When “Helping the Poor” Means “Keep Out”

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest on the unwisdom of means-testing school choice programs:

Sometimes the worst thing you can do for the poor is “help the poor.” What we want to do is tear down the walls that prevent poor people from making themselves into non-poor people. That’s what “helping the poor” ought to mean. But all too often, it really means building walls between poor and non-poor people, reinforcing the divide rather than tearing it down.

Throwing middle- and upper-income people out of school choice programs is a classic example of hurting the poor by “helping” them. It creates a sharp, government-enforced division between two separate and very unequal populations. On one side of the wall are poor people, who receive school choice; on the other are non-poor people, whose tax dollars provide them with school choice.

This division shuts down educational innovation, greatly weakens the political coalition in favor of choice (and of protecting private schools from government interference, which is clearly going to become a threat whether there are school choice programs or not) and in the long run creates an us-versus-them power competition between the poor and the non-poor that the poor are going to lose.

As always, your thoughts are welcome!

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9 Responses to When “Helping the Poor” Means “Keep Out”

  1. pbmeyer2014 says:

    Bravo, Greg. This is exactly why I have been a dogged proponent of E.D. Hirsch’s content-counts education philosophy since reading his “Cultural Literacy” in 1989. Curriculum is the single-best currency of education; and just like its greenback cousin, a good curriculum doesn’t know the color of its student’s skin, his or her zip code or whether he or she is poor or rich. Hirsch has shown time and again, in many works since Cultural Literacy, that the content of a school’s curriculum is what counts. Or, as Robert Hutchins, the noted president of the U of Chicago, once said, “the best education for the best is the best education for us all.” –peter meyer

  2. Greg,
    How does the portion of your argument dealing with political coalitions square with the experience of Florida tax credit scholarships? Our state has the nation’s largest private school choice program. It’s means-tested and serves some of the most disadvantaged families in the state. It’s growing and enjoys political support that allows it to keep growing, and other new programs to be created. It enjoys support in the halls of the capitol from some would-be skeptics precisely because it serves disadvantaged students. Your argument makes intuitive sense, but is there a state where the politics have played out that way on the ground?

    As for the rest of your argument, from a policy perspective, there’s only so much scholarship money available in most extant private school choice programs. And there’s only so much room in high-quality private schools – even assuming some new ones are created. Doesn’t it make sense to allocate scarce resources to families who don’t already have school choice?

    • Greg Forster says:

      1) Parents are strong in some states (like Florida) and weak in others. That doesn’t change the fact that in all states, including Florida, parents would be stronger with universal choice than with means-tested choice.

      2) It’s not true that “most” school choice programs have adopted the foolish and destructive practice of placing a quantitative limit on the number of dollars that can be used for school choice, but aside from that, my point is that limits on choice participation are foolish and destructive, so it’s not much of a response to argue “but limits on the number who can participate exist!” Yes, that’s the problem.

      3) It’s not true that the number of seats in existing private schools is fixed – it can be expanded – but aside from that, if you read the article I link to, you’ll see that my argument is that we need to stop thinking about school choice solely as a means of moving kids from existing public schools to existing private schools. We need school choice programs that attract educational entrepreneurs who build new schools and new school systems from the ground up.

    • harriettubmanagenda says:

      (Travis): “… from a policy perspective, there’s only so much scholarship money available in most extant private school choice programs.”

      Isn’t the point of this discussion to suggest policy options? What’s available is what legislators decide to make available. Either this discussion is pointless and legislators use policy analysis as cover for pre-ordained policy or they listen too well-considered advice.
      How ’bout: make the entire K-12 budget available for school choice programs, like Parent Performance Contracting?

      (Travis): “… And there’s only so much room in high-quality private schools – even assuming some new ones are created. Doesn’t it make sense to allocate scarce resources to families who don’t already have school choice?”

      I’m not sure I understand this argument, so any disagreement from me would be rash. The overhang of current private school enrollment will affect per-pupil budgets in the cartel’s schools after passage of school choice legislation. I see several ways to reduce the financial shock to the cartel’s schools: (1) phase in by grade level, with complete K-12 overage in year 13, (2) phase in by school rank (worst 10% of schools first, with complete coverage in year ten).

  3. harriettubmanagenda says:

    Milton Friedman wrote “a program for the poor only is a poor program”.
    (peter meyer): “Curriculum is the single-best currency of education…”
    How is curriculum “currency”?
    (Meyer): “… a good curriculum doesn’t know the color of its student’s skin, his or her zip code or whether he or she is poor or rich.”
    To the extent that this means anything, it is false and the policy implications are malign.
    (Meyer): “… the content of a school’s curriculum is what counts…”
    Content –is– curriculum. Content matters in many ways.
    (Meyer): “… as Robert Hutchins, the noted president of the U of Chicago, once said, ‘the best education for the best is the best education for us all’.
    That’s a paraphrase of John Dewey’s “what the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”
    Dewey was a socialist (Like Hirsch). Again, to the extent that these words mean anything, they are malign. They suppose a “best and wisest”. That is undemocratic. Even –given– universal agreement on the identity of the best and wisest parent, suppose this parent wanted his or her daughter’s teeth straightened. Suppose that parent wanted to indulge his child’s desire to study French poetry or the history of music. Either the prescription is totalitarian: “uniformity shall prevail”: or it amounts to “since the best and wisest parent would want to make educational decisions for his own children without the interference of strangers who know nothing of his children’s interests, we should want THAT for all children.”

    • pdexiii says:

      “..it is false and the policy implications are malign.”
      Just this afternoon one of our TA’s text me an exchange with one of my students:
      “What’s 84/12?”
      Student: “I don’t know that.”
      So we have an 8th grader who doesn’t know his 7 times tables.
      The knowledge deficit (shout out to Hirsch’s latest book), is the most MALIGNANT scourge on our young people, and has doomed many a generation to the treadmill of low-skilled, minimum-wage, “keeping your head above water” living.
      It’s not a policy implication; parents deserve the choice of a content-rich curriculum, nothing should be forced upon parents. From my classroom view parents consider a school successful if their child is a) safe; b) they know more than when they came(content); and c) they’re prepared and successful at the next level. Parents deserve the chance to choose such for their children.

  4. pbmeyer2014 says:

    Interesting. All wrong, however; at least, it is a perspective on education that denies anything like a “good” education or a “good” book. If we applied the same standards to math, you’d be arguing that the answer to 2+2 depends on who the students are and what kind of school they are in. It is the problem of Dewey, who introduced sociology to education — and with it a constructivist’s standard of truth (e.g. truth is what the kids construct and facts are always just “mere facts”). And the fact that Hirsch takes on Dewey should be proof enough that political ideology has very little to do with what a good, better and best education isb. cheers, peter m.

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