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.