Vouchers

For all of the extensive huffing and puffing on the subject of school vouchers over at McMegan's place, I'm still left totally baffled as to what it is she's actually proposing, and doubly baffled by her steadfast refusal to say what she's proposing:

Either you agree that poor kids should be allowed to exit until the system works for them, or they don't. My model of voucher beliefs predicts that people will get angry at me when I challenge their beliefs without changing their minds, and indeed, they are right. And myself, I'm too angry on the subject to do much good. The people saying that they want details before they'll commit: look, obviously design matters. If you concede the right of exit, I'm happy to debate details. But until you do, it's a waste of time.

First off, as Ezra says, the United States already "allows" poor parents to withdraw their children from inner city school systems in much the same way that it allows rich and middle class parents to withdraw their children from inner city school systems. They're "allowed" to send their kids to a private school that's willing to educate them, and they're "allowed" to move elsewhere. Obviously, in practice poor families have less practical capacity to do this. But by the same token, poor families have less practical capacity to live on streets with well-appointed sidewalks, to choose cruelty-free meat, tto get health care, to benefit from competently organized disaster relief, to live in neighborhoods with low murder rates, and all kinds of other things. These are all real problems but since they're problems of practical capacity rather than permission (about the fair value of the right, rather than the existence of the right) institutional design is about all that matters.

One needs to go back to what we know about educating poor children. One thing we know is that it's very difficult. The schools that do a good job of educating poor kids tend to expend more resources than do schools that do a good job of educating middle class kids. We also know that there are many schools that produce good overall results but that nonetheless produce bad results with their poor children. We know that some urban public school systems do better than others. We know that the charter school movement has produced some successful models, but also that market demand can keep a healthy number of non-successful charter schools operating because parents do a less-than-perfect job of making school placement decisions on the basis of evidence about educational outcomes.

If we're concerned not about the "right" of exit (which already exists) but the practical ability to get a better education, then you need policies that increase the supply of schools that do a good job of educating poor children. Just handing a voucher to every family in DC that can manage to place a kid in a private school would be a nice subsidy to the parents at Sidwell and St. Albans and would presumably get some poor kids into better situations, but would still, in practice, leave most DC families right where they are today — with the "right" to send their kids elsewhere, but no practical ability to do so.

Maybe that'd be a change for the better. In DC, which is about the worst-case scenario for an urban school system, I'd find that claim plausible. Elsewhere, it might do more harm than good. But in neither case would it address the issue in a comprehensive way. Which, I think, is one of the main attractions of the voucher concept — it lets people get indignant about the sorry state of public education by basically assuming the problem away, thus avoiding the need to deal with the real issues.

Photo by Flickr user Sfllaw used under a Creative Commons license

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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