Much to Learn About Vouchers Rhee Still Has

(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)

13 Responses to Much to Learn About Vouchers Rhee Still Has

  1. George Mitchell says:

    Matt does an excellent job of dissecting the often-rambling observations and erroneous assumptions of Michele Rhee.

    Her claim to have not seen an “economic model” for universal or greatly expanded choice recalls what opponents of vouchers said before there were such programs, i.e., “there’s no research to show they work.”

    Well, now we have high quality research that shows positive gains from under-financed, highly regulated programs, a number of which are restricted to low-income families at low-performing schools. if we don’t try more expansive and properly financed programs, Rhee will continue to be able to say there is no “economic model.” Even that will be disingenuous, unless Rhee wishes to argue that all the other relatively open markets for goods and services have no application to education.

    Rhee’s claim that public money requires public regulation is formulaic rhetoric. As Matt correctly notes, the performance of heavily regulated public schools ought to cause a supposed big thinker such as Rhee to be skeptical.

    My overall take on Rhee’s comments: Don’t be surprised to hear her praised by Diane Ravitch.

  2. matthewladner says:

    Thanks George. I view Rhee as a 70-80 percent ally rather than a 20-30 percent foe. She hasn’t been involved in the private choice movement long, so we should give her and others like her time to think about the issues involved.

    • George Mitchell says:


      I say with a big smile on my face that you are a very patient and charitable guy.

      Rhee has not had the necessary “time to think about the issues”? I believe she has thought about them quite deliberately and has tailored her comments for what she sees as a tactical advantage.

      • Greg Forster says:

        I agree with Matt’s Reaganesque coalition-building attitude, and also with George’s clarity about what’s really going on here. She was the head of the DC school system during the DC voucher era and she didn’t consider her position during that time?

        Success means making friends and working with 80% allies without pretending that an 80% ally is a just a 100% ally who doesn’t know you well enough yet.

  3. mmazenko says:

    Rhee is not wrong in her moderate promotion of vouchers, and she should not be criticized for a failure to fully embrace a 100% voucher-supportive policy. Having run a major school system, and been on the front lines of the pubic school issue, she deserves respect for her pragmatic and realistic view without falling prey to utopian idealism.

    And interesting aside to the voucher issue in Colorado is that the state constitution specifically prohibits the use of any state money for religious schools. This isn’t a more philosophical “separation of church/state” on the federal level. This is constitutionally mandated. Thus, despite the desire by some in Colorado to pass a voucher system at the district level, they need to convince the taxpayers of Colorado to change the constitution first.

  4. Rhee is a big govt. liberal who thinks the govt. can centralize education and make it all better. Why on earth would any pro-school choice advocate or conservative bend over backwards to win her approval??
    Do you think Obama is going to change his mind and decide to offer real competition in public education?
    We see the Marc Tucker model of reform being implemented in states who’ve signed on to Common Core.
    This was never about improving the quality of education, it was about creating good worker bees for the workforce.
    In order to accomplish this, we have to get those crazy teachers out of the way who actually thought that they were there to educate children. They are there to facilitate and watch children teach each other.
    More money down the toilet in the name of reform.

  5. Daniel Earley says:

    One day our paradigm will pass a natural tipping point that makes the horse and buggy model look ridiculous. Meanwhile, time-travel may suffice. Below are Michelle’s remarks in an alternate universe:

    “Family transportation has to be a heavily regulated choice,” she said. “I believe in accountability across the board. If you’re going to allow mini-vans on publicly funded roads, then families have to be taking standardized mobility tests. We have to be measuring whether families are transportationally better off in this mini-van with this permit than they would be if using their failing city bus system. If they’re not, they shouldn’t get the permit. … I’m about choice only if it results in better transportation outcomes and opportunities for families.”

    • George Mitchell says:

      Nicely put. Here in Milwaukee there is a debate now between those who control a government sanctioned taxi cartel and those who favor a more open market. Rhee’s approach would be closer to the cartel’s. There is a fascinating lawsuit underway here challenging the closed system created and maintained by the city for the benefit of a few taxi license holders.

  6. Matt, I get asked all the time by people which kind of school choice programs I prefer. My answer is always…more.

  7. harriettubmanagenda says:

    (Matt): “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 regulations, but the right level of regulation is not ‘heavy’.”

    The degree of regulation possible with employment contracts makes the policy difference between an independent contractor and an employee. Thus, when legislators decide between empowering parents with vouchers, on the one hand, and staffing schools with government employees, on the other, the welfare-economic case for government-operated schools must assert some regulatory advantages in employment contracts over market feedback mechanisms.

    (Matt): “Public schools will continue to serve as the primary conduits for education regardless of what we do on the choice side of things.
    THis depends on the time scale. I can easily imagine a non-State sector providing education services to the vast majority of minors within twenty years, given reasonably unrestricted subsidization of parent control at, say, 75% of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s regular-ed per-pupil budget .

  8. matthewladner says:

    Good discussion- I always believe it is better to challenge someone’s logic rather than their motives. You never know what motivates people, but poor arguments can be argued.

    Welcome back Daniel! As someone once told Wierd Al in a Michael Jackson spoof video “Yo man, we aint seen you around Burger World lately- you on a diet or something?” Your bus analogy is dead on.

  9. Matthew Ladner says:

    Andy-right on bro.

    Harriet- a decade plus of complete choice for children with disabilities has a whopping 5% of them in choice schools but something closer to 100% of students benefitting from the program. Your point about time scale is valid, but in the long run we are all dead.

    Michael- Colorado’s original voucher program went down on a local control provision. Even if the Colorado constitution does contain Ku Klux Klan/Know Nothing bigoted language in it, there very well be ways to structure a program so that it doesn’t violate it.

    MWaB- there has to be a few more degrees of Bacon between Rhee and Tucker in your mind than that, doesn’t there?

  10. harriettubmanagenda says:

    (Matt): “…Your point about time scale is valid, but in the long run we are all dead.
    To be sure. I don’t mean it’s not urgent. The current system is quite literally lethal. In Hawaii, juvenile hospitalizations for human-induced trauma fall when school is not in session.

    (Matt): “…there very well be ways to structure a program so that it doesn’t violate it.
    How ’bout Parent Performance Contracting?

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