June 15, 2005

Public money and religious schools.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a detailed story about the school voucher program in Milwaukee:
One: On doors throughout St. Margaret Mary School, at N. 92nd St. and Capitol Drive, there are small printed signs that say: "Be it known to all who enter here that Christ is the reason for this school."

Two: More than 10,000 students - over two-thirds of the total using publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools in Milwaukee this year - were attending religious schools.

Three: Wisconsin is putting money into religious schools in Milwaukee in ways and amounts that are without match in at least the last century of American history.
Courts have already upheld the program, so the question is not whether it violates the Establishment Clause, but whether it is good policy. What do you think?


Captain Wrath said...

The policy creates competition between school establishments, and offers choice to parents regarding their children's education. By creating competition, they help improve ALL schools because schools are forced to improve or see attendance drop.

Also, I question the idea that this is "public money" in the way I THINK you mean it. I believe you mean (correct me if I am wrong) it is public funding, or that is, government sponsorship.

It is neither. People pay property taxes, sometimes very high taxes, to support their local schools. By using vouchers, they are simply getting back their money and reallocating it to their child's education. Since their child is no longer being taught in a public school, his is no longer an expense to the public system, so the government or general public is not supporting religious education.

The whole point of schools is to educate students. If the school, and school system, is failing in that regard, functioning alternatives should be welcomed.

Sloanasaurus said...

I agree with the above post. It is a good policy if it makes the schools better and kids get a better education. It is a bad policy if it doesn't make schools better.

Mr. I said...

I'm not very familiar with all the details of school vouchers, but I am assuming there are a limited number of vouchers allowed in a given school year. If this is the case, how are the students chosen? What happens to the students who do not get to use school vouchers?

I agree that there are problems with many public school systems, but are we really helping the situation by allowing a percentage of the public school students to attend private schools using public funds? Maybe this allows the students at the public school access to more resources but I'm skeptical. I think the idea is noble but doesn't really solve the nation's education problem.

Contributors said...

My dad lived across the street from St. Margaret Mary until a few mos. ago. When I visited it's where I attended church. Beautiful old church. Not a steeple but round. Lots of wood. And old for that type of style we consider modern.

I blogged on this as well. I love the program and think anything that hurts public schools is good.

They suck. They're bloated. The Constitution guarantees an education not a over funded pig of a public school system and an evil teachers union. It's about the kids.

Liberal opposition to this program at the time astonished me. I was a die hard Dukakis voting Democrat then, and loved the idea of poor kids getting to go to a private school. Democrat opposition was one of the eye openers that led me out of the dark side. But I was in good company with Polly Williams.

Freeman Hunt said...

I also agree with the first poster. I would add that I think every district, failing or not, should allow school choice through vouchers.

I think schools would be immensely better if they actually had to compete the way that businesses do.

Ann Althouse said...

Mr. I: Milwaukee students qualify based on family income. At the time of the Wisconsin Supreme Court case, you qualified if you family made no more than 1.75 times the amount designated as the poverty level.

Mr. I said...

I think it's good policy if two things happen.

1) All students receive a quality education through the program. Including the students that don't qualify for vouchers.

2) The public school system is not left to rot and some serious revamping occurs.

Call me pessimistic or cynical, but I don't think either of these two things are going to happen.

Art said...

The voucher paid to the school for each pupil is in the neighborhood of $7,000.
If you pay less than that in taxes (and my guess is most of the folks in the voucher program do pay less than seven grand) then you're not just getting "your" money back. You would be getting some of my money, Prof. Althouse's and so on.

The issue with school choice isn't just religion. It's accountability. School choice was an experiment to see if market forces can be an alternative to government oversight since the program was set up to limit the ability of the DPI to regulate the schools. Has it worked? I'd say the results are very mixed.

leeontheroad said...

"Good policy" is a slippery term. it's good policy if it contributes a solution to a problem-- presumably public schools that are substandard in soem way-- rather than merely "offering choice."

So I'm in agreement with Mr. I.

Offering choices among existing subsidized alternatives is not free market competition, nor was the foundation of public education anywhere a market. Thus merely introducing competition is both untested and, to me, oddly conceived.

The idea that vouchers are just folks getting back their money is false, especially when the vouchers are given to poor folks (as they should be, as well as others, if we're to pretend to any notion of equity). The value of the voucher can exceed the taxes paid by a given individual or family. Let's not conflate lowering taxes or providing property tax rebates with providing education. (Of course government could do both of these within one program, but tax releif and education are different goals and should be evaluated differently.)

There are real, systemic problems in public education, and the majority of failing schools (before LNCB-- the data for which aren't "clean," in my view, yet) are urban, like Milwaukee.

I think well-designed voucher programs can be part of the solution, as can charter schools. The biggest problem in schools, generally, though, is parental involvement. What we may see longer term with vouher programs is that parents who make use of vouchers to send kids to parochial or other private schools are already involved and concerned, so we'll have a self selecting population. Good for them! But if the average or mean outcomes for "voucher kids" turn out to be better in objective terms than those of other the "non-voucher kids," we won't necessarily have a fair comparison based on KNOWN factors that affect education outcomes. Yet I imagine such outcomes will be adduced as evidence of public school failure, when what happened is that the least at-risk group was left to rot in a system from which resources and the best peers had been removed. (let's talk competition: kids, overasll, actuaslly do better when they compete within normal parameters, when the bar is set higher.)

I'll put it this way: there's a danger to equity in public education per se when we use existing funds to recreate separate and unequal systems. We have an unequal system now in that access to private schools is governed by either or both parents' ability to pay tutiton and kids' abilities to gain scholarships. But that system isn't a public repudiation along the lines of
"anything that hurts public schools is good."

Anonymous said...

You make a few good points, Lee-- but saying "there's a danger to equity in public education" is a bit like saying "the unicorn is threatened with extinction". What is the existing public system if not "separate and unequal"?

DrTony said...

I think it is interesting that Ann posted about a "religious" school and yet most of the comments are about the voucher program in general.

As well it should be. Whether the school in question is "religious" or not is not the issue. No one is being forced to go to school there.

As someone who would not qualify for a voucher, I would ask that the government at least let me deduct the cost of my daughter's tuition. I'm still paying my property taxes for a school I don't use.

JLP said...

Lee made an excellent point when he said "parental involvement is key." That IS the key. Everything hinges on that. I think that's why our public schools have been failing. It's not so much because of the school, but because there are too many kids who have parents that don't care or don't have time to care.

JLP at AllThingsFinancial

Sloanasaurus said...

Some Public school systems are akin to the "evil corporation." Except I would argue they are worse. Some systems are so bloated that they should be considered institutionally corrupt. When you are in a system where every third person in the chain of decision making is "grumpy" and basically opposed to change, nothing will get done.

Unfortunately, this "corruption" effects the most "vulnerable" because the attentive parents will figure out how to game the system. For example, the Minneapolis public shool system you can get your kids into all kinds of great special programs at various schools. Unfortunatley it requires a lot of weasling, driving your kids around, and "getting to know" people in charge.

Vouchers are the simplest way to break the institution and cause reform.

Mr. I said...

DrTony: The reason we're not talking about the religion side of it is because the original post posed a question about whether we thought this was good public policy. So, in an uncharacteristic way, the comments are sticking to topic.

JLP: Parent involvement is key! But, like Lee said, what happens to the kids in public schools whose parents may not care? These kids shouldn't be punished for their parents' lack of involvement. And this is where the voucher system starts to fail and is based in bad policy.

Bruce Hayden said...

The later half of this discussion so far makes the, I believe, mistake in assuming that public education, in and by itself, is a good thing. I am rereading Hayek, and would suggest that he would have said decidely not.

But my complaint is a lot more pragmatic. Public school systems are socialistic, and thus, by their very nature and design, designed to fail.

The problem, in a nutshell, is feedback. There isn't very much with the typical public school system.

And that is why some richer public school systems do well. It is not spending, per se. Yes, it is parental involvement. But it is because there is a critical mass of parental involvement that translates into political control of the school system. And when the public school systems are essentially run by involved parents, instead of by the educrats, you have a chance for success.

The problem in most public school systems is that they are run by the educrats. The school boards are, in essence captured, or coopted, by the educators and their friends.

This should come as no surprise to many, as this is the way with many government functions - those with the most at stake work the hardest for control, and usually, after time, gain control.

After all, the educrats have the most at stake here. Their entire careers and livlihoods are at stake. With control of a school district, they can push for higher pay, more security, etc. Without, they face accountability.

The problem is accountability, which is, to say, feed back. Businesses need feedback to stay profitable and survive. The feedback that if they stray from their mission, they fail. So, the almighty dollar is always bringing them back to what is important.

That is missing in most government programs (military right now has the viable feedback of casualties you get in a shooting war).

The result is that other "missions" and goals creep in. And those on the inside can, in essence, pick and choose which to follow, as, is obvious, they can't fullfill all of them.

It is easy to say that the goal of public education is providing a good education for the young citizenry. But, today, it is a lot more, including, but not limited to, providing a living for the educrats, taking care of the disadvantaged, warehousing the disruptive, teaching collectivist thought (note our discussion last week on math curriculum), and much, much, more.

So, the real purpose of vouchers, for people like Dr. Friedman (note his article in the WSJ last week), is to provide competition, and thus actual, not theoretical, feedback that brings the schools back to the mission that most of us think they should have.

Bruce Hayden said...

Let me add that getting political control over a public school system into the hands of the parents is extremely hard. I went to school in the public school system in Jefferson Cty., Co. At one time, a number of years ago, a couple of parental militants made a run at it. At one point, they captured two of five seats on the school board.

Everyone was aghast. One of these women didn't even have a college degree, and she was trying to tell educrats with doctorates (but kids in private school) how to run the school system.

The result was that their kids got older and they faded away. Today, it is back to normal, the biggest (I think still) school district in the state, run by the educrats.

Bruce Hayden said...

One thought for all.

A lot is made of the fact that vouchers and the like take money out of a school district (typically ignoring that they take less than is coming in for that child).

But, some of the kids from my daughter's private school are transferring to public next year as they start high school. And, because of their prep already, will invariably be in IB programs.

But what is really the difference between an IB program and vouchers? Resources are drained away from the mainstream schools, including the best teachers. And they only benefit, typically, the very few.

In other words, don't they somewhat diminish the resources available to educate the rest of the students. Is that fair?

I add to this that though they perport to be based on ability, that is invariably not totally true. There are, invariably, not as many slots as there are qualified applicants, and the choice, at the margin, is often based on extraneous criteria - such as parents' ability to influence the outcome.

Besides, is it really fair to give those 1% above some magic cutoff (assuming impartial admittance, which is inaccurate), and not to the students 1% below? Esp. when the difference can be getting in a good college, versus a mediocre one?

Kat Coble said...

I have issues with any voucher program that only makes monies available to lower-income families. It reinforces the class system and is an egregious redistribution of wealth.

Many middle- and upper-class families still desperately need the break that vouchers would provide, yet they are locked out of the benefits of their own tax money by this decision.

I think vouchers are a good idea, but the fairest way to offer them would be a blind lottery.

Mom said...

My concern about vouchers is that they will drain away from the public schools the kids whose parents are most active and concerned. The kids whose parents don't care as much will be left behind in school systems that, after vouchers, will have even fewer resources than they do now and less energy for change.

However, that said, today's poor urban schools are so bad that thousands of children are already going down with the educational ship. I don't think it's fair to protect the whole dysfunctional system at the cost of these kids. So I say that vouchers are good policy to free kids from today's disastrous public schools -- as long as we don't pretend that vouchers alone will solve the problem. We still have to figure out how to do a better job financing our public schools, establishing their curricula, hiring their teachers, etc., etc. Vouchers might shake things up enough to make real change possible, as long as we don't use them as an excuse to abandon the whole problem of the public schools. And if that change does finally occur, then we won't need a voucher system any more.

Mom said...

I certainly don't agree with the poster who suggested that we don't need a public school system at all. Dreamers may think we don't, but anybody who has spent any time working with actual kids from actual families, especially in poor areas, will realize that the United States can't afford the waste of resources that would result from leaving kids to rise or fall on whatever private education their parents manage, or don't manage, to provide for them. There are many, many, many kids out there whose parents are absolutely useless when it comes to fending for themselves or their kids in the larger society. Getting rid of the public schools altogether would just guarantee an even larger proportion of useless people in the next generation as those poor kids grow up.

Bruce Hayden said...

Contrary to educratic "common knowledge", the real issue is not funding levels, but accountability.

In other words, it is not an input problem, but rather an output problem. We throw plenty of resources at the problem, and it just gets worse, as funding levels increase.

An engineer or an economist, looking at this problem, putting politics aside, would point out that when you hit a point where there are decreasing returns on input, you have hit an internal bottleneck.

Think of a hole that you want to push water through. Doubling the amount of water in the sink will increase the amount running through the drain for awhile, but ultimately, the increase will drop to near zero, as the size of the drain becomes the bottleneck.

The problem, very simply, is that there is little real feedback between dollars in and results out. Thus, the money goes every which way.

When you get into the specifics, a dollar here or there doesn't seem like much of a problem. But call it the death of a thousand cuts. And putting more money in the system is almost equivalent to putting more blood in the body, instead of bandaging up the body first.

MaxedOutMama said...

The article was interesting, but the statistics appeared to be picked to support a polemical point. I would call this a very bad example of reporting and a good example of polemics. Since the numbers made no sense, I can't comment on specific public policy outcomes.

From the article:
"MPS figures show that 21,829 children 4 to 19 years old were in private schools as of June 30, 2004, down from 27,723 in June 1998 - when the state Supreme Court opened the way for religious schools to get vouchers - and 49,306 in 1967."
Falling attendance in private schools may be because all families that could have moved to the suburbs, or it could be that most students attend improved public schools, and only students that are offered the choice of poor public schools go to private schools. In any case, this does not tend to support the main thrust of the article.

Many of the assertions made in the article don't follow from the facts given. Parents may choose a religious school because they want a conservative, disciplined atmosphere for their child. Parents may want a neighborhood school - that may be one reason why 20 (1/6th) of the schools participating in the voucher programs were new startups through majority black churches. Those particular areas may not have had a local parochial school and so decided to start up their own through the natural social venue.

In general, I see no reason why breaking monopolies in education should not play the same role in fostering competition as breaking monopolies in commerce.

Most of the black students with whom I attended college back in the early 80's had gone to parochial schools. It was commonplace in many NE urban areas for even irreligious parents (white, black, hispanic and Jewish!) to send their kids to parochial schools, because the schools themselves were safer and the education was better. I see no reason why poorer black families shouldn't now have that same option. Only those who have contempt for lower income parents could really support that idea.

Bruce Hayden said...


So, you seem to be suggesting that since, say, the bottom 25% of parents need public schools to do what they should be doing, that society should put up with miseducating the other 75%.

Economically, might it not be better to just throw those 25% out, and concentrate your resources on the 75% who can take full advantage of them? Maybe the production increase from those 75% might vastly overwhelm the amount lost from the other 25%.

Bruce Hayden said...

I have pointed this out before, Dr. Rice, our Sec. of State, graduated from the top Catholic prep school in Colorado. Her father was a Presbyterian minister.

Bruce Hayden said...

Let me add that my daughter attended that Catholic school that Dr. Rice graduated from, K-2, when she transferred to a more convenient, much more expensive private school out at the west end of Denver.

Both my ex and I were not the least bit worried about the Catholic indoctrination she got there, or what we saw with friends with high school girls there (yes, in high school it is girls only - which is one of its allures).

Partly this was because of the educational quality. And partly, it was because the school has very good values. Yes, I have strong theological problems with Roman Catholocism - but, I felt that it was far easier to point out to her where I thought that Church had gone astray, theologically, than to install the values that they instill.

So, I have no doubt that if my ex lived out in the SE Denver area, our daughter would still be attending that school, and I would be saving a lot of money.

David Lobert said...

I am a Catholic School teacher and feel I have some input on this subject. I do not feel that my school is in any way competing against our public schools. My schools purpose is to instill Catholic/Christian values in the students while giving them a well rounded education otherwise performed by the public school. Would we like to have public money to operate our school.--Yes! The problem lies with oversite. If this money comes with strings attached then the answer is, no. I do think there are ways to help parents that are sacrificing a large portion of their earnings to support not only the private school but also the public ones. I will say that most if not all of our students leaving our school to attend the public school (as our school only goes to 6th grade) do far better than their public school counterpart. Parental involvement is essential for our success. In order for public schools to be successful too they also must find a way to get parents involved in their children's education. Getting many parents involved, even in the simplest form (parent teacher conferences) is at best dismal. There is a need for parents to care for their children's upbringing and not just in their creation...

Unknown said...

Mr. I said "Parent involvement is key! But, like Lee said, what happens to the kids in public schools whose parents may not care? These kids shouldn't be punished for their parents' lack of involvement. And this is where the voucher system starts to fail and is based in bad policy."

Kids who have non-involved parents are already punished by not having involved parents. This sentiment may seem harsh, but the fact of the matter a child with parents who aren't involved with their education on at least some level (which is a pretty good indication that they're probably not involved with the child on most levels) are already behind the 8ball. Poor school performance is merely a symptom of this. The idea that a teacher that sees a student for a few hours a day for half a year will have will make up for the years of indifference of that student's parents may make for a good Disney film, but it doesn't make for good policy. The return on investment you will get at throwing more money at the school system is going to be low because its not treating the problem, only (seemingly) treating the symptoms. This is a huge issues, especially for urban schools, and probably beyond the scope of this particular topic.

Bruce Hayden said "So, the real purpose of vouchers, for people like Dr. Friedman (note his article in the WSJ last week), is to provide competition, and thus actual, not theoretical, feedback that brings the schools back to the mission that most of us think they should have."

The problem is, at least here in DC, is that even with vouchers and charter schools there are no competitive pressures put upon the public school district. In order to grease the skids of the voucher program the Federal Gov't appropriated an equivalent amount of funds to the public schools as they did to the voucher program. So instead of the pressure of losing funds when kids leave the system DCPS gets a nice, new wad of cash. Charter schools in the District have been closed due to failing standards, but I am unaware of the same happening to any DCPS school. Until public school systems face "true" competition (i.e. their funding leaves when students do) the feedback loop will stay theoretical.

Nathan from DC Education Blog

Mom said...

Bruce, a disaffected, uneducated, illiterate, unemployable underclass that consisted of 25% of the population would not allow for much of a healthy economic culture for the other 75% to succeed in. Also, I don't agree that 100% of our current public school population is miseducated. If the public schools were doing as universally terrible a job as some people like to claim, why would the United States continue to lead the world on so many measures of technological innovation, medical reseach and accomplishment, entrepreneurial energy and creativity, civic involvement, and more? I know it's fashionable to claim gloom and doom for the entire system, but the reality is that certain schools in certain areas are failing certain kids, while most of the rest are doing at least an adequate job and some are doing a great job.

Anyway, when push comes to shove, I can't see why we, as a nation, should be willing to "throw out" any percentage of our kids at all. It's this country's apparetnt willingness to throw out the kids who are trapped in today's underperforming schools that started off this whole discussion.

Bruce Hayden said...

A comment from reading Hayek. One problem that all socialistic endeavers have, most notably here, including public schools, is that of defining the mission.

The problem is that even though the goals seem obvious to you, other goals seem just as obvious to someone else. So, whose do we follow?

This is the classic communitarian versus individualist debate. The communitarian invariably argues that society has important goals to reach. The socialism comes in, when the next point is, almost invariably, that the only solution, since the market is failing, is to have government provide them.

But the crux of the problem here is that we can't agree on common goals. You think one thing is important. I think another is.

How many of the posters here have implicitly assumed that the problem that they so readily see is also seen by everyone else, and, indeed, is shared as such by them? A lot.

But the problem is that since so many of us have somewhat different ideas of what public education should be, we provide the public school systems with conflicting goals. Needless to say, we couldn't answer all of them, even if funding were unlimited, which, of course, it is not.

Add to this, that public education is competing for scant public resources with a myriad of other noble causes, all of which seem more important to those proposing them than the causes of others do.

In other words, the communitarian delimma. It should be noted that this philosoply works better, the more homogenous the population, simply because they have more shared beliefs. In other words, a communitarian solution is much more likely to work in Iceland, or even Sweden, than in the culteral melting pot known as the U.S.

PatCA said...

Well, "voucher" is just a different expression of the present policy of collecting taxes and redistributing the money for education. If there is some sort of accountability it, too, is public education.

The key word is "religious." My worry about that is that 'bad' religion will be funded as well as 'good.' When I was a kid at non-tax supported Catholic school in Milwaukee, I learned patriotism, then religion. Can we trust, for instance, Islamic schools to do the same with our money?

Bruce Hayden said...


Somewhat harshly, I must ask, why is this my problem? Why should I, with my daugher happily attending a very good private school, support spending more of my money on a failing education system, when, say our roads need fixing, and, frankly, I use the public roads much more than I do the public school system.

I say this in reference to my recent post on communitarianism. And indeed, the basic problem, all around, is that this is a zero sum game in today's political climate, and public education is just one player.

Due to voter enacted amendments to the CO Constitution, public school financing was locked into increases here, even in a recession, while the entire budge was locked onto actual income. The result has been, because of the recession that we are just now exiting has put enormous pressure on all other state services, most notably, higher education, where instate CU students are facing significant double digit tuition increases - all because of mandatory funding levels for public K-12 education.

Bruce Hayden said...

As an individualist and capitalist, the only real viable arguments I have heard here against vouchers are that they don't work all that well in either providing a quality education for that many, or, more importantly to me, providing credible accountability and feedback.

Bruce Hayden said...


I really don't care if they teach them how to strap explosives on. The problem is that the minute you go down that slippery slope, you can't get back up it.

And make no mistake. The public school systems indoctrinate kids no less, and probably a lot more, than do religious schools. Just note that discussion we had last week on a proposed math curriculum. That was a lot more extreme than teaching my (Protestant) daughter that Mary is Blessed of All Women.

leeontheroad said...

Nathan, the original notion of public schooling was not about competition between alternatives within the US, but international economic competition.

Just as the government might decide that the best way to accomplish a goal is a no-bid contract, or a national effort like NASA, folks made a decision to have publicly funded schools. And usually when somebody got a new idea about national kid policy, it was implemented in public schools: public health initiatives (from disease screenign to the Kennedy Fitness Program); national disaster training (remember getting under your desk?), and the lst goes on.

We might start fixing the systemic problems by figuring out the core of what we expect schools in the aggregate to do. There has long been school choice; one just had to pay for it, or home school. When did our national problem with academic preparation change? I can tell you a few times, depending on what you think schools should be doing. (Thyat is, there were always problems.)

In any case, the only way to have real competition is to substantitally change the way we as a nation, but with locally controlled schools (unless you advocate differently) envision elementary and secondary education. Education for all has not been a market or a monopoly, because one can't choose not to participate in it (just not be engaged by it) and, anyway, with locally controlled schools, there isn't any "Ma Bell" to break into "Baby Bells."

Insted, public education is more like Amtrak. It's a huge investment (doesn't turn a profit); seems like everybody's got a problem with it; many of those identified problems are objectively true; and, unless it's true that planes will replace trains, we're going to leave a lot of folks unable to get from place to place if we defund it.

It would be relatively easy to improve education outcomes by doing what private schools do now: enforce enrollment policies, including forcing out students who don't follow the rules. Let's not forget that public schools don't currently have that option.

And, if we decide the system isn't for everyone, we can get prepared for what we know will happen if kids don't have to go to school. (Look at Mexico.) What of the nation, overall, in the global competitiveness that a publicly funded system was designed to support? And you think schools are expensive? Shall we compare them to jails and prisons?

Mom said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mom said...

Bruce, paying for public schools even though you personally don't use them is your problem for the same reason that paying for public roads would be my problem even if I didn't own a car. That is, we both live in a democracy where a majority of voters have long since decided that such services will be purchased with public funds and made available to all. If you can't change the majority view on these topics, you always have the option of moving.

The fact that your state made a decision that you don't like about how to fund public education has nothing to do with the question whether public education should exist at all. Personally, I would not want to live in a society that was capable of deciding that only the children of those who can afford an education will get one.

Captain Wrath said...

People have raised all sorts of good points, but let me expand on my original point.

One person argued that some people get more in vouchers than they pay in taxes. Some do, but then, another complained that they are paying school taxes without having kids in school. There is 'unfairness' in any system, depending on how you look at it.

You could say that poor people, by paying less in taxes, are getting more than they what they paid for in education dollars. Is that fair? Is that not the same thing as them getting back more in voucher money than they paid in taxes?

You can make the case that it is all fair because having educated kids is a benefit for the community and society as a whole, whether or not you have kids, or whether you pay what it cost the system to teach your kids. Thus, the importance of public schools, at least in the ideal.

However, there is also universal unfairness when all of the people in a community are paying taxes (whether it be just sales taxes) and they are not always getting what they paid for; quality education. This is known as being cheated. If this was a business, it would eventually be out of business. Because its a public school, it gets more money to waste.

If taxes are collected to run schools and educate kids, but these are both done poorly, then there needs to be an alternative. As someone else pointed out, it otherwise creates a monopoly, and a resistance to change.

What vouchers allow parents to do is more effectively direct the money which will be spent anyway. However, by allowing them to choose, it will generate a need for all schools to be effective, or face diminished funding.

Because some the kids end up going to a religious school does not mean they are supporting religion. They are supporting education.

Freemarketguy said...

Great discussion. The religious issue is a distraction. Religious schools are just about the only market participants in the delivery of K-12 education because they don’t care if they lose money – no one else in their right mind would try to compete with the 900 lb. gorilla in the corner – the government monopoly school system. Occasionally someone will succeed with a high-end model they can sell to wealthy parents, but other than that – how could alternatives to public schools compete against the government’s power of taxation?

The only way for alternative schools to compete is to allow tax money to be spent by the consumer of education – the parents. This is the model for our very successful food stamp program. The consumer is given a voucher to purchase food – the government doesn’t set up a separate food delivery system. People buy what they need from private parties (the grocery store!). They make their own choices.

Our recent school referendum in Madison made me cringe. Why are we arguing about these things? When was the last time we had a political argument about – what kind of computer my business should buy? Government delivery of services is a failed, failed model – why do we persist in thinking that government schools are needed? YES, government should FUND education. Actual DELIVERY of the product (education) by the government, however, is doomed to failure. And I mean “doomed” in the sense that it WILL fail – the laws of economics are not “laws” for nothing.

The distinguishing feature of government provided services is that there are winners and losers. In a free market system you don’t have winners and losers, you have choices. For example, assume the government was in charge of buying everyone a house and they all had to be the same. People would be forever arguing about the size of the rooms and the number of toilets and all the details which are important to them. But the “government house” would be a big, big deal because in the end, winners would get what they wanted and losers wouldn’t. In a free market, I get what I want and you get what you want. Everyone gets to chose their own house (within the limits of their resources) and everyone gets to choose their kid’s school – every kid gets a voucher.

Why should K-12 education be DELIVERED by government employees? It makes no sense. It means we have POLITICAL fights over funds to fix the roof vs. providing music lessons.

Government schools inhibit competition – they BURY it with their powers to tax. Our only saving grace is the multiple school districts which are forced to compete amongst each other. Parental “choice” becomes – what school district can I afford to live in?

I'm with Hayek and Friedman, here. Why would we expect government schools to provide a better product (education) than private schools? Will vouchers be the end of public schools? I certainly hope so. We will ALL be better off with privately DELIVERED (and publicly funded) education.

Vouchers should be universally available and the public school buildings should be put up for sale.

Abraham said...

Anyway, when push comes to shove, I can't see why we, as a nation, should be willing to "throw out" any percentage of our kids at all.

Well, ultimately, there is a limit to what we can do. Whether or not it's good for the economy, people do still have some measure of personal autonomy, and we can't force them to learn against their will. We can only open the door; we can't make them walk through it.

rafinlay said...

The public school problem does not encompass ALL public schools. In fact, many (most?) suburban schools are de facto private schools where the tuition is collected by the county through property tax. The public school policy needs to be focused on the "failing" school, typically core-urban and some extreme-rural.

There is already an illiterate and innumerate underclass. We just hide them among ill-educated members of what should be the norm-class and pretend it is a policy/cultural issue.

Personally, I think there would be more bang for the buck if we paid the parents/students/schools upon a student's achievement of minimum standards: $x for reading at a basic level, $x for arithmetic, etc.

Mom said...

Abraham: I agree with you completely that people have to make their own choices about whether or not to walk through the educational "door," and that some will choose not to no matter what society does with its schools. I'm just opposed to slamming the door shut in some people's faces before they ever get the chance to decide.

leeontheroad said...

Interesting points about fundin an delivery, freemarketguy, but I don't follow terms here. You said

The only way for alternative schools to compete is to allow tax money to be spent by the consumer of education – the parents. This is the model for our very successful food stamp program. The consumer is given a voucher to purchase food – the government doesn’t set up a separate food delivery system. People buy what they need from private parties (the grocery store!). They make their own choices.

Food stamps are not a free market force, though. They are an income redistribution (means tested)/nutrition (applicable to only certain foods)/farm subsidy (heavy on dairy) program. It is both, yes, successful (pretty much does what it says it will do) and, in my view, cleverly designed (in that it keeps multiple constituents "happy" and has a worthy goal). Still, the program works because it's an overlay on an existing market.

Again, existing markets for K-12 education have underperformed-- largely, though, because they are free (meaning they cost the consumer), and a publicly funded system would not be a free market.

It would introduce both more competition and mroe choice.

Would that then necerssarily make the product better? I'm not sayign it won't, but I can't tell if the "product" isn't defined.

Mr. I said...

Nathan: You seem to imply that the kids with uninvolved parents are already at a dissadvantage so why bother with them. But that is exactly the reason that the school system should care about them. I never said throwing more money into the school system was the answer, but giving up on these kids is far worse then spending more money on them.

People seem to be complaining about having to pay for public education and I notice the particular argument of "well, I pay for my child's private education, why should I pay for anyone elses?" Well, out of all the social services the government funds, education has to be the one with the greatest return on investment in almost all areas of society. Maybe you won't see these benefits in your lifetime, but your children and their children will. It is our duty to provide a quality education to all for the benefit of the greater good.

Unknown said...


Interesting response, lee. What it had to do with the notion of school improvement completion (in the sense Bruce Hayden was talking about) I have no idea. The dog I have in this fight has to do with present day D.C. If their public school system wasn’t a mess (and believe me, my almost any measure it’s a horrible, horrible mess) I would be happy as a clam to send my kid to it. However, a school district that doesn’t care whether or not its students actually show up in class (see their truancy policies, the fact that kids sat in cafeterias for months waiting for their schedules because no one could be bothered to print them out, etc.), care about security (see borderline illegal security contracts given to less than reputable companies, kids shot at school, teachers threatened, etc.), care about student achievement (up until last year you could graduate without ever taking a math course in high school), safe facilities (some school have exactly one working bathroom) doesn’t exactly make me to start sending my kids there. And I’m not the only one. There’s a reason why ~40% of DC children attend charter or private schools. Yet, has the mass exodus of students done one thing to change the way DCPS is operated? No. Its still the same low expectation, dysfunctional institution it has been for the last 20 years. Oh, we’ll get a new superintendent ever few years who talks a good game, but nothing changes. The system will still get funding increases (they’ll blame their dysfunction on lack of funds, which was why I mentioned it) with nothing to show in return. DCPS has no incentive to do any differently. That’s the issue I have.

And you think schools are expensive?

Depends on the return on investment. DCPS is like paying Porsche prices for a Yugo with 250k miles on it. So yes, for the services provided I think DCPS schools are hugely expensive.

Shall we compare them to jails and prisons?

In the District there’s not much difference.

Sam Chevre said...

A few random thoughts:

1) Parental involvement is key, but there is a substantial feedback effect. Parents are more likely to be involved with schools if their involvement makes a difference. They are also more likely to be involved with schools that are near them geographically. Private schools are likely to have students with more involved parents, but it seems likely that they increase levels of parental involvement as well; public-school bureaucracies are notoriously unresponsive to parental concerns, and often are far away from the students’ homes.

2) “Sacrificing the education of some students” is the wrong way to look at the problem. As I see it, most troubled big-city school systems have three categories of students: (a) Students whose parents are able to compensate for the areas where the school is weak, and to maneuver through the bureaucracy; most of these children have educated parents. (b) Students whose parents are involved in their lives, and want them to do well, but do not understand the bureaucracy or have the means (knowledge, time, or income) to compensate where the school system is weak; most of these parents are poor or working class, and not as educated as the first group. (c) Students who are only at school because the law requires it, and who are either uninterested in or unable to do the required work. Currently, the education of class (b) students is being sacrificed in an attempt to educate class (c) students; in too many cases, the result is that neither group gets a sufficient education. If the class (b) students can be educated well, that’s an improvement; if the class (c) students continue not to get educated, that’s pretty much what’s happening already.

3) The feedback effect is key; big-city school systems spend far more on administration than most private schools, and than most suburban school systems. It is a classic regulatory capture problem; directing more resources to teaching and fewer to administration will make a difference, but no one within the public schools has a reason to advocate for that rather than increased spending.

4) One key advantage of a voucher program is diversity. Different students learn differently; different students function best in different environments; different parents want their children to learn different values. Bureaucracies are not very good at dealing with differences; their tendency is to try to make things as uniform as possible.

Unknown said...

Mr. I said "You seem to imply that the kids with uninvolved parents are already at a dissadvantage so why bother with them. But that is exactly the reason that the school system should care about them.

I imply no such thing. What I do imply is that throwing additional money at such a problem will have negligible returns. The "vouchers and charter school money would be better spent on the public schools" argument, especially in urban districts, implies that the solution to urban underperformance is merely the lack of funding. Give schools more money and the kids will do well. Well, I think that’s just not the case. Take DCPS (a school district I am quite familiar with). Double its budget. Hell, quadruple its budget. How does that money make parents who didn’t care enough to make sure their kids were in school in the first place all the sudden start caring? How does this make a parent all of the sudden care about their child’s nightly homework. How does this make the father of a student who didn’t know his kid failed his freshman year two times all of the sudden start caring about his kids grades? (a tragically true story). Ask a DCPS school teacher how much behavioral crap s/he has to deal with on a day-to-day basis and tell me how a funding increase will solve that problem. My argument isn’t that you should give up on these students, but that the “if you want better performance we need more money" argument doesn’t hold up beyond a certain point.

I never said throwing more money into the school system was the answer, but giving up on these kids is far worse then spending more money on them.

But you did say

"These kids shouldn't be punished for their parents' lack of involvement. And this is where the voucher system starts to fail and is based in bad policy."

So instead you’re going to punish kids whose parents are involved but lack the means to move their kids out of the public schools. Again, I'm only looking at this from a DC perspective, but since DCPS is pretty well funded in the scheme of things (it suffers more from waste due borderline criminal mismanagement… again, a consequence of an apathetic constituency more than anything else) I'd rather any extra money be spent helping those who want to improve their kid's lot in life. Vouchers and charters help those parents now.

Freeman Hunt said...

I agree completely with Freemarketguy. If (and it's a big if) we decide that education should be publicly funded, everyone should receive a voucher and be able to choose where to go. Why shouldn't we be able to choose schools?

leeontheroad said...

Sam, I think this is a good observation.

"Private schools are likely to have students with more involved parents, but it seems likely that they increase levels of parental involvement as well;"

It's my experience that a headmaster will call before a public school principal will, yes. My own parental experiences are with a relatively small (500 enrolld) K-8 private school and an 800 student public district secondary school.

"public-school bureaucracies are notoriously unresponsive to parental concerns,"

and that's not excusable-- unless you mean the school doing what the parent wants all the time. Thtat would not be a school; it would be a nanny service. (And smaller schools, often private, can function more that way than others, too.)

Thsi surprised me, though.

"and [public schools] often are far away from the students’ homes."

If they were neighborhood schools, they woudln't be. Regionalization has been pushed to save taxpayer dollars.

My own experience is driving kids 40 minutes to a private "academy," and, as a child, first, being driven from one city to another in 20 minutes of traffic to attend a parochial school. As an adolescent, I attended a suburban, public high school that was a 15 minute bus ride or drive for my parent(s) to attend events.

leeontheroad said...


I have no direct experience with DC schools, but their data is abysmal; and, overall, I have great sympathy for DC parents and PS students.

I can't tell where your argument is going, exactly, though. You seem to be saying that the managed alternatives to DCPS are good but they haven't helped those in the traditional option and that this is due to mass corruption in DC.

DC is notoriously corrupt and one might hope that such a unique municipal entity could be more easily fixed than in municipalities attached to states in the Union.

Still, you seem to be generalizing a national solution from a local, unique case: get rid of all public schools, because my local schools haven't been/can't be fixed.

Bruce Hayden said...

Just an idea of the difference in administration. At my daughter's private school, there are two secretaries for three schools, and maybe 6-700 kids K-12. The middle school principal teaches two English classes a day, and doesn't have an assistant principal.

And yes, everyone is involved. Parents are on a first name basis with the teachers, etc., and more significantly, the teachers with them.

Partly, it is the investment of money, and partly it is the education level of the parents.

In any case, it is real, and every time I think of putting her back in public school, even an IB program, I remember all the horror stories you hear, here and elsewhere, and dig a little deeper for the tuition.

Unknown said...

Still, you seem to be generalizing a national solution from a local, unique case: get rid of all public schools, because my local schools haven't been/can't be fixed.

No, I merely said that the benefit of competition (via vouchers) as Bruce Hayden described it doesn’t always happen. To again quote Hayden:

So, the real purpose of vouchers, for people like Dr. Friedman (note his article in the WSJ last week), is to provide competition, and thus actual, not theoretical, feedback that brings the schools back to the mission that most of us think they should have."

All I pointed out was that in the case of DC vouchers didn’t provide that feedback loop since their funding wasn’t affected detrimentally in any way by DC’s voucher program. In fact, it did just the opposite: it rewarded the by adding an additional $15 to their budget. Voucher proponents in the District (and I am one) who expect the program to spur improvements in DCPS are going to be disappointed. Since DCPS doesn’t lose a penny of funding no matter how many students leave the system why should it change? That was my point.

At no point did I say get rid of public schools.

Bruce Hayden said...

One comment made was on the importance of local schools. Yet, in many cases, we still see mandatory bussing.

Teaching diversity is fine. But come on. In many cases, it has turned top performing schools into poor schools, and hasn't done the reverse.

The reason I bring this up, is because it is a symptom of the problem. Diversity is a noble cause (I guess). But should educational quality be surrendered because of it?

What about sex education? Teaching acceptance of gays and lesbians? In the 2nd grade? Teaching about the exploitation of children in foreign countries in order for WallMart to make more money?

Or for that matter, whether fixing the roofs is more, or less, important than music lessons.

What precisely is the goal of public education? We all think we know. But if you polled everyone, you will find a lot of discrepancies.

The reality is that there are people out there who believe that, for example, teaching tolerance of gays and lesbians is on a par with, or maybe even higher in importance than teaching math skills. Ditto with probably the rest of my list.

So, since public education is supposed to be everything for all people, no wonder it fails to deliver, really, to any of us what we think it should do.

Bruce Hayden said...

The DCPS voucher problem reminded me of my old secretary's lament about Phoenix schools. They seemed to have a policy of bouncing a lot of kids the first month of school each year. Turns out, they got their federal money for how many kids they had at the start of the year, and thus, if they could dump a lot of them shortly thereafter, they would have more money for fewer kids.

Economics would predict this. Unfortunately, most legislators never seem to have taken even Econ 101.

Unknown said...

The reality is that there are people out there who believe that, for example, teaching tolerance of gays and lesbians is on a par with, or maybe even higher in importance than teaching math skills. Ditto with probably the rest of my list.

So, since public education is supposed to be everything for all people, no wonder it fails to deliver, really, to any of us what we think it should do.

You hit the nail on the head, Bruce. That’s probably the #1 reason I support school choice. As long as you have small, politicized body controlling the curricula for essentially everyone there will always be battles over what gets taught. Be it intelligent design, sex education, multiculturalism or what non-core subjects should be taught (art vs. band, football vs. lacrosse, etc.) people are going to want to foist it on everyone else because “it’s the right thing to do.” I say let parents pick the type of school they want their kids to attend. It completely diffuses the problem.

Bruce Hayden said...

On local schools - one of the biggest reasons that many lost access to local schools was forced bussing for racial reasons. This one federal mandate probably destroyed more school districts than any other.

Denver is a prime example of that. When I was in high school, it had two of the top five public high schools in the state. Within a decade, they didn't have any in the top 10, maybe even 20.

Yes, Denver was more fair then. All got a bad education, not just most.

Bruce Hayden said...

As is probably obvious by now, my philosphy is very similar to Milton Friedman's - that if society defines public education as a good and necessary thing, then fine, make it work.

But don't make the mistake of equating public schools with publicly funded education. There is nothing the least bit implicit that the later necessarily implies the former.

Indeed, we have seen this a lot in the comments in this thread, the implied assumption that the two are equivalent.

But the reality is that public schools are one of the worst imaginable ways of providing for publicly funded education.


Because they are a government funded and mandated monopoly, answerable to everyone, and, thus, no one.

This is made worse because they are everything to everyone, and thus, not accountable.

Math scores went down again this year. So what? We increased diversity and tolerance for gays and lesbians. And, look, we passed out 5,000 condoms.

We had two kids shot this year at school. So what? Our football team won state and our baskeball team was 2nd.

Mr. I said...

Bruce: I'd like to see your stats/evidence on how teaching tolerance for gays and lesbians (or anyone for that matter) causes students to get lower math scores?

Your argument is weak (and offensive) because it equates small changes/additions in curriculum with overall student performance. This is wrong. Students don't perform poorly in math class because they get an extra day (if that) on how to respect other human beings in health class. They get poor math scores for other reasons like: lack of interst, lack of support from parents, and lack of qualified math teachers. And while I understand that your point was that the schools may be focusing on other non-critical issues in curriculum, there is no reason why those can't be worked on the same time as the math curriculum.

I think you owe an apology to the gay and lesbian community. They have it tough enough without having to be blamed for our nation's poor math scores.

Bruce Hayden said...

You aren't going to find it either way, because the margin of error is larger the amount of difference you would be trying to measure.

And that, of course misses my entire point, which was that different people have different goals, and that the public school system could use hitting one set of goals to justify missing another.

So, to some extent, you are making my point for me.

But you also bring up what I would consider a fallacy, and that is that because we can't show that a specific thing hurts, for example, math scores, then it is ok to spend precious class resources teaching it.

The biggest problem is that this is again the death of a thousand cuts. Sure, teaching gay tolerance, in any bit itself, probably won't statistically affect ultimate math performance. Ditto for sex education. Ditto for football. Ditto for teaching about the homeless.

But the problem is that it is not in isolation. Ten minutes a week here, twenty there, and pretty soon, you are talking real time (paraphrasing Senator, I believe, Fullbright).

The problem is that, even if gay tolerance were accepted by most parents, it would be quite a ways down on their list of criteria. But it is at the top for a small, vocal, number. And, so, it is taught. Along with a lot of other stuff, under, what appears to be your philosophy, that this subject, standing by itself does not detract from, say, math.

It is not gay ed, or sex ed, etc. that is itself the problem, but rather that they are all accomodated. Or that a lot of them are.

Bruce Hayden said...

The other problem of course is that gay rights IS a moral issue, at least to many Americans. You have, in essence made a value judgement that: 1) they are wrong, and 2) since you are so obviously right, your values on this subject should be taught in the schools.

You are, in essence, suggesting that it is the public school system's responsibility to correct the parents' and their church's teachings on the subject of homosexuality.

Mr. I said...

Actually I got your point, but you seem to be missing mine. You are unfairly attacking teaching gay tolerance when in most schools this subject isn't even taught one way or the other. And to boot you bring up several other examples of subjects taught in schools that take up much more class time than teaching gay tolerance.

"Ditto for sex education. Ditto for football."

So why are you picking on gay people? That's my point. You do it because it's a "hot button" issue and it makes a dramatic case to support your view. I suppose then, that makes you just as guilty of pushing your goal as those who push for tolerance teaching in schools. I also didn’t see any statistics to support your view. And yes, you said, “[y]ou aren't going to find it (statistics) either way, because the margin of error is larger the amount of difference you would be trying to measure.” This seems to mean you can’t support your argument with evidence at all.

You clearly had a variety of other subjects to make your point with, but you seem to have hammered the gay one the hardest. For that reason, and for implying that the decline of American schools should (at least partially) be placed on the backs of gays and lesbians, I still think you owe the gay and lesbian community an apology.

Bruce Hayden said...

Yes, it was a hot button, but was included because it is one. Plenty of people disagree with you. Probably as many, maybe a lot more than agree with you. I don't know and don't care. I just know they exist.

I have been making several points all along here, and one of them is that everyone thinks that they know what the common consensus is on what should be taught in public schools. You are a prime indicator of my point - your definition of what is in the common good and should be taught in the public schools is significantly different from that of many others.

I am not saying you are right or wrong. I can't say that, because I am not you, and you are not me. What you have is your opinion, and everyone else has theirs.

As I have said before, this fits right in Heyak's discussion of the problem with government intervention and communalism - defining the common good.

In other words, we are all for it, but we can't define it collectively, because, in the final analysis, we don't agree on what it is. We just know we all want it.

And I think that it is quite silly that you think I should appologize to the gay community. What I said was not pro-gay or anti-gay. It was anti-public schools.

Bruce Hayden said...

p.s. I am somewhat neutral on sex ed - depends on how it is taught. But I am extremely anti as far as football is concerned. My view is that it should be banned from high schools. But these are my personal opinions, and realize that, esp. with the later, I may be in the minority on some.

Bruce Hayden said...

I don't think that the decline of public schools should be placed on the backs of gays and lesbians, or, really any other distinct group. Rather, I think that it is inherant in the design of the system - the system is designed to fail. It frankly cannot succeed (IMHO).

But you still haven't answered my death by a thousand cuts suggestion.

Skewed Left said...

Lack of competition does not make an institution unaccountable if "voice" is introduced as a method to which the institution is responsive. While the Tiebout hypothesis explains "competitive" municipalities as a way to achieve better citizen responsiveness among local governments, the reality is, most people, even the alert consumers of government, do not use exit as a response to affect governmental change. The City of Raleigh is runs a monopoly over roads, parks, crime control. It does a fairly decent job, but when it doesn't, active citizens (alert consumers) don't move to Cary - they complain and if they don't get satisfaction, they use elections to affect change - "voice" as feedback method instead of "exit".

Introduction of market-like conditions does not always guarantee improvement. Obviously, economies of scale are lost in decentralization, but consider this scenario. Multiple firms are competing in the same limited space with an active base of inert consumers. The active consumers rotate from firm-to-firm but no single firm experiences a loss from year-to-year. There's no incentive to improve if you know 20 families will pull their kids out of your school but you'll pick up 20 from the school down the road (where your former students end up). If you've ever lived in a small town where there are three mechanics that all stink, you know what I mean.

Hirschmann writes that any feedback method, exit or voice, declines in its effectiveness over time. The key is to keep the firm sensitive to the typical mode of feedback at a given time. Changing school governance to make it more sensitive to voice (elected principals?) could be just as effective as a voucher program in achieving change under certain conditions.

Abc said...

In case you're interested, Legal Affairs is having their Debate Club on the issue of vouchers (whether it's the next big civil rights issue). Clint Bolick vs. Linda Undekuffler of Dule Law. It's actually a pretty weak debate as Undekuffler is trying to refight Zelman and can muster neither a consistent argument nor a direct answer to Bolick's points. I blogged about it on my blog (click on my name above).

I know many many teachers in the public schools (my girlfriend is one) and one of the main problems that I see is that in the early years, it seems as though the teachers are failing the kids. The problems set in in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade because the 1st and 2nd grade teachers are incompetent.

Most of my girlfriend's problematic students actually do have parents who care and who come into school and who are not crack addicts. But the students can barely string together a simple sentence in 7th grade. Why? Because their elementary school teachers were probably incompetent.

When people argue for the government's educational monopoly as it is now, they are essentially arguing for a system in which a teacher who fails his kids gets paid and gets the same benefits as a teacher who succeeds. This is entirely unlike any other profession on the planet. This is why so often, good teachers end up leaving the tough districts to get cushier jobs in the suburbs. Why should they toil and actually get something done for the same salary as the nincompoop in the classroom down the hall who does nothing? Notice that it is also in the urban school districts where the unions have the most power.

The only way that the unions could ever be forced to relent in their power over the schools is if we went around them and started funding schools that do not have unionized teachers. Then, they'll feel the sting of competition and maybe reform their practices.

Abc said...

One final point... some people argue that if we take the money out of our current schools, then the children left behind will suffer even more as there will be less money.

But, this is ridiculous. Schools are allocated funding based on how many students are in the student body. Because the more students, the more it costs to run the school. So, taking away some students and thus, the money normally allotted for them, will do nothing to diminish the quality for the students left behind. The school now has to spend less money since there are fewer students.

I understand, of course, that there are fixed costs such as building facilities and a principal, etc. But it seems as though we could figure out a way in which we could do voucher funding that would leave the fixed costs with the school losing students. I really don't understand why people claim, without pointing to any specific example where this has happened, that the schools will now be unable to afford to teach the ones left behind.

Abc said...

Actually, I lied one more point... In regards to the argument about the self-selection of the voucher kids (that they are the ones whose parents already care so, of course they'll do better).

That's fine. I have no bone to pick with this argument. I agree that the kids will of course do better because their parents are involved. But if you do say that parental involvement is the main reason why kids in urban school districts do poorly, then there's nothing that the public school system can do to help these kids with parents who don't care. Nothing. So, as cruel as it may sound, why force the students whose parents do care to go to crummy schools where they are at risk of boddily injury and where the teachers often can't teach because of disruptive behavior?

The kids whose parents don't care are not going to learn anyway (by your admission, parent involvement is THE key... and schools can't force the parents to become involved). So, why punnish the rest of the children?

Bruce Hayden said...

The obvious solution to the staffing problem is firing some teachers and, esp., administrators, when attendance drops.

The fixed costs are harder, because, at least over the short term, they are, well, fixed. But, that is the short term, and long term, you just sell them off.

In Golden, they took an old school, probably built around the turn of the 20th century, and turned it into the headquarters for the American Mtn. Club, Colo. Mtn. Club, and Outward Bound. And the nice thing is that it is being kept up better than the school system could and was doing.

Bruce Hayden said...


You have some good points. But the problem, as I see it, is that even if you could set up a public school system so that it was truly responsive, accountable, and, most imporantly to many of us, effective, as you note, that method of feedback would ultimately become ineffective. Times change, and bureaucracies do not - or don't in a positive way.

The thing that businesses have over governments here is that they get the signals much more quickly (through price instead of periodic votes), and have a big incentive to heed those signals.

Maybe the analogy of throwing a lobster in hot water is appropriate here. If you throw him into hot water, he will panic. But if you heat the water with him in it, you can cook him just fine.

So, when I was in public school, some 40 years ago, it was relatively good. When my father was, 70 years ago, they were even better. So, he can't figure out why we want to spend all that money sending my daughter to private school.

Back to my point. Government institutions seem to be uniquely incapable of changing for the better over time. Mostly, it is for the worse. I suspect that a lot of that is because they seem to build up defenses and lobbys as they go on, and thus become ever more unaccountable.

HaloJonesFan said...

Heck, I went to public school, and if I had kids I wouldn't want them anywhere near it. I didn't learn anything in school that my mother couldn't have taught me just as well, if not better. As for "social interaction", well, that consisted of the hope that if I kept my head down and didn't talk to anyone, the bullies would leave me alone.

Skewed Left said...


You wrote, "The thing that businesses have over governments here is that they get the signals much more quickly (through price instead of periodic votes), and have a big incentive to heed those signals."

That statement only really applies under near-perfect market conditions and education wouldn't exactly meet that criteria. Education purchase isn't a series of transactions where you can re-evaluate the market regularly - at a minimum, you're looking at a one year committment. Even within that time, you may not be able adequately assess the results of the transaction. Secondly, because there is no outcome standard, it's difficult to assess quality, so how do you account for price differences unrelated to quality? Like the example I used of the auto mechanics, the existence of a competitive market does not automatically mean that companies will adjust behavior, even when faced with the loss of customers. If they are the sole producers in a captive market, the rotation of alert consumers means nothing to them. (The auto industry basically works this way)

The other thing to consider - lots of companies maintain a loyal customer base in spite of competition that produces an equivalent or better product at superior prices. There is a cost associated with switching producers - "Dad, all my friends at School X! It's all the way on the other side of the city, and I can't play soccer there!", and quite frankly, some people just don't care. They are inert customers and if a company has enough of them just to get by, they don't really have to become better or more efficient. In reality, markets don't promote "survival of the fittest", they create "survival of the fit-enough".

Ultimately, the problem comes down to a question of defining and measuring outcomes. What is the observable measurement that you use to say that public schools were better 40-70 years ago? Even if you had a purely private market for education, what are the desired outcomes and how would you measure them? How can people become "smart buyers" - aware of what they are purchasing and able to judge the ability of the producers? If you could do that for a private market, then you could do it for a public system and enforce performance standards.

I'm not an apologist for the public school system, but introducing market-like conditions is not a silver bullet without clearly defined and measurable outcomes.

Jenny D. said...

why are schools bad, any school? What makes a school a bad school?

Bad teaching, mostly.

Why is there bad teaching in schools? Because most teachers have been poorly educated to teach school. The best teachers kind of figure out as they go. But others struggle.

It's not the fault of the school itself, per se, it's the fault of the education establishment for working against the improvement of the science and practice of teaching. From the teacher unions, to the Ed Schools, to the school administration, to state legislators, to the teachers themselves who resist further learning--all contribute to bad teaching.

Don't think that crossing over the threshold into a Catholic school somehow guarantees better teaching. What it does guarantee though is that students who misbehave will be quickly expelled, and that there will be a big emphasis on discipline.

If you really want to improve schools, you need to think hard about how to improve teaching. REarranging classrooms, funding arrangements, even introducing market reforms will do nothing to improve the quality of teaching overall. Unfortunately.

Bruce Hayden said...

As to articulating goals, as I have suggested several times here, that is precisely one of the problems. They are, essentially impossible here, as they are close to in most governmet run agencies. This is one of the points of Hayek.

Most of us are in favor of public education. We are in agreement there. But when we get down to defining what we really mean here, we hav a myriad of different definitions.

Does public education limited to learning the three "R"s? How about diversity? Mr. I seems to think that gay tolerance is essential. How about sex ed? Neighborhood schools to maximize parental involvement? Diversity? Equal opportunity regardless of race?

As is probably obvious, the later two conflict with the one right above it, as seen by the destruction done to some school districts by forced bussing.

My point though is that we can't set a metric for public schools because we can't realistically set common goals, and we can't do that because we can't make a collectivist determination of what those goals should be - because, in the end, we, as a people don't agree.

In other words, when we get down below the high level rhetoric of "quality schools", etc. into the details, there is no agreement.

Lest you think I am picking on schools alone (and, from your comments, I don't think you are), I made a very similar argument about Social Security in one of Ann's other threads yesterday - but I think schools are a lot worse than SS.

Bruce Hayden said...

Why would the public schools actually be worse today than they were in my father's time 65-75 years ago? One reason is that "The higher the education and intelligence of individuals becomes, the more their tastes and views are differenciated". And, of course, our society is much better educated than it was then. Indeed, I am rare having all four of my grandparents having college degrees. Most I know, whose parents were part of the "Greatest Generation" had none. It was only after WWII that college degrees became prevelant, due partially to the GI Bill.

The other factor though is that the longer a bureacracy exists, the more it is able to protect itself, and, ultimately, the more it is captured by those involved.

So, in addition to all the goals that the parents might have of a public school system, add in all the goals that these most involved have, notably the teachers and educrats. So, add in good pay, good benefits, early retirement, job security, etc.

Mao may have had the glimmer of a good idea when he suggested that each generation needed its own revolution. One thing that this would do would be to break up the entrenchment of the status quo.

Bruce Hayden said...

Oh, sorry, the quote is from Hayek, in "The Road to Serfdom".

Bruce Hayden said...

Maybe I should expand this a bit. In order for a system to improve its performance, it needs feedback. And in order for there to be feedback, the outputs need to be compared against metrics. And in order for there to be metrics, there have to be goals.

So, when driving down the street, the goals are typically to get somewhere as fast as possible without getting a ticket. The metric is set by a speed limit sign of, say, 55 mph. You look at the speedometer, and see that your speed has inched up to 60 mph. Your reaction? Let up on the gas pedal. Now you are going 50. Split the difference, etc. Simple feedback loop.

The problem with a car if you don't watch the speedometer is that you will find yourself without a license, either by speeding, or by impeding traffic.

With an organization, and in particular, with a goverment organization, if you don't implement viable feedback, it essentially wanders the highways, wasting gas, with no where to go. Fine for a Sunday drive, but not so good when we are talking tens of billions of dollars a year, plus the education of our children.

Add to this that many of the other goals that sneak in here because, as I pointed out in previous posts, we can't really decide communally on our goals, is that the system doesn't track any of them well.

Back to my car example. Imagine next that you are a sixteen year old boy in the car and want to impress your girlfriend with your daring. So, you drive 90.

Obviously, if you tell the cop this, he will laugh, and still give you the ticket. Indeed, he might even cut you even less slack than he would most 16 year olds.

Skewed Left said...


The problem with goal-setting and outcome measurement has absolutely nothing to do with the communal nature of public education or bureaucracies. The same problem would exist in a purely private market for education.

The problem stems from any scenario involving complex technology, further complicated by a latency time between service delivery and outcomes. Purchasing education is like purchasing dental services - what makes a good dentist? It takes years of treatment before the good dentists are differentiated from the bad? How do you know the dentist is doing a good job? You can't inspect the work - how do I know that the endodonist got all the root out before he filled the tooth?

If you believe that universal education has positive externalities, how do you create a fully private system where individuals can have choice, but not suffer from principal-agent problems? How can I, as a parent, measure the performance of a school in such a way that enough time has passed to produce measurable results, but not so much time that corrective action becomes impossible? If a child doesn't learn to read well at a young age, it screws up the rest of their education.

There isn't an easy measurement and there isn't even really a good short-term one and that's a problem even for parents with kids in private schools. Forget about collective goals, how can you measure that just your desired outcomes are being met?

From what I understand, some of the schools in my area have big 4-H programs and provide for some agricultural education. Maybe some parents in the country would like to see more of this, but since we're a countywide school system, the majority would resist change to the county curriculum. These parents might argue that they should be able to use vouchers to send their kids to private schools in their area with more of an ag focus. Let's say the county gives it to them.

Here's the rub - how can they tell which of the private schools has the best ag program? What is the comparative factor? They have the ability to exercise choice in acheiving their goals independent of community interference, but they still have no good measurable outcome for the private schools.

Bruce Hayden said...

Lenny said: "If you really want to improve schools, you need to think hard about how to improve teaching. REarranging classrooms, funding arrangements, even introducing market reforms will do nothing to improve the quality of teaching overall. Unfortunately".

This is, to me, simplistic. Back to my car example. So, your car isn't running as well as it should. You try medium grade gas. It may help a little. Premium grade gas. A little more, at a cost of 20 cents a gallon. What is next? Pure ethonol?

No, the solution is to figure out the problem. I had my engine replaced recently in my 10 year old car (remember, my daughter is in private school). Ran fine to Las Vegas and back, but then started missing a little. Took it back. One of the spark plug wires had broken off of what used to be a distributor. They replaced the unit, but screwed up and didn't hook the fuel line up right. I fixed that, and it still didn't work right, missing worse than ever. Went back again, they hooked it up to their computer, reset mine, and, viola, runs great (running with low fuel intake resulted in screwing up the defaults in my engine control chip).

So, I am suggesting that your emphasis on teaching is like upgrading gas, just in case that is the problem.

The problem is that that does not get to the core of the problem, which here is that we have no firm metrics as to what IS good teaching and a good education.

So, how do you know these are better teachers? More degrees? Better pay? You don't. Without metrics, all you are left with are ad hoc substitutes.

Maybe, just maybe, you might be able to get some improvement if you tested the performance of each teacher in a controlled environment, and each new teaching technique. But, in the end, this is unlikely to better things that much, because, while concentrating on micro level metrics, you are ignoring the macro level.

Bruce Hayden said...

"Our public school graduates lack basic knowledge of mathematics," said Gov. Rendell. "Which is why we think slot machines will be such a hit with Pennsylvanians." Scrappleface article today titled: "Gettysburg Slots Casino Would Honor War Dead".

leeontheroad said...


This is a fair deduction.

"The kids whose parents don't care are not going to learn anyway (by your admission, parent involvement is THE key... and schools can't force the parents to become involved)"

though no one said the kids can't or won't learn anything; most implied this group doesn't meet grade standards and won't likely excel. But that's just a quibble about the degree of the problem.

But I (and others) have not argued to "punnish [sic] the rest of the children."

I'm for voucher programs and charter schools and magenet schools and/or other systemic reforms.

I'm humming thee tune over and over again, however, that education for all is not a market system. To make it so would place before us difficult policy choices that memes about free market forces don't make us face.

If we take to the extreme a system designed only for those mostmotivated to learn, then we could easily introduce a highly regulated market system, where consumers of education (parents, as others have said) used some kind of coinage to purchase education for their children, and there would be presumably at least as many choices of product or packaging as the market could sustain. I think this would look like the child care market-- everything from a growing fancy franchise like Goddard to less expensive options, such as the "day care centers" folks run out of houses, apartments and trailers.

Interestingly, census data from 1999 (last year available) suggest that there aren't huge dollar differences in the costs people pay, regardless of the consumer's income. Three obervations: 1) adequacy costs (there aren't huge savings to be wrung from this-- like paying $15 for a broom made in Kentucky vs. $4 for a broom Made in China * number of students); 2) the cost is a larger burden for folks with lower incomes; and 3) folsk who truly can't afford to pay the costs are not participating in the surveyed market.

However, if we retain the law that says kids have to go to school, we are still essentially taxing parents; and it will be a regressive tax. I don't favor regressive taxes, but whether I did or not, that's what it's called.

If we decided not to do that, because we would in the cases of the poorest among us actually tax people beyond their capacity, there would still be these problems:
1. Folks would cease to wish to "pay for" an education welfare system for others (which is pretty much what some have said about our current system); and, thus
2. we would re-create pre-Brown (or, nod to Paul Z.) retain an unequitable system, from an outcomes standpoint-- only along economic, not strictly racial, lines; and
3. to make "schools work," overall, we'd have to either come up with a new idea or give up on the attempt to provide universal edcuation for the children of the citizenry.

In other words, when we have systemic problems, there are multiple causes, even when one can idenitfy a key variable. Merely introducing a market and/or eliminating collective bargaining and/or creating universal standards for teaching credentials is simply not going to solve every real student outcomes problem that has been identified here.

Clarify what you want the school to DO, then build a system around it to accomplish those goals.

esmense said...

Property tax payers and parents with school age children are not one and the same thing.

Whether the tax money goes to support community schools or to pay tuition for someone's private education, it is still the community at large -- including many, many taxpayers without school age children -- who are paying the cost.

If parents alone were responsible for the cost of their children's education -- whether through taxes or direct tuition -- the individual cost of educating their children would be much higher than it currently is -- and many young families simply could not afford the real cost.

The basic truth is that education taxation forces us all to subsidize the education of other peoples children.

The argument for doing so is that we all -- whether we have children or not -- benefit from an educated workforce and citizenry.

But, when you change the rationale for public support of education through taxes to satisfying the private ambitions of individual parents -- rather than simply meeting the community's need for an educated workforce and citizenry -- you destroy the public rationale for taxing non-parents.

Vouchers may give parent the "choice" to send their child to an institution that reflects their private, personal "values" -- but the taxpayer, who may find some of those parent's values HIGHLY objectionable, is given no choice, or say, at all. Not even, as with the public schools, the opportunity to democratically participate in the vote for school boards that set education policy, etc.

This is a sure-fire recipe for under-mining public support -- and therefore the tax base -- for education.

Old Patriot said...

The comments contain a lot of class consciousness, economics, false assumptions, and general envy, but not much on the subject.

First, the Establishment clause only states that Congress will make no laws establishing a Federal church, or restricting the practice of religion. If you ignore secularism, which IS pushed, then nothing the school districts are doing comes even close to establishing a State religion like the Church of England. Everything else is blathering.

Secondly, public schools are a total disaster. I've sent three children through them, and they range from barely adequate to abysmal. The problem with public schools is that the educrats who have taken over are using them to experiment on our children without our consent, and where possible, without our knowledge. That's why the gay/lesbian/transgender indoctrination starts in KINDERGARTEN. That's why our textbooks read like something from Karl Marx. That's why we have such failed programs as whole-word reading, "New" math, and "environmentally friendly" science courses being taught at all levels of school.

I got a better education from the "worst school in the district" in the late 1950's, early 1960's, than any of my three children received, including two that attended "the best public schools available anywhere".

Bruce Hayden said...

Careful there, Old Patriot. Mr. I may ask you for an applogy to the gay and lesbian community for what he detects as a homophobic comment.

Bruce Hayden said...


The basic problem is that we can't say what we want the public schools to do because we aren't in agreement on it. We are only in agreement at the highest level of abstraction, i.e. quality public schools. Below that, no.

Bruce Hayden said...

Sorry, that last one should have been direct to LeeonTheRoad.

p.s., when I first saw that name, I thought that someone else had misspelled Leon (as Leeon), as my great grandparents did for my grandfather, and he for my father.

Bruce Hayden said...


You complain that taxpayers might not like how voucher money is being spent. But the public schools today are just as unaccountable, and a lot of the money there goes to teach stuff that many of us find objectionable, and contrarywise, not teaching what we find most important.

Mr. I said...

Bruce said, "Careful there, Old Patriot. Mr. I may ask you for an applogy [sic] to the gay and lesbian community for what he detects as a homophobic comment."

Very mature Bruce.

And yes, your comments were unfairly blaming gay people and they were homophobic. Whether you meant it or not doesn't matter. That's the way it came off and that's all we have to go on.

OldPatriot said, "The problem with public schools is that the educrats who have taken over are using them to experiment on our children without our consent, and where possible, without our knowledge. That's why the gay/lesbian/transgender indoctrination starts in KINDERGARTEN."

I'm sorry but if that's not directly linking the gay and lesbian community with the decline of public schools than I don't know what it is.

Looks like I'm waiting on two apologies now. One from Bruce and one from OldPatriot. Don't think I'll get them though.

Anonymous said...

I hope you get your apology soon, Mr. Gay and Lesbian Community. Don't believe I've ever before had the honor of corresponding with a living embodiment of millions of people.

Mr. I said...

Paul: I'm just the messenger. Once the apologies are received I will deliver them.

TWM said...

Hot button issues like gay and lesbian rights should not be the issue here. Teaching our kids science, math, english, history, and the rest is what we should be concerned about.

And maybe if our public schools were concerned about it, we wouldn't be discussing vouchers for private schools in the first place.

Bruce Hayden said...

As I said before, Mr. I's comments here are a perfect example of why we cannot come to a communal agreement about what the goals should be for public education.

He is apparently adament that gay and lesbian acceptance is an important goal of public education.

But the reality is, of course, that there are plenty of people who disagree with him.

Again, though, as I have said repeatedly here, the point is the disagreement, and not whether he is right or wrong.

If we can't come to a communal agreement that all can agree upon, then we cannot develop viable goals and metrics, and if we can't do that, we cannot expect public school systems ever be accountable.

Mr. I said...

Bruce: You said, "He is apparently adament [sic] that gay and lesbian acceptance is an important goal of public education." No, this is NOT what I'm saying. My point is that you are using the gay and lesbian community to make your point. And this is unfair because you have NO proof of your implied link between teaching gay and lesbian tolerance and lower student performance! What I have issue with is that you used the gay and lesbian community when you could’ve used a less sensitive example.

You are entitled to make your point of people disagreeing about what to teach and that this is why the public school system is failing. I don't particularly agree that this is why public schools are failing. And I definitely don’t think that teaching things like football, sex ed, or the like has any effect on student performance. Again, I’d ask that you prove this. However, I strongly believe (and I think there have been some studies to show this) music class, gym class, art class, etc have a significant and positive influence on students. It would be a shame if the public education system truly believed that only the core courses were worth teaching. I certainly wouldn’t want my child attending that school system.

Bruce Hayden said...

Ok, let's try it a different way:

Mr. I says that public schols should teach:
- core subjects
- music, art, gym
- sex ed, gay awareness
- have a football team

Bruce says that public schols should teach:
- core subjects
- history of dead white men
- music art
- don't have a football team
- mandatory athletic competition for all required.

Let us assume that Ms. Y says that public schools should teach:
- core classe
- history of colored and women
- have a softball team
- liberation and anti-consumer theory
- sex ed, but no gay awareness

Mr. Z says that public schools should teach:
- core subjects
- history of white men
- creationism
- have a football team
- mandatory pledge
- Jr. ROTC program

So, with that, what should we make sure is taught in the public schools? What should we measure to see if the schools are doing an acceptable job?

One more time. If we can't agree on common goals for a public school system, we can't come up with metrics to see if we met those goals. And if we can't come up with metrics, there is no viable feedback. And if there is no feedback, there is no reason to believe that a school will do what you, or any else wants it to.

Which is why Dr. Friedman suggested vouchers some 50 years ago - so that ultimately a system of feedback could be implemented.

Without viable feeback, any government bureacracy is going to drift, and, ultimately get worse and worse at fulfilling any mission, even that of taking care of those who make their living off of it.

Bruce Hayden said...

As a note, there is, in my mind, a big difference between athletics and a football team. The problem is that in many areas, high schools end up with their egos tied up in their football teams, in particular.

I dislike them for a couple of reasons:
- high schools have continued to increase in size - primarily to be more competitive in football. In Jefferson Cty., CO, my HS was about 1,500 (10-12). The new ones are 3,000 - 4,000 (9-12). They compete one level above my old one. Every study I have seen has shown that above a certain point, school size has a negative correlation with performance. The bigger the school, the worse the students do. Yet, they keep getting bigger. (My daughter's private high school is 300, 9-12).

- There is a two tier system at many schools that have football teams. Football players, and everyone else. At Columbine (one of those mega high schools here in Jeffco), the football players would routinely shove the ultimate shooters up against lockers as they walked by. Bullying at its worst. BUT, a blind eye was turned to it because they were football players.

- probably, not incoincidentally, academic performance seems to be inversely related to importance of the football team.

Note, I am not condemming athletics. I think they are important. But, having big time football, basketball, etc. teams does not benefit most of the kids athletically. Only a very, very, lucky few.

Bruce Hayden said...

Let me add that I don't find football teams at this level any more justiable at the college level either. Again, a double standard. We are still sorting through the CU recruiting scandal, where sex and alchol were apparently used to recruit HS athletes.

But this is only the tip of the iceburg there. 37 years ago, a friend went there on athletic scholorship (skiing), and at tutoring sessions before tests, the athletes were given this year's test, the night before it was given. Other students had to make due with last years' tests. etc.

Abc said...

A couple of points to make...

First, I didn't actually suggest that we should just leave everyone whose parents don't care enough to seek a voucher to rot. My point is that if you do say that parental involvement is the main thing and therefore vouchers do little to actually improve things for the kids who need improving, then you have to accept this line of reasoning.

I don't actually believe that parental involvement is the key, as I noted in my previous post by my girlfriend's experience (that some of her worst students actually do have involved parents). I do think that the main problem is lack of competent teachers in the early grades.

I don't have the numbers right now, but I recall seeing something that the gap between white and African-American educational outcomes starts to widen around grade 3.

Recall that most elementary school teachers just major in "elementary education," which seems like a crackpot major to me. Most people I know who took that route had to go through lunatic educational theories. They came out not really knowing the subjects they were teaching and not being able to teach much of anything.

I agree that monetary price signals don't work in education. BU and Bennington are consistently on the list of the most expensive colleges/universities in America. Yet, are far behind the vastly superior, yet much cheaper schools like Rice and CalTech. So, monetary price signals don't quite indicate quality.

What does? I think that we need to adjust what we think of as price in education. Price is not just monetary. It includes opportunity cost of not attending a better school, time put into actually receiving the education, etc.

I think that our society has been lulled into thinking that education is a free lunch that everyone is entitled to. I am not saying that not everyone ought be entitled to an education. But what I am saying is that maybe our society can readjust its thinking about costs of education. "Prices" aren't simply the short-term monetary price signals. They are also the price paid for receiving a crummy education. And everyone pays that price, even those who do not contribute enough to the tax pool to cover the immediate monetary costs of educating their child.

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