Monday, January 27, 2014

When School Choice Works

Under what circumstances would school choice work?

I've written a great deal over the years about all the many many many ways that I think school choice and/or vouchers would be a terrible idea for everybody (including most school choice advocates, many of whom I think are continually played by people whose interest in choice extends only as far as making a buck). But today is a snow day, my wife is at a conference, and I am home alone with the dog , so I have time for a little thought experiment. Let's see if I can come up with the circumstances under which I would support school choice?

Here, in no particular order, are my conditions. I'll stipulate right up front that these mostly would require government regulation and intervention, which is its own kettle of stinky fish. For the time being, we'll pretend that's not a problem.

Representative School Population.
Voucher schools must have a representative cross-section of the community. We'll allow the community itself to define what this means, but in general, here's the deal. No predominantly white school in a predominantly ethnic community. If the community is 40% free and reduced lunch, then so shall any school operating there. Choice schools must take the same proportion of special needs students. No voucher schools set aside exclusively for just the football players or just the Asian kids or just the cream of the crop. The school will be funded with the community's money. It must be just as reflective of that community as any public school would be.

Professional Staffing.
Teachers will be certified teachers. All of them. Administrators will have real credentials and not a certificate from Bob's Big School O'Superintendents. I'm sure you know some enthusiastic young people who would make great teachers; we all do. They should go to school to become teachers. You may, however, subject your employees to whatever requirements you wish. You can have a voucher school without tenure or seniority rules about hiring. You can pay whatever you like. Having trouble finding enough qualified people to work for you? Welcome to the free market-- you're failing your first test.

Oh, and real buildings, too. Buy it, build it, or rent it. And not in a public school building. There's already a school there. If students want to attend that school, do so.

Minimal Standards.
Being a voucher school will not be a license to teach about cavemen riding dinosaurs, nor will it be okay to be a basketball academy with fifteen minutes of academic studies a day. Your curriculum will pass muster by whatever group does the mustering in your state-- local school board, state legislature, roving education ronin. Yes, I know these sorts of safeguards are already sort of in place in some states, and it is providing about as much restraint as wet tissue paper trying to restrain a rampaging stegosaurus carrying the Baby Jesus. My only requirement is that the standards must be enforced by people who are elected to the office. If people want to elect dimbulbs to undercut their own educational system, that's the price we pay for messy democracy.

Increased Funding.
The bar-none flat-out stupidest thing about how we currently handle forms of vouchers is the funding. Specifically, we start with the premise that we can run two or three or ten school systems for the same money that used to run one. This is like claiming that you can solve your tight household budget problems by owning a second or third home. If the legislature of your state wants you to run two concurrent school systems, it's going to have to pay for them.

There are lots of ways to do this. For instance, when a student goes to a voucher school, 75% of his per capita cost goes to the choice, and 75% of his per capita stays with the home school. Or like any subcontractor, choice schools can "bid" for state contracts ("We can educate 150 students for $300K") and that's what they get, while the home school is paid according to the usual funding formula, rather than having to give up money for the choice.

"But," say choice fans, "That makes school choice more expensive." No, it just recognizes that a school choice system IS more expensive, always, every time. The extra cost may be shifted to taxpayers or parents or paid in kind with the destruction of the building and staff of the public school. But of all the dishonesty surrounding school choice, the biggest is the refusal to face one simple fact:

School choice is more expensive than a traditional single-payer public school system.

So if we are going to have school choice, we must recognize, accept and deal with the additional expense up front. If our politicians will not actually foot the bill-- well, that's why some people can't have nice things. It's not a choice system if you are sucking all the money out of public schools to fund it.

But I do believe that if you launched a choice system with these four guarantees-- representative student population, professional staff, minimum standards enforcement, and increased funding, I would no longer oppose school choice. And if a pretty pink unicorn showed up in my front yard, I would ride it.

Happy Pretty Pink Unicorn Week!

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