Wednesday, October 10, 2012

School Vouchers: Inequality is Inevitable

The usage of state-provided vouchers that students can use to pay for their education at a school of their choice—presumably private—is a contentious issue. Proponents claim it is a way to provide better education for students in substandard public schools and that it is particularly helpful for minority students. Opponents see the use of vouchers as a threat to traditional public school education and point to inconclusive results from studies of its effectiveness.

For those interested in the status of the debate at the national level, a review can be found here. A recent study of a small New York City program that appears to have had positive, although limited, benefits for students is reported here. Milwaukee, Wisconsin has had a large voucher program for many years. It is struggling mightily to determine the efficacy of the effort. As reported here, the debate now seems to be centered over whether students granted vouchers for use at private schools perform as well, or less well than their peers left behind on standardized tests.

Education is a complex issue. Perhaps it is not too surprising that a program that sends mainly poor and minority students off to private schools might yield equivocal results. But that is not the topic here. The issue being addressed here is the contention by some that private education is superior to public education. Implicit in the initiation of a voucher system or a system of charter schools is the assumption that public schools have failed and public funds should be transferred to private schools.

Our Declaration of Independence contains these often quoted words "all men are created equal." They do not literally mean that everyone is equal, but rather that all men should be treated as though they are equal, and in the context of the time, there be no aristocracy established within the land. What that sentiment boils down to in the current context is that we will strive to insure that everyone has equality of opportunity; there is a level playing field from which all get their start.

The only means we have to reach that idealized goal is via our education system. Universal public education was one of our greatest accomplishments as a nation. It meant that everyone could acquire the fundamental skills needed to compete economically. If public education had been truly universal it would have approximated that level playing field.

One cannot be compelled to send a child to public school. There have always been private schools for the children of those with the means to afford them. The main intent of private schools was to provide better education than could be attained in the public system. Wealth can always attract better teachers and provide better facilities, so the wealthy will have their better schools.

Given this dual system, how does one maintain a level playing field? The only way to perform that function is to provide public education that is "good enough" so that students that emerge from it are not at a significant disadvantage with respect to those from private schools. In other words, private education has reached a region of diminishing returns. That is the ideal.

Transitioning to a system of private education is the opposite of the ideal. Providing a voucher to everyone that could be applied to educational costs would encourage the capitalists in the private sector to set up a system whereby schools are categorized by their expenses and populated by those who are able to pay. If capitalism is working properly, the more you pay the better the education. That is not in any way equivalent to a level playing field. The voucher amount would provide the minimum level of education; those of greater means would use it as a subsidy to purchase a higher level of education.

There are modifications that could be applied to attempt to dampen the wealth effect. The voucher could be means tested but that seems somehow discriminatory in a reverse sense, and is not likely to change much. The voucher could be made larger for the poor, but that would seem to entail ever rising costs to attain anything like parity.

If one doubts this end result, we have one data point to examine. Chile has a universal voucher system, and all schools are private. An article in The Economist discusses Chile, its school system, and its travails. What did this approach yield?

"....points out that, by the time they are ten years old, pupils' performance already varies sharply with household income. That is partly because less than half of Chilean children receive any pre-school education. But it is also because the poor go to worse schools."

What characterizes a system where quality can only be purchased?

"In a ritual marking the start of the academic year, last month the streets of Santiago were full of students dressed in colourful combinations of rags and body paint politely seeking donations from passers-by in the late-summer sunshine. Many of their predecessors had spent their summer holidays swotting, having devoted last year to occupying classrooms and taking to the streets in their tens and hundreds of thousands, in sometimes violent demonstrations to demand free and better higher education."

And what is Chile’s most unique characteristic? Consider this chart provided by the article.

Chile has managed to develop the most unequal society of any developed nation on earth.

Our public school system should be cherished, nurtured, and maintained. Some truly believe that privatization is a good thing. Others see it as a way to make money. The people who brought us subprime mortgages and the Great Recession are still out there, looking for the next big thing. Let’s not let it be our children’s education.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged