Continuing the Voucher Debate (This Time 100% Insult-Free!)

Rick Esenberg has responded to my last blog post, which was critical of a short article he had written about the difference between supporters and opponents of school vouchers.

I wrote that Esenberg’s analysis was superficial and his characterization of voucher opponents insulting. While decrying the unflattering terms I employed, Esenberg writes that my analysis of his piece is sophomoric, cartoonish and simplistic. Okay, fine. Let’s move on.

Esenberg writes that I overlooked his principal point, which is that people’s views on vouchers are heavily influenced by their predispositions.  That seems to me to be obvious. What I found more interesting about his article is that it suggested the challenge of discussing whether vouchers represent sound public policy without resorting to arguments about whether public schools or voucher schools lead to better learning outcomes or which end up costing taxpayers more. It’s not that these aren’t important considerations, but the various rhetorical thrusts and parries along these lines have been repeated almost ad nauseum and neither side is going to convince the other on either basis. Let’s explore some other arguments.

In the spirit of expanding the discussion, I then offered a six-step argument that voucher expansion represents bad public policy that I attempted to base primarily on empirical assertions rather than professions of faith.

Here’s a brief recap of my assertions:

1. We care as a society about the overall quality of the education that children receive.

2. In general, the quality of the education that children receive (considered in a broad sense that includes social skills and cultural competence) is enhanced to the extent that they attend schools with students who span a wide range of backgrounds.

3. There is no reason to think that the school choices parents make for their children necessarily correlate with school quality, however measured.

4. 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 neighborhood public schools attend voucher schools instead, the diversity of the neighborhood schools is reduced and hence the quality of the educational experience available to the school’s students is diminished.

6. Therefore, voucher expansion is not a sound policy because it encourages families to make choices that will inherently diminish the quality of the education available at our public schools, and there is no guarantee of an offsetting benefit in terms of their children attending objectively better schools.

Of these six statements, the first is non-controversial, the second is a mix of an empirical statement and a value judgment, the third and the fourth are empirical statements, and the fifth and the sixth follow as a matter of logic from the first four.

How does Esenberg respond to these six steps in the argument? He does not take issue with the first. As to the second, it does not seem that he disagrees as a matter of principle, but he questions its applicability to the voucher debate. Our differences here I think are explained by our different frames of reference.

I tend to have Madison schools in mind when I think about these issues. Esenberg’s focus is Milwaukee. When I write of the value of a diverse student body, I’m thinking of Madison, where we have students of all races and income levels and backgrounds. I’d like them all in our public schools. (I even wrote a blog post two years ago expressing disappointment that Governor Walker’s sons are not attending Madison East.}

Esenberg, on the other hand, thinks of Milwaukee, where “both choice schools and public schools are predominantly minority and low income.” So there isn’t a lot of the type of diversity I celebrate to go around. He sees diversity in that a number of voucher schools in Milwaukee incorporate a faith-based component in their instruction, which assumes a different meaning of the term.

Esenberg doesn’t like my third and fourth points, but I don’t think he has much in the way of a rejoinder. I cited a WPRI study that supported my assertion that parents tend not to select schools based on an objective assessment of quality. Esenberg responds that the WPRI study I cited isn’t much in terms of scholarship. Fine, but my point is an empirical one. Where is the evidence that contradicts my statement that the choices parents make can’t be explained on the basis of the relative quality of the schools they are choosing among?

It seems to me that voucher supporters have a couple of alternatives in responding to my point. First, they can cite evidence that tends to show that I’m wrong. They haven’t done this. Second, they can assert that empirical evidence is essentially irrelevant. They value parents being able to make choices about their children’s schools, regardless of the choices the parents actually make. This is the “magical thinking” I referred to – it seems to be simply a tenet of faith for them that parents inherently know best. I don’t buy it.

My fifth point is that parents tend to discount diversity as a benefit when making school choices. Here is how Esenberg describes my point, “Families, in the considered view of Edwin Hughes, don’t value diversity (or at least the same type of diversity) as much as Edwin Hughes. They ought not be empowered to make these ‘poor’ choices.” Well, you can re-phrase the point in an effort to make me look like an arrogant buffoon, or you can respond to it. Again, this is an empirical matter. Either parents tend to act in the way that I assert or they don’t. This is one point on which I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but nothing Esenberg writes suggests that I am.

As I said, the fifth and sixth steps of the argument simply follow as a matter of logic from the first four. If the first four are correct, the last two are as well.

I remain puzzled by Esenberg’s insistence on characterizing me as “plac[ing] greater value on equality of result and less on individual liberty,” and “more favorably disposed toward a common secularity” and believing “that a monopoly can offer the best option for everyone.” It could be that I simply don’t know what he means but I certainly do not recognize myself in his descriptions.

However, Esenberg writes that “understanding our opposing numbers may mean appreciating that they weigh values a bit differently than we do.”  So, let me try to identify some of the values and beliefs that shape my views on vouchers.  I have three points.

First, I am a big fan of the idea of public schools.  There are so many social factors that keep us and our children fragmented in our own tight circles of acquaintances, with our mutually-reinforcing sets of values and beliefs.  Our public schools are one of the few institutions that compel us to expand our circles and come into contact with community members with whom we don’t often rub elbows and who may see many things quite differently than we do.

I think this is greatly beneficial for our students, since I think students often learn more from – and are shaped more by — their classmates than their teachers. It’s a wonderful thing when students from all kinds of backgrounds can learn with and from each other.

The make-up of our community may make this a more realistic possibility in Madison than elsewhere; it’s part of the Madison advantage.  But it pains me when I see a diminution in the value and potential of the common socializing institution of our public schools as parents choose other educational options for their children.

Second, I am much less persuaded than many voucher advocates that the metaphor of a market is helpful in thinking about school policy. I think markets work well where markets work well. But K-12 education doesn’t function the way a market for consumer goods functions, for reasons that I have written about at length in passages sprinkled throughout a number of blog posts.

Finally, I believe that the triage justification for vouchers has very limited applicability.  This is the argument in favor of vouchers based on the notion that our public schools have failed and the only way to save the most motivated of the students trapped in the educational wreckage is to throw them the lifeline of a voucher.  This argument has resonated in Milwaukee and I think it was the basis for the ill-considered decision to tie the proposed voucher expansion in the Governor’s budget bill to the notion of failing schools throughout the state.

Whatever the case in Milwaukee, that reasoning doesn’t apply in Madison, the state’s second largest school district, nor, I suspect, nearly anywhere else in Wisconsin. By and large, our school districts are not unresponsive monoliths that are stubbornly impervious to individual or collective efforts at change and improvement.  Maybe it’s different in Milwaukee, but in Madison and elsewhere you don’t have to give up on our public schools and look for alternatives.

That’s why I feel so fortunate to serve as a school board member.  I can doodle around with these blog posts because they scratch an itch I sometimes feel to dig into the issues more deeply.  But I’m not limited to critiquing from the sidelines; I’m privileged to have a seat at the table when decisions about our schools are being made.

And the good news here in Madison is that our schools are just on the cusp of a time of genuine improvement.  We on the School Board have written that we agree with our terrific new superintendent Jen Cheatham that all the pieces for success are in place.  Now it is up to us to show that we can serve as the model of a thriving urban school district, one that seeks out strong community partnerships and values genuine collaboration with teachers and staff in the service of student success.

So while I think vouchers are poor public policy, I’m not interested in coercing families into complying with whatever I think best for the education of their children.  Parents will exercise choice in selecting what they decide are the best schools for their children.  Our goal is to bring to bear the focus and hard work necessary to transform each of our schools into thriving schools so that parents from throughout the area will increasingly be choosing our Madison public schools.

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9 Responses to Continuing the Voucher Debate (This Time 100% Insult-Free!)

  1. It isn’t just parents who choose not to value diversity. Many Milwaukee choice schools intentionally keep diverse communities, especially children with disabilities out of their schools. http://systemschangeconsulting.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/defending-the-civil-rights-of-children-with-disabilities-in-voucher-schools/

  2. Mad4Madison says:

    Ed –

    Jumping right in and looking at your six assertions:

    1) Totally agree. But this is also aspirational and analogous to statements like “I want to leave the world a better place” or “I want my children to have more opportunity.” But it does frame the conversation.

    2) I would say the quality to the education’s experience is enhanced – not necessarily the quality to the education itself. I have not seen nor witnessed firsthand that my children’s test scores or grades went up or improved based on the backgrounds of the other kids in their class.

    3) Slippery slope starts here. Parents make a decision based on what is best for their children, not necessarily the best “quality”. Let’s use this example: UW-Madison. Good quality education? Sure. Is it the best option for everyone? Nope. Are there diversity issues there? Yes. Do those issues make the school worse in terms of quality? I don’t think so. I know of one of your posts where you commented that great students will be great in almost any school. So as a parent, would I not make the decision based on my child and not necessarily on the quality of the other school?

    4) Please define diversity? Do you infer that desire or decision of parents to send their kids to Spring Harbor or Shorewood is based on a belief that there is less diversity? Or is it that those two schools simply get a large amount of requests (lottery) and that diversity is a mere by-product?

    5) This is one that I find a bit off. Not all neighborhoods go to the same school. Think Allied Drive. In addition, many neighborhoods themselves are homogenous with respect to diversity. So if I want my children to attend the “neighborhood” school, doesn’t that simply mimic the diversity of the neighborhood itself? We bus kids to change the makeup of the school attendance (see Allied Drive example). But the schools themselves does not always mimic that of the neighborhood. Now I agree that the experience is diminished (see point #2), but I do not agree that the actual education is diminished.

    6) This is a leap and not a conclusion. What a voucher would do is to allow choice to families that currently do not have a choice. And that seems to be a key part that is missing from your assertions. Those families that can make a choice, go through the process of deciding. Those that do not have a choice, don’t even get the opportunity to have the actual discussion.

    Ed, I am lucky and blessed. I have a great job, I earned a great education and I made some good choices in terms of my education, career and spouse. We as a family have gone through the decision steps regarding public and private education. We chose public. Are my kids getting a great education? Bluntly – no. My daughter attended a middle school where homework was not permitted. Seriously. No homework. Why? Because other kids in the classroom would not be able to do the homework and the educators did not want to embarrass them. However, they have received a great educational experience. My daughter has friends that we would never meet or talk to in any other situation. And she is much better for that experience. But to say that she is receiving a great education itself is completely erroneous. So with our choice came the understanding that we would have to employ tutors or additional resources for her education. Again, we can make that choice because we have the resources to do so.

    Others are not so lucky or blessed. And they have no choice. But if vouchers give them the chance to have the conversation, then how is that bad? Maybe, just maybe those families will come to the same conclusion that mine did – the educational experience is improved, even at the cost of the education itself. But right now they don’t even have the opportunity to ask that question.

    Sorry for the long post.

    • Laura Chern says:

      “So with our choice came the understanding that we would have to employ tutors or additional resources for her education. Again, we can make that choice because we have the resources to do so.”
      Wouldn’t it be great if our public schools were so well funded that tutors and additional resources were available to all kids attending, regardless of parental income? With the new burden of paying for private vouchers, the tax breaks for families whose kids attend private schools, and cuts to the education budget, we are making sure that kids who attend public schools won’t get those extra things that keep them in school and allow them to thrive and become the type of citizens we need. That is class warfare. Why? Because as others have repeatedly posted on this site, not all kids will be accepted into private schools.

      • Laura Chern says:

        John Dewey: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

      • Mad4Madison says:

        Yes, it would be great if our schools were well funded enough to supply those resources. It would also be great if our schools didn’t do away with homework because of the fact that we are not expecting the children to be able to do the homework. It would also be great if we could reduce class sizes, if we could require longer hours and longer academic years.

        In essence, here is a question – from a tax perspective, is there a difference to a District when a student leaves via Inter-District Transfer versus a voucher? I don’t believe there is a difference at all. Or if there is a difference, there is more tax dollars moved via Inter-District than voucher. Just to be clear, this is the movement of the “per student” dollars that comes from the state aid formula.

        Also simply stated, even if you shut off vouchers and Inter-District Transfers, there is zero ability for MMSD to provide all those services to every student. That is borderline Rainbows and Unicorns. But I would believe that more choice for low income students is a huge benefit.

  3. Laura Chern says:

    More choice for some low income students. Not for any student with a disability. I’ll let Ed answer the school finance questions.

  4. Concerned taxpayer says:

    You say….but in Madison and elsewhere you don’t have to give up on our public schools and look for alternatives.

    I have five families in my block that dont attend MMSD, they homeschool or private or outside schools. Why is that? I think there are parents that want alternatives. We are the “elsewhere” in madison also. Can you link how many students that is from DPI?

    You are lucky to have a seat at the table, only wish taxpayers did also. Wouldn’t that be nice to have your meeting video recorded for taxpayers of what goes on when you rush to sign contracts again with the top union decision makers.

  5. mary battaglia says:

    You’re over thinking the whole voucher political debate. To public school education advocates this is an insult to society. It takes funds from the public school system which decreases the ability to educate the masses, all children of any income or race, which should provide and education so all can work and provide for themselves. To voucher advocates the simple purpose is no different than when GW Bush ran for President the first time. On his agenda was a $1500 rebate to parents who “Choose” to homeschool or send their kids to private schools. In summary they are mad they pay for “public” schools from their taxes and they want their money back! It ignores the people without children or elders without children that pay taxes for the betterment of the community but many hate that their “wasting” their money on “those kids” and not their own. The data released this week on the increased income gap is evidence that as a society we just don’t care to educate the masses. If we did we would teach more kids a skill in high school instead of assuming all will go to college. It’s not an educational debate…there is not one to be had, it’s a tax and money debate. Could our public schools do better? Damn right they could, the example of Mad4Madison is a perfect problem in our city. Our middle school (probably same one) no longer requires kids to show up on time cause it causes stress to a certain group of students. When our public schools make these decisions it does the student and their families no favors, because their future employer…..is going to fire them when they are late, or don’t get their work done. Let’s spend energy on expecting the best from our students (and their families) and providing a marketable school for all students and “competition” will be an irrelevant argument from voucher advocates.

  6. Mad4Madison says:

    Mary –

    I assure you that we are indeed talking about the same school.

    And while I agree with the latter part of your post, I am not so much in agreement with the first. I do not think there is over thinking going on at all – on either side. This is a quality of school issue. This is a choice issue. This is a tax issue. This is all of those and more. And perhaps that is the point I am trying to make? You can’t unwrap those items and look at them in isolation.

    I personally (right or wrong) still come back to this basic tenet: choice (if available) should be available to all. If vouchers help give people the opportunity to make a choice, then I am for it. I do not expect that all others are in the same position that I am – I can make a choice. So why not help those who can’t?

    Of course this sits on top of the tenet that we all want a great education for our own kids and by extension – all kids. I want that for sure. Where we start to veer off into different directions is when we discuss the “how”.

    This is not an easy discussion and certainly there are no easy answers. If there were, we would have solved this issue long ago and moved on to other things.

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