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The Rhubarb Patch: School vouchers

Introduction: 8/29/2000

The punching and counter-punching over school vouchers already has begun this political season. And that’s just on the Democratic ticket! But seriously, folks…

Whether public funds should be diverted to private schools in the name of parental choice will be a big issue in the fall campaign.

Are vouchers a great idea to improve education from those who place the interests of children first? Or, as I’m inclined to believe, are they a nutty nostrum promoted by teacher-bashing ideologues who pay lip service to the disadvantaged but don’t care if they destroy public education as long as they get your money to promote their value systems?

To help me explore these and related questions, voucher proponent George Clowes has agreed to join me in the Rhubarb Patch, a Web site for e-mail discussions that begin here and then continue for several more rounds on the Tribune’s Internet site. Clowes, the managing editor of School Reform News, a Heartland Institute publication goes first:

To Eric Zorn:

The idea behind school vouchers is that parents should control the spending of their education tax dollars and direct them to schools of their choice. This isn’t such a radical idea for a government program. It’s how Social Security works: seniors control the spending of their retirement tax dollars and direct them to goods and services of their choice. What’s good for seniors is good for parents.

Public education and Social Security each has annual taxpayer outlays of between $300 and $400 billion a year, but the outlays are distributed quite differently. The tax dollars for public education are distributed to school districts, which are required to give an accounting of how every dollar is spent. With Social Security, tax dollars are distributed to qualified individuals who are not required to provide any accounting for how they spend the money.

One reform proposal that has not been voiced for Social Security–with good reason–is to restructure it after the public education model, so that tax dollars are distributed to organizations qualified to provide efficient services to senior citizens rather than having seniors spend the money for themselves. However, the fundamental idea underlying school voucher proposals is to restructure public education after the Social Security model, so that tax dollars are distributed to parents to spend at qualified educational institutions that they choose–public or private, secular or religious.

As we have seen with charter schools, government-owned and government-operated schools are not the only means of delivering public education. Any school that provides a child with a good education serves the purpose of public education.

To George Clowes:

       Whenever I start thinking through the idea of vouchers–when I get beyond the utopian slogans and capitalistic bromides about the elevating value of competition–I quickly reach a vision of chaos.

I see public schools trying to educate the left-behind students with less money than they had before. I see snarky entrepreneurs starting up lightly regulated, bare-bones private schools selling false hopes and hocus-pocus to parents in order to have at their voucher money. I see good private schools raising tuition and admission standards in order to keep out kids they consider undesirable.

I see transportation, enrollment and special-education nightmares for parents. I see the emergence of a private-school culture in which we further segregate ourselves by race, income, religion, ethnicity and so on, and in which shabby, defunded public schools cater only to problem kids–those with various disorders or with parents who just don’t care. I see teaching devalued as a profession as pay for teachers falls. I hope to learn your contrasting vision when this conversation moves onto the Internet: Voucher proponents speak of “school choice,” but how much choice will there really be for the poor? Will they have the same kind of choice in schools as they have in, say, local supermarkets or housing? And why are you waving the white flag on public education? Why don’t we put our brainpower and our education tax resources into making public schools as successful and enriching as we can?

To Eric Zorn:

Before we get sidetracked on debating how vouchers might affect student transportation, special education, teacher pay, and so on, we need to get back to the fundamental issue that vouchers raise — and voucher opponents don’t like to address — and that’s the issue of parental choice in education: Should parents have a say in where their child is educated, or should that choice be made by public school officials? Should parents be able to choose the school that they consider is best for their child, or should an administrator assign their child to a school? And that choice is really about money: Should parents be allowed to direct where their education tax dollars are spent, or should school officials choose how to allocate those dollars?

The voucher issue turns on an issue as old as government itself: Why do we levy taxes for education? We levy education taxes on ourselves so that the next generation might acquire the skills necessary to earn a living, the knowledge required to sustain our form of government, and the civility needed to participate in a free society. Until the early 1800s, many local communities in the United States taxed themselves to pay for the school run by their local church. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, most education was delivered by means of locally-controlled public schools. During the last half century, consolidation of school districts and increased funding and regulation from the state and federal governments have considerably diminished the opportunity for local control of public schools. Today, we raise more taxes for education than for national defense, spending more than $300 billion annually on K-12 education, or roughly $6,000 for each of the nation’s approximately 50 million elementary and secondary students. Here in Illinois, more than half of those taxes are raised locally though property taxes, another third is raised through state taxes, and about seven percent comes from federal taxes.

So we raise taxes for education — but what are those taxes for? Are those taxes raised for the primary purpose of educating children or are they raised for the primary purpose of maintaining public schools? The 1970 Illinois Constitution quite clearly makes the education of children the primary goal:

“A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities. The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law. The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.”

In other words, the primary aim is to educate ALL the state’s children. That goal is to be accomplished not only by providing public schools — which are to be “efficient” and “high quality” — but also by providing other means of “free education” as lawmakers may decide. Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings indicate that these other means of “free education” may include private schools, both secular and religious. The Court’s decisions on voucher-related cases over the past 20 years have supported the spending of tax dollars in non-government schools as long as that was the choice of the parent, not the government. For example, in the Mitchell v. Helms case just a few months ago, a majority of the justices endorsed the idea of government treating all schools, all parents and all children equally, or neutrally. The court ruled that federal aid may be provided to parochial schools when the aid is distributed on a neutral per-pupil basis to students in all the district’s schools, both public and private, secular and religious.

So we tax ourselves for the education of all children and it’s constitutionally kosher to allow parents to take their education tax dollars to a school that’s not owned and operated by the government. What, then, is the objection of voucher opponents to allowing parents to take their education tax dollars not just to a public charter school but also to a private school? What is wrong with parents choosing the school that they consider best for their child — and having their education tax dollars follow their child to that school? Why should anyone other than the mother or father decide where their child should go to school? What is the rationale for denying choice to parents?

As with any change, there will be consequences from implementing vouchers.

Many of the potentially undesirable consequences can be foreseen and addressed in the enabling legislation while others can be addressed later.

But before we consider and address consequences, we have to weigh the pro and con arguments on parental choice. Voucher proponents argue that it is a matter of justice for parents to be given the option of choosing their child’s school. Voucher opponents say that parents should not have this choice. Let’s hear their reasons for denying school choice to parents — without resorting to “a vision of chaos” in the future. There were similar predictions of dire consequences before Lincoln freed the slaves and before Congress gave women the vote, but the real issue was why should African-Americans be denied freedom and why should women be denied the vote.

Here, we need to hear from opponents why parents should be denied a choice of public, private and religious schools.

In my original piece, I tried to focus on what I regarded as the essential issue raised by vouchers: Vouchers give control of a child’s education to parents rather than to elected officials, bureaucrats or educators. Thus, I didn’t resort to “capitalist bromides,” advocate the virtues of competition, or indulge in “utopian slogans” to support my position. I simply proposed that we give parents access to tax dollars to support their decision about the best way to educate their child. Because we have to face the choice question first, I didn’t discuss how to implement vouchers, or how to handle transportation logistics, special education students, enrollment issues, regulation, or what might happen to tuition levels or teacher salaries.

Nowhere did I “wav(e) the white flag on public education.”

Your response did, however, raise a very important practical issue that is germane to the State Constitution’s directive to provide for an “efficient” system of “high quality” public schools. He asked: “Why don’t we put our brainpower and our education tax resources into making public schools as successful and enriching as we can?” As Florida’s recent experience with vouchers has amply demonstrated, a very effective way to get brainpower and education resources statewide focused on making all public schools better is to give parents a voucher to send their children to a private school.

But let’s get back to my basic argument for school vouchers, which is that parents should control the spending of their education tax dollars and direct them to schools of their choice, just as seniors spend their Social Security dollars on goods and services of their choosing. Part of the reason for linking school vouchers and Social Security is because both are major issues in the presidential contest between Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore. Their reform proposals take the nation in completely opposite directions, one towards more freedom and the other away from freedom.

The reform proposals that Bush and Gore have developed for the public schools and Social Security boil down to two very simple questions:

Should Americans be given more control over saving their Social Security dollars so that they can choose where to invest it? Bush says “Yes;” Gore says “No.”

Should Americans be given more control over spending their public education dollars so that they can choose schools for their children? Bush says “Yes;” Gore says “No.”

Providing parents with school vouchers would fundamentally restructure the funding of schools after the Social Security model, so that tax dollars raised for education would be distributed to qualified educational institutions based on the choices of parents, not administrators.

Charter schools — which essentially involve vouchers restricted to public schools — have shown that government-owned and government-operated schools are not the only means of delivering public education. We need to recognize that any school which successfully educates children serves the purpose of public education.

What is so objectionable about parents choosing schools for their children? Why should parents be denied a choice of public, private, and religious schools for their children if all of these schools are qualified by the state to deliver K-12 education? Sure, there are all kinds of practical considerations that can be raised as objections to school choice but what is the moral argument against school choice? Americans once heard plenty of practical considerations that were deployed very effectively to delay the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of women, but the moral argument — that slaves and women were inferior — was unsustainable. If there is a moral argument against school vouchers today, let’s hear it. (August 22, 2000)

To George Clowes:

I hope that we’re not going to talk past each other in this discussion, George, as that will ultimately be very unenlightening. My rough answer to the mantra of your challenge is that we can’t separate the moral from the practical here, as we can’t in many policy debates. The practical considerations you want to set aside for later are exactly those considerations that go into the central “moral” question: What kind of society do we wish to live in? What sort of school funding system best reflects and enhances that vision?

Let’s back up. What’s the moral justification for compelling person Y to fork over his money for the education of the children of person X? Your answer to this was eloquent and persuasive—“so that the next generation might acquire the skills necessary to earn a living, the knowledge required to sustain our form of government, and the civility needed to participate in a free society”–but it was a practical answer, not a moral one. What you are saying (and I agree with) is that certain results are so important in the promulgation and defense of our values that they trump the “moral” argument against them — in this case the principle that one ought to be able to keep and spend as one sees fit all the money one earns.

I don’t want to lead us too far into the swamp of small-government big-government arguments, because pretty soon we’ll be dickering over health care, public libraries, military expenditures and tax policy in general. But the moral argument against school choice boils down to an objection to its anticipated practical effects on our society and culture. It’s similar to an objection I’d raise if you proposed privatizing sidewalks, parks or Social Security. It’s precisely because a voucher system would likely be chaotic and divisive and ultimately harm disadvantaged and dispossessed kids most of all that I have a moral objection to it.

So you’re going to have to humor me and talk specifics if we’re going to get anywhere. You’re going to have to demonstrate not just that there is principle you find neat and tidy to support the idea that “public education” means families get public money to educate their kids however they wish, but that this is likely the best route to improving education in America.

In theory it would be lovely if parents of all income levels, races and faiths had a variety of excellent, well-equipped, safe, clean schools staffed by skilled and dedicated teachers from which they could choose, and if those schools ultimately served our national ideals in all ways. I will grant you that utopian vision, and it’s one that might actually be realized in certain wealthier areas. Chicago’s North Shore comes to mind.

But would North Shore parents embrace a voucher program generous enough to allow inner-city kids to attend, say, New Trier or Highland Park High? Experience in the Cleveland area suggested that suburban parents really aren’t *that* committed to choice. Are you?

In reality, poor and most middle-income kids wouldn’t have many good choices at all unless taxpayers put a whole lot more money into the system than we’re putting now. Why? Because a sustainable voucher program would inevitably drain money from the current public schools.

Are you familiar with the game SimCity and all its various offshoots?

SimTower, SimAnt and so on — computerized simulations in which the player creates a closed system that then begins to operate logically? I’d like to start a game of SimVoucher right here in this discussion.

Let’s start with the town of Smallville, 500 families with 1000 school-aged kids. 600 send their kids to Ordinary School, a public K-12; 200 send their kids to Heaven Academy, a parochial school and 200 send their kids to Fancy Prep, a private, non-sectarian school. Ordinary operates on a budget of $6,000 a year per pupil— $3.6 million a year. Heaven charges $4,000 tuition; Fancy, $8,000.

The train arrives one day carrying a man selling parents an alluring idea: “Choice! With a capital C that rhymes with V that stands for Vouchers! Why should you let the gummint tell you where to spend the educational dollars allocated to your children? It should be your choice. Take the $6,000 that Smallville bureaucrats and educrats spend promulgating their godless curriculum and bloated unions and spend it on the education of your choice!”

The parents are seduced by this idea: “Make the schools compete for my $6,000!” they say and they pass a full-blown voucher plan.

Let’s say the parents of half the students at Ordinary decide to pull their kids out and use their voucher money elsewhere: 100 apply to Heaven; 100 to Fancy and the other 100 kids are kept home (I’m assuming home schooling would be a supported choice).

The budget for Ordinary is then halved. But, of course, just because they have half the students doesn’t mean their expenses have been halved. It will cost them roughly the same to heat, illuminate and maintain the buildings, and while a certain number of classroom teachers and even a few administrators could be cut, Ordinary School would still have, say, a gym teacher, a music teacher, an art teacher, a librarian, a nurse, a social worker, bus routes, cafeteria workers and so on.

The average cost per pupil is not the marginal cost of any individual pupil.

If you have 25 kids in a classroom and get one more, the additional cost to your school of educating him may be quite small; if you have 30 kids and you get one more such that policy on maximum class size law forces you to split the class and hire another teacher and rent a portable classroom, the additional cost of one student may be enormous.

So Ordinary School has to make due with less. Maybe the art program goes or the reading tutor gets the broom or the school play doesn’t happen, the textbooks don’t get replaced. The teachers don’t get a raise.

Over at Heaven School, things look up. They’re able to raise tuition to $6,000 and parents of the original 200 students, relieved of their tuition burden, are generous in their donations. Only problem–overcrowding. Some of the kids transferring from Ordinary have different religious beliefs than those taught at Heaven. So Heaven’s principal decides to expel those 100 students. Old operating budget: $4,000 x 200 students — $800,000/year. New budget: $6,000 x 200 students — $1.2 million plus extra donations.

Fancy Prep administrators are speaking privately to one another of their riff-raff problem. Too many applicants now, many not from among the clientele they built their school to serve. They raise their tuition to $12,000–their original parents don’t mind because, with the voucher, their share of $6,000, is still 25 percent less than it was without the voucher. They up their admission standards, offer a few scholarships and, one way or another drum out 100 kids, keep their enrollment at 200 while their annual operating budget grows from $1.6 million to $2.4 million.

Heaven boosts its teacher pay. Fancy does the same, and also hires away several of the best veteran teachers from Ordinary, which is becoming less attractive by the day.

Who’s left at Ordinary School? Lower income kids. Disabled kids. Problem kids. Kids whose parents aren’t particularly interested in education. Kids who aren’t smart enough or religious enough to get into Heaven or Fancy.

Enter the entrepreneurs selling storefront schools, correspondence education, phonics and memorization programs, schools for fringe groups of all sorts.

Their come on: Pull your kids out that ratty, falling-down Ordinary and send them and their vouchers to us.

Then, because this is a Sim game, a huge dragon marches through town and incinerates everything with its breath of fire. Reset. Your turn.

You burden me to come up with a moral justification for denying parents the right to spend their children’s per-pupil share of education tax dollars on the schools of their choice. My answer is that I strongly believe the result of this would be deleterious and would harm the larger moral principle upon which the concept of public education is based. It would end up hurting more kids that it would help; it might well help the kids who need it least — those who have parents with the intellectual, emotional and financial resources to make active and savvy decisions about the education of their children — and hurt the ones who are already in trouble. It would divide and harm society, a moral wrong that outweighs the moral wrong of narrowed educational choice.

This is the foundation of my opposition to vouchers. It has nothing to do with support for teachers’ unions or fealty to public institutions because they serve me or my power interests in particular. Indeed I’d see an immediate cash benefit should Chicago get a voucher system, as one of my three children is in private school. What forms the foundation of your advocacy? (August 25, 2000)

To Eric Zorn:

I think we’re making progress.

While we still may disagree on what vouchers could produce, we’ve found that we do agree on a very fundamental point: If we levy taxes for the education of the young, then it is morally wrong to deny parents a choice of schools for their children (“the moral wrong of narrowed educational choice,” as you put it). In other words, we both agree that under our present system of funding public education, parents have the moral right to choose which school their tax dollars should go to, be it public, private, or parochial.

Now, I would be happy for us to end the debate right here since my basic argument was that parents do have this right and that it is wrong for the government to deny it to them. However, you go on to argue that you believe the consequences of allowing parents to exercise this freedom “would divide and harm society, a moral wrong that outweighs the moral wrong of narrowed educational choice.” So the basis of your opposition to vouchers is your belief that negative consequences for society would result from parents actually exercising their right to choose schools for their children. You consider those consequences to be so dire for society that you would pass a law to impose a moral wrong on parents and deny them a choice of schools.

When a law is proposed that would rein in the limits to the accepted boundaries of individual freedom, the primary obligation for justifying that action lies with those who want the restrictions. I served three terms as an elected official in Mount Prospect and got to understand the process for imposing limitations on the freedom of our citizens, whether it had to do with restricting underage drinking, imposing new rules on landlords, or requiring backflow prevention valves on water supply lines. Using that model, here’s my understanding of your case against vouchers:

WHEREAS the people of this state have authorized the levying of taxes on themselves so that all the children of the state may be educated to the limits of their capacities;

WHEREAS the state of Illinois is authorized and empowered to insure domestic tranquility and to assure social justice;

WHEREAS the freedom of parents to direct their education tax dollars to the school of their choice is believed to help only the children of the affluent, to hurt the children of the poor, and to produce various other divisive effects such that said freedom poses a threat to domestic tranquillity and social justice;

NOW THEREFORE BE IT ORDAINED AS FOLLOWS: That the freedom of parents to choose private or religious schools for their children shall be discouraged for the affluent and made virtually impossible for the poor by permitting no taxes for education to be used either directly or indirectly for education in schools that are owned and operated by for-profit firms, non-profit groups, or religious institutions.

That’s your case against vouchers, as I understand it. Its “discouragement” of non-public schooling contrasts sharply with the following ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court:

“The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

This ruling came 75 years ago in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a case where the Ku Klux Klan had prevailed on the Oregon legislature to make attendance at a public school compulsory, thus outlawing private and parochial schools. But there’s little practical difference for a poor family between the state ordering their children into a public school by the force of law, as the Klan did, and the state establishing an economic force that achieves 90 percent of the same objective.

What your argument still requires is evidence to support your belief that vouchers would harm and divide society. I don’t think a speculative “vision of chaos” does that, which is why I didn’t respond to it in your first article.

Let’s move on to your simulation. Here’s my response:

First, there aren’t many cities where 40 percent of the children attend nonpublic schools; nationally, it’s about 12 percent.

Second, parochial school tuition is usually less than half the per-pupil cost at public schools.

Third, voucher values are usually less than the per-pupil cost in public schools.

Your assumptions result in the cost of public schooling in Smallville jumping from $3.6 million before you introduce vouchers to $5.4 million afterwards. I have yet to see a voucher proposal that would require raising education taxes by 50 percent, as yours does.

Let’s try another scenario:

  1. START:

A town with 500 families:

900 children at public school at $6,000/year ($5.4 million budget);
75 attend parochial school at $2,000/year ($150,000 budget);
25 attend private school at $8,000/year ($200,000 budget).

Total school taxes: $5.4 million.

Total community spending on education: $5.75 million


Add a $4,000 voucher ($2,000 for homeschool students):

700 children now at public school at $6,000/year ($4.2 million budget);
150 now attend parochial school, with tuition now at $3,000/year ($450,000 budget, all from vouchers);
50 now attend private school at $8,000/year ($400,000 budget, half from vouchers);
100 now are homeschooled at $2,000/student ($200,000 budget, all from vouchers);

Total school taxes: $5.05 million

Total community spending on education: $5.25 million

Tax savings: $350,000

If these tax savings from a more cost-effective mix of schooling are sent to the public school, spending there could rise to $4.55 million, or $6,500/year per student.

If more students transferred from the public school to private school or to home schools, the savings would be greater and all could be used to increase per-pupil spending at the public school, if this was felt to be necessary.


The outcome is that spending on education is the same or lower, but parents now are able to send their children to schools that they think best meet their educational needs. The amount of money spent on education isn’t much different from before, but the mix has changed to reflect the parents’ preferences. Now, parents decide which schools will get the money, not school administrators. Now, school administrators have to satisfy parents in order to get the money.

I regard this as a more realistic simulation. It’s easy to run countless others but the question is: How well does the simulation reflect what happens when vouchers are introduced? Fortunately, we have a summary of evidence from school choice programs that was assembled by professors Frederick Hess, Robert Maranto and Scott Milliman earlier this year. They found an increasing number of researchers are starting to agree on the following points:

  • Current voucher schemes serve primarily low-income, minority parents;
  • Voucher programs do not help the middle class pay private school tuition, they help African American and Hispanic children escape from bad schools;
  • Initial research suggests that students of different races interact as much or more in private than in public schools;
  • Most parents and students are more satisfied with private schools than with their previous public schools;
  • Despite fears that religious schooling might divide Americans along sectarian lines, survey research analysis finds that private schools do a better job than public schools of preparing students for democracy (i.e., involvement in community service, fostering tolerance, etc.);
  • Vouchers do not appear to harm existing public schools (In fact, more recent results from Florida show that vouchers actually spur public schools to do better);
  • The vast majority of voucher program evaluations show that students using vouchers to attend private schools achieve test scores gains equal to or a bit better than comparable students who stayed in public schools.

This is not Utopia, but it’s certainly not chaos.

Finally, you ask what forms the foundation of my advocacy of vouchers?

It’s not because vouchers would help me personally. Both of my children received good educations in our local public schools. Nor am I looking to promote my religion or anyone else’s. I advocate vouchers because they treat all children even-handedly: Here’s your opportunity — make the best of it.

I also support vouchers because I see them as a means of changing children’s lives. I grew up on a farm in England, where we didn’t have much money. I attended a Church of England school that was part of the public education system there and earned the opportunity to attend a publicly-funded college prep school. Going to that school totally changed my life. I want to make sure that as many children as possible also get the opportunity to use education to change their lives and I see vouchers as providing them with the best chance to do that. (9-6-2000)

To George Clowes:

Nice try.

I spent some 1,420 words putting a fine point on the “moral” argument and setting in context the statement about the “moral wrong of narrowed educational choice,” and I think a fair re-reading of the last two posts would reveal that you ripped it from that context to claim that we are in agreement on one of *your* fundamental claims.

We’re not.

Perhaps a better set of terms than the loaded “moral” and “immoral,” with all the baggage they carry, would be “ideal” and “sub-optimal.” Ideally, all parents would be able to choose whatever school they thought best for their children–say the Latin School in Chicago. Safe, well appointed, clean and so on. And just as ideally, all children would grow up in safe households on safe streets and be given access to great nutrition and the best health care medical science can offer. Ideally their parents would have good paying jobs and no one would pay taxes, and so on. So did I–do we–err when we put such concepts of the ideal into moral terms?

Perhaps. Certainly it is a red herring in this discussion, as it is you and not I who wishes to make the leap that our tax dollars must necessarily chase any single perceived moral truth to its end, no matter what the consequences.

In fact, what strikes me about the pure “choice” argument based on a claim of morality is that it works just fine whether or not the overall educational result is positive or negative. It’s akin to the arguments of the Second Amendment purists who feel that no amount of blood in the streets could ever justify any infringement on the right to bear any sort of arms. “It’s not the result, it’s the principle.”

Yet, again, I don’t concede the argument on principle to you. With this issue as with so many others, what we’re really dealing with is the clash of principles and desired results–value standing against value, an attempted balancing act of equities and ideals to achieve larger social aims. And in this case the central question we’re wrestling with is one of whether yielding to this ideal of maximum school choice would harm the pursuit of maximum educational quality for the greatest number of children.

I propose we stipulate that neither of us is a tools of Godless-public-school bashing or teacher-union-until-death ideologues, and that our difference is a sincere policy dispute in which the goal is fundamentally the same–the best education for America’s kids. Fair enough?

Now. When you attempt to put the burden on me by writing, “When a law is proposed that would rein in the limits to the accepted boundaries of individual freedom, the primary obligation for justifying that action lies with those who want the restrictions,” you are moving the discussion into the realm of libertarian rhetoric, which doesn’t advance the ball much. In fact, public schooling and the present-day funding situation is the status quo and has been for some time, and the burden is squarely on you in the political and social arena to make the case for change, as it would be if I came to you and advanced, say, a moral argument for universal health-care coverage or for privatizing/voucherizing all the public parks.

You can’t use abstractions to assume your way into a rhetorical victory in the rhubarb patch. What works or will work is where the rubber meets the road for education, so let’s talk about that instead of factually irrelevant Supreme Court decisions or your facile summaries of my position:

First, to the simulation game. Careful readers will notice that you have reduced the Heaven Academy tuition from $4,000 a year to $2,000 a year, a third of the per-pupil cost of public education. Such a deal!

This begins to get at a very critical question in this debate: Why are private schools (or parochial schools) cheaper to run than public schools? Where does Heaven Academy cut corners or, alternatively/simultaneously where does Ordinary School throw its money down a rathole? What are the differences that an observer would note if he spent a couple of weeks in both schools and examined their books, their methods, etc.?

Are the public schools asked to do more for society than the private schools? Asked, say, to keep students that private schools wouldn’t accept or would boot out? Asked to absorb a higher percentage of children from dysfunctional homes? Asked to provide a broader range of services, amenities and programs? Asked to pay a sustaining wage to teachers of the sort that assures that the teaching profession will continue to attract bright young people? What’s the difference? This is important to the funding argument because these savings that you anticipate under vouchers are coming from somewhere, and we need to know if these savings and/or lowered per-pupil expenditures will cut meat or fat and of what nature as the money gets moved around.

Another stipulation for the sake of argument: If you take a group of children out of a public school that has below-average test scores and put them into a private school, their test scores will tend to improve. It seems to me that academics are proudly flourishing such evidence to suggest that “voucher experiments” have been a success, but that it told us what we already knew: In general, private schools have better learning environments than public schools.

You see this as an answer. I see it as a question. Why? And how? Is it impossible for us to glean insights from private education and translate them to public education–to, in effect, model our public schools after high-performing private schools, thereby affording *all* children, not just those whose parents are going to be voucher savvy and make clever, informed school choices, access to the best that we can offer?

These “voucher experiments” are, as far as I can tell, pretty much just opportunity-scholarship projects and they reveal little that’s helpful or surprising or useful. In fact the only thing surprising about them is how uncompelling the test-score results are in most cases. Only African-American kids benefited in a study released recently—why not the other kids?

These results tell us very little if anything about the entire picture a few years into a voucher conversion.

The voucher schemes (your word) that “serve primarily low-income, minority parents” and “help African American and Hispanic children escape from bad schools” do not realize your vision at all, as I understand it. You talk about vouchers and not about scholarships or grants because the idea is not some sort of educational food-stamp program for the neediest, but an expansion of this idea from the poorest ghetto to the richest suburb, am I right?

And the idea that the pressure of voucher-based competition will help the “bad schools” improve as you say they have in Florida overlooks the key question: How do these “bad schools” get better under pressure? Were any of the instituted reforms impossible or unthinkable pre-voucher?

I object to what I see as the voucher proponents’ naked eagerness to discard public education and replace it with a patchwork of private schools that stand likely to use taxpayer funds to perform or support functions that would not generally be of the sort we have in mind when we as a society agree to contribute to a common fund to educate our children.

It would seem to me objectionable, not just unconstitutional, to ask taxpayers to support the religious indoctrination of certain people’s children. If you as a parent choose to send your child to a religious school rather than the public school on the next block that, say, achieves very similar test scores, and your reasons have to do with moral and spiritual aims, not traditional “educational” aims, why is there any obligation on the part of taxpayers to support that choice?

Do you envision parochial schools that accept vouchers being required to allow all voucher-using students to opt out of religious lessons and observances? Do you envision them being required to adopt consistent, “blind” admissions policies that don’t favor those of one faith over another? If not, to what degree can these schools begin, if they choose, to emulate social clubs and other institutions where the right of freedom of association allows the exclusion of various “others?”

The vision of the voucher folks is of a vast, available, affordable network of good private schools that may offer a gentle but optional religious component but otherwise stick to the non-denominational purposes of education. But the reality, under a fully-realized school-choice-for-all program is, at best, unknown–a pretty big crapshoot that might leave the least fortunate children at a greater disadvantage than they now are.

To justify taking that kind of gamble, your side has to support the proposition that there are concrete, immutable reasons why public education inherently cannot achieve its legitimate, tax-funded purpose better than private schools as supported by a voucher system. (9-11-2000)

To Eric Zorn:

Oh, dear. When you said “(Vouchers) would divide and harm society, a moral wrong that outweighs the moral wrong of narrowed educational choice,” I naturally assumed that “the moral wrong of narrowed educational choice” was the equivalent of you saying “narrowed educational choice is a moral wrong.” I stand corrected — but what point, then, were you trying to make about restricting choice?

I think we do agree on ends — high quality education for all children — but not on means. You want education taxes to go only to government officials so that they decide how to educate children. I’d rather the taxes go to parents so that they decide how their children are to be educated. I’m sure part of my thinking comes from my citizenship book, where it says: “(G)overnment in a democracy is intended to serve us, and not just to order us around…”

You object to school vouchers because you believe the practical consequences would be to harm and divide society in a variety of ways — by skimming the cream and leaving the most needy students behind, by helping savvy parents more than less savvy ones, and by leaving fewer resources for those schools serving the most troubled students. That’s your hypothesis. Is there any evidence to support it?

Studies of private secular and religious schools in general — independent of vouchers — indicate that they are more integrated than public schools and do a better job than the public schools of fostering tolerance and preparing students for citizenship.

As I indicated in my last post, recent voucher and scholarship programs show no evidence of ill-effects, no creaming, academic results at least as good as the public schools, and more satisfied parents, children and teachers. But I do not accept your stipulation that private schools — whether they select their students or not — are inherently better than public schools and that we just need to model public schools after high-performing private schools. There are high-performing general admission public schools in high-minority, low-income areas that public school officials could use as reform models, too — but most don’t.

The voucher program in Milwaukee — the nation’s 26th largest school district — has been running for 10 years this month. The program has caused a notable increase in racial balance in Milwaukee’s private schools. There is no evidence of ill-effects, only of an increasing effort by the public schools to improve their performance, thus helping those children “left behind.” Florida’s schools also improved dramatically during this past year in response to vouchers. Before vouchers, neither Milwaukee’s or Florida’s public schools showed signs of self-initiated reform.

Yes, many of these experiments are limited in scope and length. However, we do have some longer-running programs that show many benefits with none of the ill-effects that you envision. There’s no evidence that more than a hundred years of private school choice in Vermont — which until recently included religious schools — has harmed society in that state. Also, we have more than 50 years of experience with the GI Bill, a tax-funded voucher program that pays for secular and religious instruction in higher education. The GI Bill opened up American universities to blacks, Jews and Catholics, who hitherto had faced discrimination.

There’s also the example of school choice in Denmark, where education money goes to public and private schools — including religious schools — which are allowed to set their own admission standards. The independent schools are required to charge parents for part of the tuition, but this is waived for low-income students. The open competition between these schools has produced what one observer calls “a diversity of educational alternatives in Denmark that is unparalleled in the Western world.” Denmark’s public schools are considered to be just as good as the independent schools.

In short, there’s no evidence to validate your hypothesis that a school voucher system would produce undesirable results. Even though you may not like the idea of parents spending their education tax dollars at religious schools, there’s no evidence that this harms or divides society — in fact, there’s even some evidence to the contrary.

Of course, this evidence won’t put a stop to objections to vouchers. There are too many people in positions of influence or authority standing in front of failing public schools and piling up objection after objection as a barricade to prevent low-income parents from getting their children out of these schools and into a better one. Last year, Education Secretary Richard Riley said that we should treat a failing school like it was a house on fire. Your response seems to be: “It shouldn’t be on fire, you know.”

These objections prevent the deploying of rescue operations to help the millions of parents who are desperate to get their children out of these schools, but can’t afford it. Polls show poor minority families overwhelmingly want vouchers. Their children are most often the ones “left behind” by the selective admission policies of public magnet schools. When the Children’s Education Fund offered $1,000 four-year half-tuition scholarships to families earning less than $21,000 a year, more than a million children applied for the 40,000 slots. These are not “rich kids” whose parents already can afford to send them to a private school. The public schools spend over $6,000 for each of these students; all the parents want is a measly $1,000.

If all of these children switched to private schools, the pubic schools would be much less crowded, there’d be much less of a teacher shortage, and the public schools would have $6 billion more to spend on the remaining “left behind” children. Is it too much to ask to spend $1 billion of that $6 billion — less than 1/3 of one percent of what is spent annually on public education — to give these million children a chance at a better education? That’s all their parents want. Or do you think these parents are just too ignorant to understand that their children have to stay where they are for the good of society?

Is $2,000 enough? It’s certainly enough for half of the nation’s private elementary schools, where the median (middle value) for tuition is $2,115. Even for secondary private schools, the median tuition is $4,116 — two thirds of the average cost per student at public schools. We’re talking about neighborhood private schools here, not Exeter or Andover.

Regarding some of your other questions:

Should we consider the school choice issue in terms of efficiency, aiming to sub-optimize among selected ideals? I don’t think so. If you had argued in the 1850s that slaves had a right to be free, you wouldn’t have been impressed with a plantation owner who told you that slavery wasn’t a moral issue but just a conflict of ideals — as well as warning you of the chaos that would ensue if slaves were given their freedom. Also, had you been a woman’s suffrage supporter in the late 1800s, you would have scoffed at the argument that women weren’t savvy enough to choose good candidates.

Am I required to provide the justification for school choice because public schools are the status quo? I think not. As I noted in an earlier post, slavery once was the status quo. Women once were barred from voting, too — in fact Susan B. Anthony was put on trial for disturbing the peace by voting in an election. But the fundamental argument against both slavery and the disenfranchisement of women was a moral one: Should slaves be free to choose, or should a plantation overseer decide what’s best for them? Should women have the vote, or should men decide what’s best for them? With school choice the issue is: Should parents have a choice of schools, or should the local superintendent decide what’s best for them? Slaves, women, and parents all should be free to choose. Why is it that you regard parents as incapable of making a responsible choice of schools?

Your objection to parental choice recalls the 1931 Minnesota v. Near case, where the state shut down Jay Near’s scurrilous newspaper for the irresponsible exercise of its First Amendment rights. The newspaper trashed almost everyone in sight and vilified Jews, Catholics, and corrupt politicians in particular. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, thanks to the efforts of Robert R. McCormick, then editor and publisher of The Chicago Tribune. The Court’s judgement quoted James Madison:

“Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press. It has accordingly been decided…that it is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth, than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigor of those yielding the proper fruits.”

Thanks to this decision, you enjoy considerable freedom to exercise your profession in a virtually regulation-free environment — a free market of ideas. Why should free market standards that benefit you not be applied to the market in education? (9-19-00)

To George Clowes:

If the house is on fire, then your response seems to be, “Privatize the fire department.”

You left unanswered my question about whether your position is fundamentally pragmatic or ideological. That is to say, are you interested in results or are you simply interested in having as many institutions in society conform to the libertarian ideals of the Heartland Institute? Would you continue to favor vouchers if experiments or experience showed them leaving many, many kids worse off than they were?

The question on the table here is, what’s the best way to provide the publicly-funded education of the highest possible quality to the greatest number of children?

And I think we can agree that this is not now being done in all districts and for all children (and that “highest possible quality” is meant to be understood in realistic terms). If you don’t mind backing up just a bit here, I would like to pose some questions to you as a student of school reform that I hope might shed light on the question of what needs to be done.

  1. What general factors tend to distinguish successful schools from non-successful schools? And of those factors, which ones are conceivably reproducible? (What I mean by this is, for instance, that I’m aware of studies that show the higher the income of the parents, the more successful a school district is likely to be….I would consider this not to be a reproducible factor in many districts and areas. Alterations in class size, per-pupil spending, discipline policies, curriculum etc. are reproducible)
  2. Why does private education cost less than public education when it does cost less? What corners are cut, if any? And what educational-reform insights can we acquire from studying successful private schools?
  3. When public schools improve when placed in competition with private schools in the context of voucher experiments, what is the mechanism of that improvement? In other words, what changes are made and/or what concessions occur and on whose part to effect this improvement?
  4. In any of these voucher experiments, have public schools actually lost money to the voucher programs, and if so, what if any adjustments have they had to make?

And on to specific voucher questions

  1. Should private schools that accept vouchers be compelled to accept any students that apply? If not, what sorts of admissions policies should apply?
  2. Should private schools that accept vouchers have to meet the sorts of building, staffing, curriculum, accreditation and so on standards that public schools have to meet?
  3. Should teachers at private schools that accept vouchers have to possess any sorts of credentials at all?
  4. Should private schools that accept vouchers be allowed to compel their students to observe certain religious rituals, participate in prayers or attend religious education classes?

I will allow your implication that the institution of public education is somehow analogous to human slavery to stand without dignifying it with a rebuttal. In any case, those who accept it would be immune to a counter-argument, while those who see through it wouldn’t require one.

But I do want to reject the insinuation that one must have some sort of corrupt or unwholesome motive to be very wary of voucher schemes. It is a common gambit to claim that public education is upheld because those with “influence or authority” are puppets of the fearsome teacher’s union and would rather see low-income kids suffer than let them loose of bureaucracy. Many of us quite sincerely believe that the best chance for the most kids lies in devoting our energies and resources into improving public education, a belief that is sincere as your belief that vouchers are the best way to go. (10-6-2000)

To Eric Zorn:

First, let me take this opportunity to thank you for providing this public forum to debate one of the key issues in education reform.

I’ll take a shot at answering as many of the questions you’ve raised within the word limit, even though I’m beginning to wonder what kind of standard of evidence it takes to make any progress in this debate. I’ve presented a wide range of evidence from voucher research to counter your claims of the dire consequences that would ensure from implementing vouchers, but you’ve pretty much dismissed all the evidence as useless. You also dismiss the U.S. Supreme Court Pierce decision as “factually irrelevant,” you say you don’t think some of the parallels that I’ve raised should be dignified with a response, and you assign low motives to voucher advocates and private sector providers. In good faith, I’ll keep trying to get through.

But first, I want to respond to your remark about me wanting to privatize the fire department if the house is on fire. It was Education Secretary Richard Riley who said we should treat a failing school like it was a house on fire. More than a million children cried for help to get them out of “a house on fire” through the Children’s Scholarship Fund. I suggested that we take just $1 billion of the more than $6 billion that the public schools already spend each year on these million children as a way to quickly get them out of the burning house. My aim was simply to say: Let’s do something quickly to save these children before they burn to death.

My position on vouchers is not based on results but on principle: Parents should be free to chose schools for their children and to direct their education taxes to those schools. I support vouchers for every child on principle and I am led to believe, from parallels with other situations where competition and choice exist, that the benefits would be a better quality education for more children, plus significant benefits for parents and for society as a whole. I make my argument based on principle and I project results based on evidence and analogy.

The evidence from voucher experiments to date supports my view about their positive effects. But you ask: “Would I continue to favor vouchers if experiments or experience showed them leaving many, many kids worse off than they were?” As a scientist, I make predictions based on theory and on evidence, but I also remain open-minded and accept the possibility that I might be wrong: maybe universal vouchers won’t work; maybe they’ll have some unacceptable consequences; maybe they’ll produce the divisions and all the horrors that you envision. I don’t think they will, but if they did have these effects, I’d certainly have to revisit my policy recommendations on vouchers. I assume that you’d be open to supporting a large experiment to get more evidence on this point, since I assume you’re open to the possibility that you might be wrong in your prediction, too.

I also accept the political reality that universal vouchers might not get enough support among lawmakers at the present time. I can accept vouchers only for low-income students in public schools as a starting-point. I also can accept initially not giving vouchers to parents who already have their children in private schools — after all, if the low-income African-American families in Milwaukee could accept this as the price of getting vouchers in 1989, I ought to be able to accept it now.

But I don’t have any phase-in or compromise position on the use of vouchers at religious schools. Vouchers must be usable at religious as well as secular private schools. I’m not promoting any particular religious group but the First Amendment requires that parents be free to exercise their religious beliefs and the exclusion of religious schools violates this guarantee.

Now, to your questions:

  1. What makes a successful school?

A successful school is a school that is safe and that graduates most of its students with good work habits and a mastery of basic skills, i.e., graduates who can think, read, write, and do math — in college, in the workplace, and as a productive family and community member. Studies show that successful schools make significant moral, intellectual, disciplinary, and behavioral demands on their students.

Other research studies — including a recent one on class size reduction in Wisconsin — also show that a teacher-directed approach to learning, involving drilling in the early grades, is far superior to other teaching approaches, such as student-directed learning, in terms of student achievement. The teacher-directed approach is particularly effective in bringing the achievement levels of disadvantaged students up to par. Unfortunately, teacher-directed schooling is quite unfashionable and so research results often are ignored by professional educators.

  1. Why does private education generally cost less than public education?

In general, private school overhead is lower and teacher salaries are lower than in public schools — but salaries should be higher. Public school costs break down roughly as follows: Teachers get one-third, other employees get one-third, and other expenses consume one-third. For roughly every 17 students in public schools, there two employees, only one of whom is a teacher.

  1. What’s the mechanism of improvement when public schools improve in competition with private schools?

It’s not rocket science. The mechanism simply is a change of self-preservation strategy because of the way that the school’s incentives have changed. When a school’s funding depends upon maintaining a flow of money from lawmakers and local voters, the survival strategy for a school district will focus on keeping those lawmakers and local voters happy. However, when a school’s funding depends on students bringing in money because the school has been chosen by parents, then the survival strategy changes to attracting those parents and keeping them happy. It kicks in very quickly.

I’ve previously related the example of the response of Florida’s public schools, which pulled off a significant improvement in performance within a year of being presented just with the threat of vouchers.

  1. Have public schools actually lost money to the voucher programs?

If a consumer buys a Honda instead of a Ford, does Ford lose money to Honda? With schools, the idea in going to per-pupil funding is that the funding follows the child, whether it’s a charter school or a voucher school. The school that gets the student gets the money. Yes, public schools that lose students to voucher schools get less of the money that is allocated to them on a per-pupil basis but they do not get less of the money that is allocated to them without regard to the number of students. They end up with more money per student.

  1. Should private schools that accept vouchers be compelled to accept any students that apply?

Schools must be free to specialize in serving the interests and needs of particular types of students groups. If schools are compelled to accept any students that apply then schools that want to specialize in, say, education for the arts (like the Charter School for the Arts in Pheonix) or education for working in the building trades (like the Michigan Institute for Construction Trades and Technology) will not be able to take those students who want and can get the most out of such a specialized educational offering.

Schools must not discriminate on the basis of race but they must be able to set admission criteria — as do many public schools. Many public schools already specialize in serving certain student populations and have selective admission criteria to admit mainly students from these populations. Magnet schools and the Illinois Math and Science Academy work this way.

  1. Should private schools that accept vouchers have to meet the sorts of building, staffing, curriculum, accreditation and so on standards that public schools have to meet?

The state code currently establishes criteria that private schools have to meet to be considered a school, which cover curriculum, meeting the requirements of federal laws regarding on discrimination, and accreditation. I see no compelling reason to add to these regulations other than to require all schools that accept students with vouchers to submit their students at least annually to an accepted external curriculum-based test and to publish such results along with other basic school performance information.

  1. Should teachers at private schools that accept vouchers have to possess any sorts of credentials at all?

It’s up to each school to set whatever criteria they regard as appropriate in addiiton to a background check. The credentialling or certification system that we have in place right now is not particularly effective. For example, the certification of elementary teachers focuses much more on whether they have had training in learning theory than coursework in history, English, science, and the other classes they are required to teach.

  1. Should private schools that accept vouchers be allowed to compel their students to observe certain religious rituals, participate in prayers or attend religious education classes?

This is essentially the same issue as the one posed in question 5. When students apply for admission to a religious school, it is entirely appropriate for the staff of the school to make it clear at orientation meetings what is expected of students so that it does not come as an unwanted surprise later. Parents make the choice to place their children in religious schools, not the government. (01-24-01)