Vouching for vouchers

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Forgive me--I'm about to get testy again--but this thread on 11D really does seem to me to showcase in stunning technocolor the moral bankruptcy of voucher opponents who have pulled their own kids out of failing inner city schools. They have no good answer for why their choice is morally worthy, but vouchers are horrifying; their response to the deep need of kids in failing schools is a slightly gussied up version of "screw you, I've got mine." Their children's future, you see, is an infinitely precious resource that trumps their principles of distributional justice and community solidarity, but they cannot imagine putting the futures of poorer, darker skinned children ahead of sacred principles such as "Thou shalt not allow children to attend schools run by the Catholic Church" and "Supporting the public schools (even when they suck)". I could do a better job arguing against school vouchers.

Indeed, I shall, though of course largely for the purpose of illustrating why I find these arguments unconvincing:

1) Vouchers don't work This is the best argument against school vouchers. But it's still not very strong. For one thing, the studies that show this are small, and often funded by the teacher's unions. For another, the worst those studies purport to show is that vouchers don't make a difference in educational outcomes; the parents are still happier, and the vouchers cost less than the existing school system.

However, it's also not really all that clear that the vouchers had no effect; one effect school choice seems to have is that it forces schools that want to keep their doors open to improve.

But most tellingly, this argument is incompatible with removing your own children from failing schools. Either the school makes a difference, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, why are you moving to the suburbs in search of a better school district for your kids?

It is indeed true that poor kids have a huge number of problems that are resistant to change; even relocating the whole family to the suburbs seems to have little to no impact on outcomes. Vouchers are no panacea, and they may not work at all. But we know that what we're doing now isn't working, and moreover, hasn't worked for going on fifty years. Unless you've got compelling evidence that your plan will overcome all the barriers that have doomed urban school reform for decades, and actually succeed in educating more children (rather than enriching the lives of teachers, administrators, and curriculum salesmen, who certainly have been helped by the many failed educational overhauls), why not let a thousand points of light bloom?

2) Voucher advocates are total hypocrites too, because why don't they start private vouchers, huh? Bet you never thought of that! Actually, we did, my love, and thanks for giving me an opening to plug the Children's Scholarship Fund, my charity of choice. If you support vouchers, you should be supporting their amazing work.

3) The community doesn't want vouchers. Awesome. Then the community won't take vouchers, and you'll win by default. If what you mean is that some people claiming to speak for the community, want other people who are members of that community not to be able to have vouchers, then I'm less than interested in your argument.

4) Vouchers are a subsidy to rich people. Then means test them, by all means. Anyone who makes more than $100K a year can't have them.

5) Vouchers destroy the public school system So? Having a public school system seems like a dumb goal to me, but even assuming that the very existence of such a system is somehow a worthy thing to aim for, surely it's achievement should be a second-order priority. The primary goal, it seems to me, should be educating America's children to reach their fullest potential; after that goal has been achieved, we can turn our attention to things like having teacher's unions and public schools.

There's something very odd about the way that a lot of people treat health care and schooling--as if they were special, magical goods that can only be provided by the government. Yes, these are vital goods that people are ill-equipped to evaluate. But food, shelter, and clothing are even more vital, yet few of us believe that this means we should all get our produce from giant collective farms, or move into public housing projects. We recognize that the way to ensure that everyone has what they need is to give them the money to buy it . . . and, arguably, to have building codes, the FDA, the USDA, and so forth to ensure that consumers are protected from hidden dangers.

Why don't we want to have giant collective farms? After all, the government could realize marvelous economies of scale and huge cost savings from its enormous purchasing power. The administrative costs would fall too--after all, almost all of the money you pay for food goes, not to the farmer, but to the various middlemen who purchase, process, store, ship, and distribute it. We could probably cut our national food bill in half!

Somehow, we recognize the factors in production of food and clothing that make the government a less attractive provider than the market. And even most of the left has recognized that Section 8 vouchers are better than housing projects--they didn't yank people out of poverty, or magically solve all the problems attendant upon being poor, but they did improve peoples' lives by giving them some of the control over where they live that the rest of us enjoy as of right.

But honestly, there's no reason that vouchers will destroy the public school system provided that the public school system is doing a decent job of educating our kids. This argument sounds to me like an implicit confession that public schools can't compete with private ones.

6) There aren't enough private schools Right. Do you realize that in 1995, not a single iPod had been manufactured? That must mean that the iPod I am currently holding in my hand doesn't actually exist! I'm living a lie . . .

The fact that there are not now enough private schools to educate kids doesn't mean that there won't be, if we offer to pay private schools to educate kids.

7) Public education is vital to creating a common identity as American citizens I would find this a slightly more compelling argument if it weren't made mostly by people who live in affluent communities where their fellow citizens are strongly discouraged from moving by zoning and other ordinances that bar the construction of cheap housing. You think some kid growing up in East New York, looking at the crumbling walls as an inexperienced teacher fumbles the lesson plan, thinks to himself "But at least I share a common identity with the kids in Bronxville's public school system whose cars I will someday have the privilege of parking"?

Actually, this makes me think that a lot of the opposition to vouchers is about that affluent suburbanite's need to maintain the delusion that they care about inner city public schools. Memo to suburban voucher opponents who "support public education": you're already sending your kid to private school. You're just confused because your tuition fees came bundled with granite countertops and hardwood floors.

8) Vouchers don't make things any better; they just give the appearance of working by pulling the successful away from the unsuccessful, in the process dooming the latter to failure As I said before, you can't have it both ways. Either the school environment matters--in which case, this argument is false--or they don't matter, in which case it can't harm the unsuccessful kids to lose the successful ones.

Or perhaps you think peer effects are the only thing that matters--in which case, we should close the damn schools and let the kids go to work, where at least they'll get some money in exchange for not learning much.

And morally, as I said in my earlier post, unless you have chosen to live in the inner city and allow your kids to bring up the tone of the place, you have no [expletive deleted] right to say that someone else's kids should be left in a failing school for the benefit of a third set of kids.

9) I don't want my tax dollars used to pay for religious education Waaaaaaah. The fundamentalist down the block doesn't want his tax dollars used to pay for teaching evolution. I don't want my tax dollars used for 97% of the things my tax dollars are used for; welcome to representative democracy. And in Catholic schools, where most of the vouchers would be used, the religious education is voluntary; lots of non-Catholic kids go there without being proselytized. If this bothers you that much, we can discuss requiring schools that accept vouchers to make religious education optional. But let's go back to why we're debating this policy in the first place: the kids. This is about the kids, right? And which is worse: that junior might hear, once a week, some sort of religious message which, to judge by the people I know who went to parochial school, has a fairly dim chance of sticking; or that junior won't be able to read and write and will spend the rest of his life moving heavy things from one place to another?

10) Vouchers wouldn't pay the tuition at a top-notch private school Okay, I went to the school that is now vying with Matt Yglesias' alma mater for the title of "Most expensive private school in New York City". It gave me a terrific education, better than that received by any of the kids from expensive suburban public schools with whom I went to college. But talk about making the perfect the enemy of the good! A private school doesn't need to be Groton in order to make it worthwhile sending needy kids there; it just needs to be better than the hell-hole they currently attend. And frankly, that's a really, really low bar. There are a lot of kids for whom a trip to Chuck E. Cheese would be safer and more educational than a day at their district school. I could just as easily turn around and use this argument to prove that we oughtn't to have public schools unless every last one can be Dallas's Talented and Gifted magnet school.

11) There's no way to assure the quality of private schools Ha. Ha. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Seriously? The problem with private schools is that they can't match the same level of quality we've come to expect from our urban public school system? And what else have you learned in your visit to our planet?

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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