(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Last month Sean Cavanaugh interviewed Michelle Rhee about vouchers over at Ed Week. Overall I’m happy to have Rhee and other “Cool Kids” support parental choice, even if it is on a limited basis. I hope they think deeper on the subject however, as many Cool Kids are far more misguided on vouchers than Rhee. It is easy however to detect shoot-from-the-hip attitudes in the interview. Rhee told Cavanaugh:
“When people talk about universal vouchers, first of all, I’ve never seen an economic model that actually made sense and laid that out in way that’s sustainable,” Rhee said. I haven’t seen any kind of model that makes economic sense. … My support for vouchers is around a specific group of kids.”
“There are a lot of people out there who sort of believe, the free market, let the free market reign, the market will correct itself—give every kid a backpack with their money in it and let them choose wherever they want to go,” she added. “I don’t believe in that model at all.”
I’m still waiting for the day when supporters of means-tested vouchers come out and explain why they don’t support means testing public schools. Bill Gates could move to Milwaukee right now and enroll his children in public schools that cost taxpayers $13,000 per year. No one blinks. If he were to move to Milwaukee and get $6,400 vouchers however some of us want are inclined to view it as a grave injustice. I’ve yet to hear anyone propose that we should have economic cleansing of charter schools either-out with you middle and high-income children and don’t come back!
Don’t get me wrong- I have fought for a number of means-tested programs and continue to support them. I also strongly support an advantage for the poor, but not means-testing. Rhee is discussing the ideal however, and as an ideal, limited programs have some unresolvable problems.
Rhee also seems to be influenced by straw-man arguments. Very few people advocate a complete free market in education, and those that do don’t support vouchers. From Milton Friedman’s original formulation of the voucher concept he argued for public financing of K-12 education rather than financing and provision. Friedman also recognized the need for some level of regulation. The appropriate level of course remains an issue for debate.
As an aside, Rhee goes on to specifically distance herself from Florida governor Rick Scott’s proposal for universal education savings accounts during his transition, on which Rhee served. National Review Online rightly described this as “the most significant, transformative idea ever advanced by an actual elected official with any real power.” Sadly Scott’s proposal activated the hyperbolic anti-choice antibodies of Florida’s newspapers, and Governor Scott stopped pushing the proposal. Testing new ideas with pilot programs can be a agonizingly slow process, but that process has begun in Arizona. Florida’s private choice program continues to expand incrementally through the Step Up for Students program. I remain hopeful that something between Governor Scott’s initial ambition and the current slow pace of bringing funded private choice eligibility to Florida children will be enacted. Zero to sixty to two seconds sometimes wraps a Ferrari around a telephone pole, the price of being aggressive, but it isn’t an argument in favor of indefinite gradualism.
But I digress. Rhee went on:
“It has to be a heavily regulated industry,” she said. “I believe in accountability across the board. If you’re going to be having a publicly funded voucher program, then kids have to be taking standardized tests. We have to be measuring whether kids are academically better off in this private school with this voucher than they would be going to their failing neighborhood school. If they’re not, they shouldn’t get the voucher. … I’m about choice only if it results in better outcomes and opportunities for kids.”
Rhee’s faith in regulation is odd. The public school system is super-heavily regulated with laws and policies streaming down from the federal, state and local levels. Despite all of that, much of the system performs at a tragically poor level. That of course is not to say that vouchers should have no regulation, but the right level of regulation is not “heavy.”
Rhee also places far too much weight on the results of standardized test and gives far too little deference to the judgment of parents. Parents make decisions about schools for a large variety of reasons- including things like school safety, peer groups and the availability of specialized programs. In addition to missing the whole point about school choices being multifaceted with parents best able to judge all the factors, individual test scores bounce around from year to year, they often take a temporary hit when a child transfers and adjusts to a new school.
The notion of having program administrators looking at the math and reading tests and deciding to cast children back to their ‘failing neighborhood school’ is very problematic. Pity the poor voucher program apparatchiks who have to drag children back to a public school where they had been continually bullied because they had the flu on testing day. Pity the children more. The subject of what to do about poorly performing private schools in a choice system is a complex topic and opinions vary widely. Rhee’s proposed solution however does not begin to capture this complexity.
Rhee wraps up:
The ideal public school system, Rhee argued, will include high-quality traditional public schools and a charter sector, as well as some vouchers.
“But the vast majority of kids are going to be in a high-performing public school environment,” she said, adding: “I’m a believer in public schools. I’m a public school parent. I ran a public school district.”
Public schools will continue to serve as the primary conduits for education regardless of what we do on the choice side of things.We are a long, long way from having high-quality public schools for all children, and choice can play a role in moving us in that direction. Choice improves public schools and we can hardly will the ends without the means.
If however we embrace only tiny choice programs targeted at limited student populations, that positive role will likewise remain limited. In the end, catastrophically under-performing schools do so because they can get away with it. I’m all for efforts to improve the laughably ineffectual quality of our regulation in an effort to curtail this, but choice is the only decentralized system of accountability that allow parents to hold schools accountable for individual results.
We need as much parental choice as we can get.
(Edited for typos and clarity)