Friday, May 31, 2024

Universal Vouchers and Privatization

A shift in Florida is being covered, but I'm not sure many folks really understand what's happening. 

Politico reported that Florida school choice programs have been "wildly successful," and both of those words are doing a megacrane's worth of lifting. More to the point, they are accepting the DeSantis definition of success, which is the replacement of a public school system with a privatized one.
“We need some big changes throughout the country,” DeSantis said Thursday evening at the Florida Homeschool Convention in Kissimmee. “Florida has shown a blueprint, and we really can be an engine for that as other states work to adopt a lot of the policies that we’ve done.”

Politico reported on this "success" in the context of many public school districts in Florida shuttering buildings due to dropping enrollment.

Let's acknowledge a couple of complexities here. First, the under-18 population is dropping everywhere in the country. Second, Florida's choice programs are exceptionally opaque, making it hard to know what, exactly, is happening, though there are indicators that, as in other states, a large number of voucher students never set foot in public school to begin with.

Florida's supremely underqualified choice-loving education commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr., says that all these closings are motivation for public schools. "But what they need to do is continue to innovate and provide programming that is attractive to parents so, on that open competition, they have the best option for those parents to choose."

Florida has long pursued the technique of draining resources and support from public schools, along with imposing a terrible testing system, doing their best to make charters and private schools look better by comparison. And in all fairness, it should be said that some Florida districts have shot themselves in the foot

The general trend in Florida has been to pursue Milton Friedman's dream of getting government out of the education business. And in that respect, Florida has been wildly successful.

But here's the important part.

Privatization is not just about privatizing the folks who get to provide education (or education-flavored products). It is about privatizing the responsibility for getting children an education.

Getting government out of education means ending the promise that every child in this country is entitled to a decent education. Regardless of zip code. Regardless of their parents' ability to support them. Regardless of whatever challenges they bring to the process. 

End that promise. Replace it with a free(ish) market. End the community responsibility for educating future citizens. Put the whole weight of that on their parents. End the oversight and accountability to the elected representatives of the taxpayers. Replace it with a "Well, the parents will sort that out. And if they don't, that's their own fault and their own problem."

This is billed as "freedom," and it is freedom of a sort, just like every citizen is "free" to get whatever means of transportation they can afford. You didn't want to depend on a badly used bicycle? You should have thought of that before you decided to be poor.

Except that it's not even that. To make the analogy more accurate, we'd need to imagine a country in which car dealers and bus companies could refuse to sell to you because you don't go to the right church or love the right people or because they just don't want to. 

Parents are free to pursue whatever education options they want for their children. Except that if the voucher won't cover the ever-increasing cost of that private school, and that other private school won't accept your child, and the neighborhood school that would have accepted your child no matter what is now closed. You could always start your own microschool, with a computer connection (hope you have internet) and some adult to hang out as a "coach." 

This is where universal vouchers fall right in line with other modern reform classics-- they propose to solve a problem that they absolutely do not solve.

Part of the pitch has been that poor families should have the same choices as wealthy families. Universal vouchers absolutely do not do that. Like any other sector of the free market, a privatized system provides plenty of great (and over-inflated, shiny) options for the wealthy, and lousy options for the not-so-wealthy. And it does it while chipping away at the one good option that the not-so-wealthy were promised-- a well-resourced public school.

Has the US public school system always lived up to the promise? Absolutely not. But canceling that promise and replacing it with the "freedom" at accept whatever lousy options the market deigns to deliver is not a step forward.

Reformsters have had a lot of success in convincing folks that education is a consumer good provided to families and not a human service provided for the benefit of the entire country. But the other undiscussed feature of the Florida plan is that it disenfranchises the community. It doesn't just say that educating children is no longer your responsibility; the Florida plan says that if you are a taxpayer with no children, you have no say, no power. And if anyone thinks that this won't eventually lead to shrinking voucher amounts, I have a bridge over some Florida swamplands to sell them.

We already know what this mostly looks like. It looks like our privatized health care system, where the people at the top get everything they need, and the people at the bottom skip medication and treatment and, periodically, die. But the health system just kind of grew that way, so nobody had to convince people to give up access to health care. Just periodically holler "No socialism! Freedom! Murica!" every time someone brings up single payer universal coverage. 

Universal vouchers, ironically, do not promise universal education for all students. The traditional public school system does. State by state we are being pu8shed to give up that system without ever having an honest conversation about what's really being proposed. 


  1. You can tell a lot about what someone thinks by the words they choose. I'd ask Mr Greene to look how he describes the presumably better alternative. "a well-resourced public school." ..."the neighborhood school that would have accepted your child no matter what is now closed". So your characteristics of a good school are one where everyone is admitted and where we spend a lot of money on that school. Sounds familiar ... No mention of learning and certainly no mention of measures of learning like graduation or those dreaded standardized tests. And hey, what parent or society should care about what percentage of kids graduate, right ? Nope. Just accept everyone and spend lots of money. Where have we seen something like that ?

    1. Pretending to be obtuse is never a useful discussion tool. You can't educate everyone if you won't let everyone in the door. Your graduation figures are meaningless if you reject or push out everyone you think might not graduate. And we could talk about standardized test results, but those just show that vouchers are catastrophically bad for students. And if you can read even a small portion of the postings on this blog and imagine that "accept everyone" and "spend lots of money" is my full definition of a good school, you're wasting everyone's time, including your own.

  2. Thank you for calling out Politico for their pro-privatization report. I wish you column could be broadcast/printed across all the MSM and social media platforms.