Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Voucher politics

This post, from a voucher critic, at least has the virtue of airing a number of the issues, canvassed on the pro-voucher side by this article and on the anti- side by this one. I can understand why teachers’ unions oppose school choice, and why secularists do. Are there other reasons that folks find compelling?

Discussions - 7 Comments

Thanks for linking to that post. Since you asked, yes! there are other reasons. As a religious person I believe the entanglement of government funding in religious affairs is not good for the church. The church is responsible for spreading its message and enacting its mission, and should not depend on the state to do that work. The church should be a watchdog with a prophetic voice over the powerful institutions of government, not a recipient of its funds, beholden to it. And, inevitably, government money comes with government strings (as it should). Vouchers would enrich (some) religious institutions, but it is not good for religion. Quite the opposite. I think it’s a mistake - obviously - to couch voucher opposition in "secularist" terms.

I don’t know his views on school choice, but Stephen Carter has a similar perspective on church-state relations. He appears much less concerned that religion will affect government than that government and politics will have a negative impact on religion.

Perhaps I feel about public schools the way Bush feels about Iraq. I hate to see the institution, admittedly in disarray, subject to added competition.

Basically, I resist the infusion of the corporate, "market" model into the world of education. To quote a post or two below:

"One-third of new businesses fail within two years; 50 to 70 percent of new products that make it to market fail."

Students and their families should not be treated as consumers of education, schlepping off to the next experiment because the current one has predictably failed.

Part of the value of education is the tradition and sense of community and belonging that occurs with a neighborhood, or town school. Yes, there is a dark side to that, but I hate to see it lost.

I would rather see states experimenting with empirically -supported approaches within the current public school system, rather than experimenting ON the entire system in ways that are not empirically supported.

I also realize that I am thinking ideally, here, and that urban schools in particular, are in acute crisis. But, many of the best urban schools I have seen have been experimental ones within the city system, which have not bled students and taxes away from the systemic resource pool.

Fung: Because I think that education (when it actually happens) is such an individual thing (that is, it depends largely upon the capacity and the determination of the individual getting it) I think parents--who generally know their children better than anyone else can ever hope to know them--are the safest guardians of that education. I think they, and not a study that must--by its very nature--be general, should determine what is the best educational approach for their child. You will object that many parents will get this wrong--particularly in poor areas. That’s probably true. But these parents also tend to get nutrition and discipline wrong. At what point do we back off from imposing on all of society rules that never seem to work in bringing up the least among us? If we follow your logic to its natural conclusion then I suppose we ought just to take away the guardianship of poor and ignorant parents? But that would be crazy--a violation of their rights and an impracticable imposing scheme to waste tax dollars. I would rather take the harsher view that we should let the chips fall where they may. But I’m not even so sure that this is harsh. I think the results for the majority of children belonging to poor and ignorant parents would be better in a system where choice was available to them.

Your more interesting and compelling point is the one you make about the "town school." I suppose there is some value in belonging to the community of the "town school" but I can speak from some experience here when I say that not attending a town school does not mean you can’t still have something like that. I didn’t go to a "town school" but went, instead, to a Catholic school that was a fusion of two parishes (so not even a single "church-community"). We felt very much a part of our larger community and we had a great deal of pride (or patriotism) for our own school. The so-called "town school" was only one school among many--as most schools in the suburbs are anyway. There were about 5 or 6 high schools in the general area. We were all rivals, but we didn’t feel any less attached to our larger community for it. The larger community hailed the achievements of us all. When our school went to the state basketball championships, it was front-page news, led the evening broadcasts, and was even the exclusive programming of the local radio stations. I think it would have been more or less the same in that sense had we been able to see more competition, not less, among the schools. The only difference, I think, is that there would have been more achievements to hail.

There are many school administrators who richly deserve to have their school’s funding cut in half, their work pronounced a failure, and to lose their jobs, as the result of a voucher program. But as someone who’s been employed in public secondary education, I don’t think the blame will ever be applied that clearly. Teachers w/ seniority, and administrators w/ more awareness of the reams and reams of rules, are always going to be better positioned to survive any shake-up. Despite that, for the sake of the students, I think states should be looking at ways to police/punish poorly performing schools and districts, and vouchers might be one tool among many to accomplish that. That is why I supported No Child Left Behind. But even the implementation of that has turned out to be very complex.

My argment here will simply ignore the church-state issues, BTW. What conservatives need to understand about vouchers is that 1) as half/optional measures, they are always going to get bogged down in one complexity after another. 2) They are not a silver-bullet solution for our educational problems; indeed it is PREPOSTEROUS that this is the one big education reform that conservatives continue to talk about. 3) If you are consistent about vouchers, you apply them nationally or on a state-wide basis, and and in doing so you essentially end the local control tradition of school districts. 4) If you do 3), be aware that tax-paying voters will eventually reassert their (rightful) say about how their education tax dollars are being spent, and they will do so via ACCREDITATION BOARDS. That is, the issue of "what constittues a school that can recieve voucher money" will come to the fore. The power of those boards will increase, and will be subject to voter desires to implement this or that reform, and participating private schools will find themselves subject to increasing regulation. 5) Fung has some good points--face it.

Rather than hanging their hat mainly on the "voucher" peg, conservatives need to stress a) parental ability to transfer students w/i districts, b) reliable test score info, c) clearing away rules and heinous judicial rulings (usually at state-level, I think) that make discipline quite difficult for teachers and administrators, d) weaker tenure-rules for teachers, that is, making tenure more subject to peer review and perhaps upon school performance(that is, iron-clad tenure rules for well-performing schools, less-so for others).

Or, we can just say, "democratic govt. can’t do education" and fight for the abolition of public education. I don’t think our circumstances merit that at all, but it is a consistent position, and some of our voucher advocates ought to stick to it, ’cause it’s what they really beleive. And by the way, I cannot imagine what laws you’d need to PROHIBIT locals from trying to keep their districts going on their own. That is, the position is really, taken most consistently, centralized statist libertarianism. I’d prefer to muddle through w/ 3/4 public 1/4 private and not mix the two.

I cannot stress how elementary and emminently conservative c) above is. All of our schools would improve immensely if we simply had the courage to kick out of the system 2% of the current troublemakeing kids. The needs of the many, y’all.

To clarify, limited use of vouchers, depending on the devil’s details, might be something I could support depending on the circumstances. But that’s local politics, and voting for good school board members might often be a better solution to whatever problems exist. My main arguments are aimed at conservatives who continue to talk up vouchers as THE solution.

I’d also say that if the economics of viable elementary/secondary Catholic ed got too dicey, it might be in the interest of states to provide very temporary tax-breaks for the parents involved.


First of all, I am not sure what you mean about education and individualism. When it is offered by a system, then process is really not very individualized. In addition, since societies decide what is to be handed off to the next generation, the content is not individualized, either.

But, what is individual is what a student takes away from the process. Just as is true of a movie, or a book, or a song. We needn’t re-write Moby Dick a million times in deference to the individuality of readers; nor must we redefine education a million times because students and families differ.

Whe I speak of studies, I really mean two different levels of study, neither of which is terribly general. In the lab, it is possible to identify practices that enhance and detract from effective cognitive processing. In my city, those lessons are sometimes acted upon with experimental schools (many of them made possible by the desertion of urban areas to the suburbs: we have some nearly empty schools in which to try new things.)

We have charter schools, too, and roughly half of them fail, while the other half have yet to fail.

But, I am referring to themed schools, based on the fine arts, or experimental curricula, or experimental processes that have been thoughtfully researched, and then thoughtfully paired with the particular characteristics of the community or neighborhood. These use district resources without bleeding talent and taxes away from the district pool. They enliven interest, and they are cooperative, and not competitive in nature. At the same time, parents can choose to send their kids to them, or to send their kids to another nearby, more traditional school within the district.

Now, out in the burbs, where I live, I have to demonstrate that my kids’ school is failing to maintain a very low set of expectations before I can send my kid to a better school without penalty. I have the choice to pay taxes in both districts, but that is almost as much as tuition at the Catholic Schools (which are very good, by the way!) but which I cannot afford.

At any rate, there are models for creative thinking, experimentation, and innovation without bleeding resources away from the district, and without inviting the corporate model in where it does not belong.

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