Monday, February 19, 2018

Another Choice Diversion

Over at School Leader, "an education administration blog by Dr. Gary Houchens (Western Kentucky University), Houchens talks about his podcast discussion of proposed school vouchers under the name "Scholarship Tax Credits" for Kentucky.

STC are the Kentucky version of Education Savings Accounts, a particularly destructive version of voucherism. Pro-voucher folks are pushing hard, and there's been some attempt (including by Houchens) to paint these as relief for poor families, yet proposals like House Bill 162 aren't aimed at low- and middle-income families at all.

Houchens is a big choicer, and he has some pretty standard lines about school choice, none of which strike me as very solid. But he's been at this for a while, railing against "status quo" folks in a dismissive manner. But these issues matter in Kentucky, where there are some major financial challenges. 

We could at many Houchens posts, but let's focus on "Does giving parents education options "divert" money from schools? My TeachThought Podcast discussion on scholarship tax credits" because it's a nice clear question with a nice clear answer.

The answer is "Yes. Yes it does."

Now let's look at the fallacies Houchens uses to avoid arriving at that answer.

I believe in school choice because, while education is a public good, it's not a generic, one-size-fits-all public good like the fire department provides.

Since when does a fire department provide a one-size-fits-all public good? Fire departments are the very definition of the opposite-- every fire they respond to presents a unique set of circumstances, from the distance to the fire to the access to the availability of resources like water to specific configuration of the building to the placement and nature of the fire itself. If the fire department in your own is providing "generic" service, they are doing it wrong.

Every child is unique and no school, no matter how good, can meet the needs of every single student.

But that is, in fact, the gig. I will not pretend that every public school achieves that goal every single time, but here's the critical difference between a public school and a private or charter school-- a public school is legally compelled to try. If I feel that the public school is failing to meet my child's needs, I can take that school to court. If a private or charter school is failing, they can just shrug, say "Well, I guess your child isn't a good fit" and show me the door. Houchens claims that choice increases the "likelihood" that every family can find a school that fits, but that's not true. Choice increases the likelihood that hard-to-fit students, students who cannot profitably be served by choice schools, will find themselves stranded, an educational hot potato.

Houchens' podcast partner expresses a concern that tax credit encouragement of school choice "drains money from public coffers at a time when the state budget is in shortfall and schools are facing potentially large funding cuts." Houchens sympathizes and longs for a day when pension and tax reform create a different picture. "But our gloomy budget forecast is not a reason to continue denying low-income families choices in how their children are educated" (Again with the marketing talking point of "but it's for the poor kids!")

But having said all that, Houchens is going to throw it out the window, and pitch a "new paradigm"

For starters, if you accept that families should have some choices in who educates their children, then you've got to start thinking about education spending in a different way. Education dollars are a benefit for students, not for institutions.

Again, a time-honored talking point. But it's incorrect.

Education is not a service provided for families, and it is not exclusively for the benefit of the students. Public education is for the benefit of the public, the community-- not just the students, but their future neighbors, employers, fellow taxpayers, and people to whom they will provide some good or service. That is why members of the public pay taxes for schools, even if they don't have children to attend, and that is why school boards are properly elected by all taxpayers and not just parents.

But education should be treated like other highly personal public goods. Medicare and Medicaid are personal benefits for the health care of the elderly and poor. Pell grants and the GI Bill are a benefit for the education of low-income college students or veterans. Foods stamps are a food security benefit for low-income families. But in all these cases we give the beneficiary some choice in where they obtain these public goods, because the needs and preferences of individuals are so diverse and the good in these cases is so highly personal.

I will give Houchens credit at least for not comparing schools to Ubers. But there are some critical differences here in these diversionary analogies. First, none of these "benefits" provide the sole support for the providers on which they are spent. Hospitals, colleges, and supermarkets do not depend on these benefits for their existence, because none of these institutions are created for the sole use of the people who use these benefits. Second, uses of these benefits are highly regulated-- you can't spend food stamps on beer and cigarettes, your Pell grant has to go to an approved school, and Medicare won't pay for your toad-sacrificed-under-a-full-moon treatment for broken bones. Kentucky is not proposing any such accountability or oversight for the recipients of the voucher money.

And here's something I find mysterious about voucher programs and their supporters. Medicare/aid, Pell Grants, and food stamps are all program that conservatives have worked (and are still working) to roll back or kill, because "entitlements" are bad. I have always wondered-- why don't these same conservatives see vouchers as an entitlement for sending the children of Those People to a private school? I suspect the answer is, in part, because the vouchers proposed are never enough to make top schools affordable to the poor. More importantly, hospitals, colleges and supermarkets cannot refuse to serve certain customers because of race, religion and sexual orientation (well, mostly, so far) whereas nothing in a voucher program says that private and charter schools have to accept anybody they don't feel like accepting.

Health care is also a lousy comparison for Houchens' purposes because we've put the health care market in the hands of the insurance companies, and now we have one of the most expensively mediocre systems in the world. What works really well? A single payer system that more closely resembles our public education system.

But most notably, none of the programs that Houchens brings up is designed to serve all citizens of the country. In effect, these are programs designed to plug the holes in a private free market approach to goods like health care and food. Public education, on the other hand, is in place of a free market, precisely so that we can insure that all citizens are served and represented. Vouchers do not offer to plug holes in a free market system, but propose to create a free market system by dumping the public tax dollars into the free market. Vouchers don't plug holes-- they create them, by defunding the public system that will be the last resort of the educational hot potatoes who can't find a private or charter school to accept them.

Houchens wants to argue that there is no draining or diverting with a voucher system any more "than we 'drain money' from Hospital A when a Medicare patient has a procedure at Hospital B." But that is a false analogy, implying that a public school and a private school are equal entities on equal footing, like to equal competing hospitals (the analogy also fails because there are few markets left that actually have competing hospitals, but that's another discussion). They are not. The public school is a public entity fully and only funded by public tax dollars, while the private school is a private entity funded by a variety of sources (ditto the charter). Voucher fans counter that by saying that public schools are not "entitled" to those funds, but that's beside the point-- those funds were collected from the taxpayers for the purpose of funding an institution that would educate all students. What voucher fans propose is the equivalent of collecting money from everyone on the block in order to throw a barbecue for all the neighbors, then announcing that you gave half of it to the Smith's so they could cook a steak dinner for themselves. Of course the money has been diverted from its original purpose.

Later in the piece Houchens will argue that there is no financial damage to the public system because a measley 1-1.5% of the students will use the vouchers. But if that's true, why bother. If the vouchers really aren't going to help much of anyone, then why have them. Are these STCs going to rescue scads of poor students, or are they going to have a piddly effect and "rescue" hardly anyone at all. It can't be both.

Then Houchans tries to argue that ESA systems actually save money, which is simply unvarnished baloney. The theory is that you fill the accounts with money from private and corporate donors which pays for the education of certain students, and therefor the public system doesn't have to bear that cost. This is true only if Kentucky proposes to give contributors exactly zero deductions or credits for their contributions, which does not appear to be the case. So HugeCorp gives a thousand dollars to the STCs, and it doesn't pay that thousand dollars in school taxes. This is not a savings to the school, particularly in the face of fixed costs and costs of scale that do not change with the loss of a few students (the buildings stay the same size, the buses run the same, and you probably can't even get by with a smaller staff).

This doesn't save the school a cent, but it cuts the school's revenue considerably.

Houchans' conclusion sums up his many-holed argument:

I believe we need to make bigger investments in education, but whether our policy makers do that or not is not a reason to deny low-income families the dignity of a choice in who educates their children. We either believe that we should have policy mechanisms that give parents education options, or we believe that local government schools should have an exclusive franchise on education delivery for low- and middle income families.

Houchans line about "dignity" would carry a lot more weight if a choice system promised to preserve that dignity by, say, requiring all private and charter schools to accept any students who apply, and meeting their educational needs, no matter how expensive or inconvenient those needs might be. And his line about bigger investments might carry more weight if he addressed the central falsehood of choice policy, the lie that we can run multiple school systems with the same money we previously used to run just one.

Education is the only industry anywhere with folks suggesting, "Since we're having trouble financing the facilities we have, the next logical step is to open more facilities and create excess capacity."

I'll make my usual offer. If some policy maven or politician wants to stand up and say, "I believe that charter and choice systems are so important that I will call for a tax increase to properly fund them," I will applaud that person and drop some of my objections to school choice. And if they want to further add, "And I will require those choice schools to accept any and all applicants, and to have a governance model that allows all taxpayers a say, and to be required to meet accountability and oversight measures put in place by the state," I will drop most of my objections.

But as it stands, that's not what folks like Houchans are calling for. ESA/STC systems propose a world where a private school that, for example, wants to teach that black folks are genetically inferior can collect tax dollars from black taxpayers, even as they refuse to teach black children, who must then be sent back to a public system that can now offer them far less because that system is now missing the resources that were diverted to the voucher school.

A public school system is not about an "exclusive franchise on educational delivery." It's about giving the taxpayers what they paid for-- a public system that accepts and teaches every single student, is governed by elected community representatives, and serves the community as a whole, both the present and the future. Calling it anything else is simply a diversion.


  1. Disclosure...I work at a high achieving public charter high school (non-profit). My question is, why do think that our school can just tell a student to go away if we can't educate them? We absolutely cannot tell a student 'there's the door'. We are under the same rules of enrollment of any other PA public school. We accept anyone who fills out all the forms and passes 8th grade. Again, we absolutely cannot pick and choose when to tell a student 'there's the door' why would you say that when it's not the case for all charter schools? My simple point is that you are wrong about all charters having the ability to toss out children they don't want. So if you're painting all charters with falsehoods, maybe you're getting other points wrong as well.

    But if you can show me where our charter school has told kids 'there's the door', I'll retract my comments gladly.

  2. First, what do you mean by "high achieving"?

    Second, what do you do with your "low achieving" students? If your school admits and retains the same distribution as the public schools, you must have such students, right? So how can your school be "high achieving" if you have "low achieving" students? And if you don't have such students, why not? Do you bar them from entry or do you find ways to encourage them to "find a better fit"? Riddle me this, Batman.