Sunday, March 22, 2015

Imagining Vouchers and Choice

I write a lot about what I oppose, so as a sort of thought experiment, today I'll try to imagine if there are ways to accomplish reformster goals that I could live happily with. The posts in the series include Imagining Charters, Imagining Teach for America, Imagining National Standards, Imagining Vouchers and Choice, Imagining Teacher Evaluation, and Imagining National Assessments.

This is one of the biggest challenges in the series-- can I imagine circumstances under which I would be okay with vouchers?

Here's the thing about vouchers-- they are fundamentally undemocratic. They directly disenfranchise a whole host of taxpayers. I'll grant you that in many areas, taxpayers don't exactly get a big voice in the operation of their school district, the promise of democracy is not that every single person gets to decide every single issue.

But with a voucher system, only parents control purse strings. And that's just not good for anybody.

Voucher fans tend to forget that government money comes with government strings attached. And they certainly overlook another completely predictable side effect-- when you tell people that they don't get any say in how their school tax dollars are spent, they are going to be far less inclined to agree when politicians come looking for more of those tax dollars. "Why should I care? I don't have a kid in school." becomes a serious political hurdle under a voucher system.

Beyond the impracticality, it's just wrong. It is literally taxation without representation. True, voters might still get to elect school board members, but those school board members now have far less control over how the district's money is spent.

So I can only imagine supporting vouchers under one condition-- politicians who wanted to push a voucher program would have to fully fund it with money over and above the tax dollars collected to fund the public school system. They will need to go to the voters and explain that taxes need to be raised so that Chris's parents can send Chris to any school of their choice. If they can sell that to the voters, then we can have vouchers.

And if we are going to sell vouchers as a means of escape from failing public schools (a  popular urban justification) then the vouchers must be equal to the task. Either make the voucher enough high enough or force schools to accept the voucher amount as full tuition. But claiming you'll help Chris escape by giving a $1,000 voucher to spend on a $20,000 tuition school is useless; it's simply a taxpayer-funded rebate for the parents who could already afford to send their child there.

Also, school's choice is not school choice. If we're letting students pick a school, the school doesn't get to select. And about the marketing that helps filter-- well, I'll be generous. Any non-public school that wants voucher students may spend as much on marketing as the local public school does.

I recognize that capacity is a problem. I don't see any solution except truly random lotteries. Though choice schools can pick up some slack by filling every vacant seat just as soon as it becomes vacant.

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