Kevin Carey’s Too Cool for Vouchers… and Cooler Than You

Education Sector’s Kevin Carey has a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog about why vouchers don’t matter.  It seemed to me that the piece had been highly edited, leaving out what Carey really thought. 

Sure enough, my secret agents were able to discover the original draft.  The parts that were edited out I’ve been able to restore.  They’re the bits in italics and bold:

Why School Vouchers Don’t Matter by Kevin Carey (Original Draft)

President Obama wants to appropriate enough money to keep the Washington, D.C. voucher program going for the children currently enrolled. Good — this is the only ethical position to take. I know some Democrats in Congress wish the program had never been implemented, but that’s the price of losing elections. Dragging low-income and minority students out of their schools just so the N.E.A. can score some petty political revenge would be inhumane and a political debacle besides.

That said, there’s a strong element of artifice to this whole debate. The D.C. voucher program does not represent serious public policy. It was a P.R. move, a bone thrown by the previous administration to the privatization crowd it marginalized by supporting NCLB.

You see, policies that are designed for P.R. or to satisfy political constituencies are not serious public policy.  Applying this standard I’ve determined that 99.44% of all public policies are not serious. 

The voucher dream (setting aside the obvious anti-labor agenda for the moment) has always been to introduce market dynamics to public education — to create new competition and provide incentives for innovators and entrepreneurs to bring energy and resources to the enterprise of educating students. 

Using my psychic powers to identify the dreams of others, I am certain that helping low-income families find better schools had nothing to do with passage of the D.C. voucher program.  That’s right, the only real test of a five-year, tiny voucher program that pays one-third per pupil what the public schools receive is whether new private schools are built.

The D.C. voucher program does none of these things. No new schools have been built as a result, no groundbreaking programs created, competition spurred, or innovators attracted. It’s basically just an exercise in seeing what happens when you take a couple thousand students out of pretty bad schools and put them in a range of other schools that are, collectively, somewhat better. Answer: some of the students may be doing somewhat better! I think we already knew this.

And by “we” I mean only the really cool people, not the majority in both chambers of Congress who voted to set an execution date for the program. 

Remarkably, the D.C. voucher program is being taken seriously even as, right here in the same city, charter schools are actually creating the whole range of market responses that vouchers are not.

Of course if we capped charter funding at $7,500 per pupil and limited their number to 1,700 students citywide and sunsetted the whole program after 5 years, I’m sure that charters would have “actually created the whole range of market responses” anyway.  Charters are just so cool that they could have beaten Mike Ditka in a Superbowl showdown with one hand tied behind their backs.

Drive across the river and see the brand-new schools built by KIPP and SEED, which are just a part of the tens of millions of dollars of new investment in public education spurred by charters, a wave of new organizations and people coming to the nation’s capital to educate disadvantaged students, along with many others who were here already, people who never would have been able to operate within the traditional public system.

One could argue, I suppose, that if vouchers had been given to 17,000 students instead of 1,700, they would have had more impact. But I’m not so sure — I kind of doubt that Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day would up and build annexes in Anacostia in response.

Of course, I suppose that a bunch of the non-elite private schools where 99% of the voucher students attend might actually expand if you offered them 10 times as many spots and long-term security of funding, but that would undermine the straw-man argument I’m making. 

In any event, why bother? Who cares about the 1,700 students benefiting from D.C. vouchers?  Not cool folks like me!  I always remember to take my jaded pills each morning. 

D.C. charter schools are directly accountable to the public and specifically designed to serve urban students. Why would it be better to re-direct public funds to schools that are neither of those things? 

I mean, the private schools in D.C. aren’t really urban because when you enter them you are transported through a kink in the time-space continuum to a place outside of an urban area.  And those vouchers aren’t really accountable because even though they were democratically created, subject to oversight and renewal within 5 years of creation, and mandated (unlike charters) to participate in a rigorous random-assignment evaluation, they don’t have the word “public” in them.  And we cool people know that the magical addition of the word “public” makes things truly accountable to the public.

Yet the D.C. voucher debate is playing out on national television and has provoked a seemingly endless series of righteous editorials from the Washington Post.

Don’t they know that righteousness is my department?! 

This seems to be the real purpose of school vouchers — giving people the opportunity to scramble for the moral high ground of defending disadvantaged youth.

Never mind what I said at the start about the real purpose being to introduce market competition or to destroy unions.  The real REAL purpose is to defend disadvantaged youth — and is there anything more awful than that?

Many wealthy members of Congress send their children to private school! So does our wealthy President! Outrage! Hypocrisy revealed! 

More exclamation points!  Loud noises!  Harrumph!  Please pay no attention to the cynical thing I said in the last paragraph about how awful it is to care about disadvantaged kids!

Meanwhile, voucher opponents paint themselves as brave defenders of the education system, as if this was some crucial battle against the Wal-Martification of public schools.

There!  I’ve bashed both sides, so I get my triangulator license renewed.

In that sense vouchers do have some utility — they separate people who are serious about education policy from people who aren’t. The more you shout and carry on about them, the less you’re paying attention to the issues that really matter.

And I never shout or carry on about vouchers!  I’m too cool.

10 Responses to Kevin Carey’s Too Cool for Vouchers… and Cooler Than You

  1. Patrick says:

    Well honestly it is too bad schools aren’t run like Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart actually helps the poor better than our government does. I mean, think about it, we spend hundreds of billions on corporate bailouts, farm subsidies, and tariffs on imported foods all making the cost of goods (especially food) artificially more expensive.

    Then to feel better for ourselves we toss $20-30 billion over to the poor for food stamps and people think we’ve done our part to help make their lives better. Good for us!

    That would be like Wal-Mart handing out cash coupons to people well above the median income level then charging everyone else for that service.

    Then again, Wal-Mart wouldn’t survive for long if we did that. There is always Target, and Vons, and Best Buy, and Food Lion, and Costco, and….

  2. Brian says:

    Wow, I wonder what Kevin was hoping to accomplish by being so smug. Doesn’t he know how it comes across?

  3. […] A better education for 1,700 low-income students is nothing to sneer at, counters Jay P. Greene. […]

  4. […] It looks like I have been out-sillied by Jay Greene, who has posted the original unedited draft of “too cool” Kevin Carey’s […]

  5. Whatever works. Whatever works.

    It seems that the charter movement is the most logical adaptation for a system in place, offering the same opportunities the vouchers might.

  6. I will confess that I’m agnostic on vouchers as public policy. Whether or not they are effective levers for school improvement has never much mattered to me. Indeed, it strikes me as beside the point.

    When I was teaching, I sat through a preservice workshop with an avuncular old veteran teacher, who told the now-familiar tale of the young man standing among countless starfish stranded by the high tide, pitching them one by one back into the see. Told he’s wasting his time, there are too many starfish and he can’t possibly make a difference, he replies, “It made a difference to that one,” and continues his work.

    Go ahead, smirk. Roll your eyes knowingly at the sentimentality of the treacly tale. But for those of us who have come to know children by name and not as data points, it’s a tale that resonates.

    So it is with vouchers. It makes a difference to that one. And that one. And that by the way, is how I tell the difference between people who are serious about education reform and those who are not. They consider the impact of their policies on individuals–people with names, faces, hopes and ambitions who will forever remain silent and invisible on spreadsheets.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go back to concerning myself with my long list of things that don’t really matter.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I’m glad you’re focused on the real-world results of vouchers. But you’re wrong if you think that those of us who work with spreadsheets for a living don’t also care about the real-world results. What do you think we’re measuring? We’re measuring the difference vouchers make to that one, and that one, and that one . . .

      • All well and good, and if you wish to defend Kevin’s column; I won’t take issue. But I will say I found his remark that this is “basically just an exercise in seeing what happens when you take a couple thousand students out of pretty bad schools” to show a lack of regard for the fate of individuals. Those students and their families will doubtless be surprised to find out they were basically just an exercise, the outcome of which was never in doubt.

        I’m sorry if you interpreted that as a blanket condemnation of everyone who works with spreadsheets. If anything, it’s a blanket condemnation of those who fail to see words as the blunt instruments they can become when carelessly wielded.

  7. Patrick says:

    Microsoft Excel doesn’t kill people, people kill people.

  8. […] might want to pop up some popcorn and follow the fun Edu-debate (whoops, there I go again!) between Jay Greene and Kevin Carey. I’m not afraid to take sides, but wherever you’re coming from, I think […]

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