excitement for the future. I am also happy that many people view Supt. Cheatham as a positive step.

        Of course, having said that:

        The window of opportunity for children is pretty much set at 12 years. Those that are entering high school now only have 4. If any changes that Supt. Cheatham needs to make will take, say, 2 years to get going, then it is too late for those children.

        And I also have to take your view with a grain of salt. Ok, a 40lb salt lick block actually. If you mean that a single hire in the entire system can have such a prevailing and wide change, then I think I see rainbows and unicorns. I would love to believe that MMSD simply needs / needed a change at the top to become successful. But I just don’t see it. Of course, I am not on the Board and I do not have access to the same information that you do.

        But I do seem to recall the same type of enthusiasm for Supt. Nerad when he replaced Rainwater. And here we still are right now.

        I hope – really I hope – that the sense of urgency has been switched on from top to bottom at MMSD. Unfortunately, it might be too late for some kids.

        As to your comment about not needing “diversions” – one person’s “diversion” is indeed another person’s hope.

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