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"Despite the Court's ruling, vouchers are still bad policy for public schools. It's flat wrong to take scarce taxpayer dollars away from public schools and divert them to private schools...and Congress must not abandon its opposition to them."
That excerpt from an address by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, came on the heels of a June 2002 Supreme Court decision supporting school vouchers, even when they fund religious schools. Although such voucher programs "pass Constitutional muster," Kennedy said, "they fail the test when it comes to improving our nation's public schools."
Nevertheless, the voucher mania gained steam last January, when President Bush signed the Education Act. Ostensibly designed to give parents the right to choose a better school than one their children might otherwise be assigned, the measure was touted as a means of addressing America's education crisis, in which many parents have supposedly been forced to send their kids to poorly-performing schools. The Education Act, its advocates say, will help solve a problem that is threatening our future: the inability of our public school systems to adequately prepare our children for adult life.
After stories about mass murders in heartland schools and violence in inner-city ones, many parents undoubtedly welcome the opportunity to move their students to better schools. In reality, however, the legislation is an exercise in obfuscation, one that tacitly puts the federal stamp of approval onto a number of controversial schemes and trends that could potentially undermine the educational careers of the very children it professes to serve, while subsidizing "designer" education for the children of America's upper classes.
Meanwhile, of course, these so-called innovations in education--tuition vouchers for private schools, charter schools, and privatized public schools--have grown into a handy stump from which mainly Republican politicians can deliver self-congratulatory speeches.
From Milton Friedman to Milwaukee: The Birth of School Voucher Programs
In 1990, Wisconsin became the first state to implement a revolutionary new concept when it established a tuition voucher system. In such a system, public money becomes available to parents to pay for tuition at a private school. Since then, several other states have followed Milwaukee's lead.
Free-market apologist Milton Friedman planted the seed for the voucher fad in the 1950s, when he wrote an essay proposing public funding for private schools. Friedman has served as economic advisor to various Republican presidents; his laissez-faire economic theories served as the basis for such failed Republican philosophies as Reagan's famous "supply-side" economics and "trickle-down theory," not to mention the naively economic-utopian theories that pepper the conversation at a typical libertarian kaffeeklatsch.
With vouchers, Friedman suggested, free market forces would pressure schools into performing at higher levels. The role of government, he wrote, "would be limited to assuring that schools met certain minimum standards such as the inclusion of a minimum content in their programs, much as it now inspects restaurants to assure that they maintain certain minimum sanitary standards."
While the government would pay the tuition bill, parents could choose which school their child would attend, which would in turn determine which schools would get the most funding. Competition for students, therefore, would insure schools would perform at a higher level than public schools.
Alas, few things are as sad as a crusading, ivory-tower economist; and few things as destructive as a society that naively follows his advice. Anyone who believes that competition improves service hasn't visited a fast-food restaurant lately.
Every organization, public or private, has stakeholders. Stakeholders include customers, the surrounding community, and employees. However, in a private organization, the main stakeholder is the shareholder. The organization is mainly there for the financial benefit of the shareholder.
Voucher programs have gained support over the last decade, with about half of all American adults in favor of them, and several states implementing voucher programs. Proponents say private schools do a better job of educating students than public schools. They are unencumbered by bureaucracy, unions, and burdensome rules and regulations.
And voucher programs will improve public schools, too, they say. Like Friedman, they believe that free market competition for students will improve not only the quality of the private schools, but competition from private schools will pressure public schools into performing better, too, so all students will benefit.
The Private Premise and the False Promise
The privatization theories behind voucher programs are fundamentally flawed. A few years ago, I took a job at a private school in suburban Orlando, Florida. The school, I was told, was geared toward students with "above average intelligence, but with learning-style differences." Teachers had to be flexible, work one-on-one with students and in small classes; the school boasted a ten-to-one student-to-teacher ratio.
I was enthralled with the idea of teaching in such a school, helping nonlinear thinkers, for example, learn in ways that better suited their nontraditional learning styles. Likewise, the idea of holding smaller classes appealed to me; interaction could be less impersonal than that permitted by the 33-kids-per-class norm in which I'd been educated.
To my surprise, the school's practice fell far short of its theory. While a handful of my students were quite brilliant and perfectly met the "above average with learning-style differences" criteria, others were there simply because they had been kicked out of several other schools for chronic misbehavior. Several fell far short of "average intelligence." I had been told the school didn't accept students with behavioral disorders, yet discovered that many, perhaps the majority, of my students had been treated for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) for much of their lives.
I feel sure that some students benefited from their time at the school. For some, however, the school served as little more than a baby-sitting service. There were few textbooks and most of the ones they had were out-of-date (the school had three photocopiers, where teachers spent a lot of time running illegal copies from outdated textbooks that came from God-knows-where). Some weeks, one math class (taught by the school's executive director) spent more time in the parking lot playing basketball than in class. Chronically disruptive students were permitted to remain in school for as long as their tuition was paid. And I would estimate that, at the beginning of my first year teaching, fewer than half my students could be said to be able to perform at anywhere near their grade level.
Yet this was no inner-city ghetto school. In most cases, the upper-middle-class parents were paying up to $6,000 per year for tuition.
(My experiences are chronicled in an article still online at Milwaukee's Shepherd Express web site.)
Wisconsin was one of the first states to adopt a voucher program. It was also the first state to have a voucher controversy, when some of the voucher schools turned in less-than-stellar performances. In an article published last year, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) examined the statistical evidence relating to private school performance during the past decade.
"In general, students who attend private schools achieve at slightly higher levels than do public school students," they found. "However, research has consistently shown that these differences are insignificant and primarily attributable to the fact that parents of private school students tend to have higher levels of education and higher levels of personal wealth." Further, they say, scores on the 1999 National Assessment of Educational Progress show that private school students performed no better than public school students.
Perhaps that's surprising, considering that private schools can pick and choose their students. Public schools typically take what they're given and do the best they can. Screening criteria at private schools normally include personal interviews, analyses of behavioral patterns, and academic history. Some schools even require students to take admissions tests.
The WEAC refers to a 1999 study by Carol Ascher and Richard Gray ("Substituting the Privilege of Choice for the Right to Equality," Education Week, June 2, 1999) on the effects of the private school selection process on academic performance: Voucher programs don't really give parents a choice of school, the study explains. "In reality, they give parents the option to be chosen by a private school." Religious schools, for example, have always kept a firm hand on both admissions and exits, they pointed out. Such schools use their screening criteria "to determine who enters and who remains...The fact these schools choose their students helps keep them high performing. Clearly, this is not the kind of choice that assists those students who have been failed by public schools and whose skills are lacking."
The Million-Dollar Question: Does Private Enterprise Really Operate More Efficiently Than Government?
Even Money magazine (October, 1994) has deflated the "private schools are better" myth, the WEAC pointed out. According to their survey, Money reported that students attending the best public schools outperformed most private school students. Also, the average public school teacher is better qualified than the average private school teacher, and class size differences were insignificant.
"The best news to come out of Money's survey...was that, by and large, public schools are not lacking in experienced topnotch teachers, challenging courses, or an environment that is conducive to learning. What many public schools are lacking is a student body brimming with kids eager to take advantage of what the school has to offer." Parents who send their kids to private schools, Money concluded, "are probably wasting [their] money."
In theory, say proponents of vouchers, private enterprises function more efficiently and more cost-effectively than government bureaucracies. In fact, this rarely proves to be the case. The fabled thousand-dollar toilet seats and gold-plated hammers aside, government generally spends less money and gets more bang for its buck than average businesses, simply because of its buying power.
When it comes to education, economy of scale becomes a key factor. In 1998, when I taught in Orange County, it cost around $4,200 to put a child through public school for one year. Tuition at secular private schools ranged from around $5,000 per year to more than $10,000, and some private schools required their students to purchase textbooks and pay lab fees.
Only the best and most expensive private schools offered the range of programs and extracurricular activities available at a run-of-the-mill public school. Only a small number of private schools offer bilingual services, programs for the handicapped, or vocational/technical programs, while public schools are required to offer such programs.
Some voucher proponents have posited that private schools can pay more and therefore attract better teachers. In Florida, at least, this didn't hold true in 1998, when I surveyed private schools and compared salaries to Florida Department of Education (FL DOE) pay scales. A typical public school teacher in Florida makes less than $30,000 per year (FL DOE "Statistical Brief, Florida's Nonpublic Schools"). Add benefits to that, and the total cost to the state is around $35,000. As unimpressive as $35,000 per year sounds, that typical teacher makes about thirty percent more than his private school counterpart.
No Child Left Behind: That Is, as Long as He's Got a Ride to School and a School to Ride To.
The "No Child Left Behind" law requires school systems to find slots in better schools for children that want them, but gives them no means to create those slots.
The New York Times reported earlier this year that in Baltimore, for example, out of 30,000 kids eligible to transfer to better schools, 347 kids tried. (New York Times, Aug. 28, 2002) However, only 194 slots were available to them. In Los Angeles, with 223,000 kids crammed into 120 failing schools, there were no slots available for those wishing to transfer.
Even if there were slots available, many parents who could move their kids out of failing schools have chosen not to, simply because of transportation. Failing schools are consistently located in low-income areas, where students are raised in single-family households or where both parents work. Few of these parents have the resources to transport their kids to the other side of town for school. Even where transportation was offered, relatively few parents could take advantage of it, due to after-school issues.
Public Funding for Religious Schools: It's Just Like Sunday School, Only It's Monday through Friday. If You Do Well on Your Quiz, You Not Only Get a Smiley Face on Your Paper, But Everlasting Life, to Boot.
Some opponents of voucher programs have argued that such programs fund religion, thus undermining first amendment protections. As mentioned above, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that a school voucher program in Cleveland does not infringe upon the Constitutional separation of church and state, thus opening the door for religious schools to receive public funding.
The majority was a slim one: five justices voted in its favor; while four believed that paying for tuition at religious schools with vouchers was akin to using tax dollars to promote religion. In his dissenting opinion, for example, Justice David Souter pointed out that public tax money would now teach "the covenant with Israel and Mosaic law in Jewish schools, the primacy of the Apostle Peter and the Papacy in Catholic schools, and the revelation of the Prophet in Muslim schools, to speak only of major religious groupings."
In Cleveland, nearly all families receiving tax-supported state tuition scholarships attend Catholic schools. Brenda Parks, nonpublic school specialist for the Florida Department of Education, told me that 90 percent of the private schools in Florida are church-affiliated. Further, a 1998 study by the National Center for Education Statistics said that of the 28,000 private schools in the U.S., one-third are Catholic. Half the 5 million students enrolled in private schools go to those Catholic schools.
The tuition cost at religious schools tended to be less than that at secular private schools, most of which charge more for tuition than would be covered by voucher amounts alone. Logically, then, one would assume that many of the voucher students who leave a failing public school will end up in a religious school.
Before I interviewed Parks, an acquaintance of mine had pulled her daughter out of public school and put her into the seventh grade at a school run by a fundamentalist Protestant church. While she was pleased with her child's improvement in "three R's" performance, she told me, she was surprised at some of the curriculum.
She had expected theology to be included in her kid's schoolwork. However, she was shocked to learn that the school's U.S. Government curriculum consisted entirely of information about which politicians supported a religious-right agenda, and absolutely nothing about the workings of government.
Because of strong provisos in the Florida Constitution regarding the separation of church and state, Parks explained, religious schools are virtually unregulated. "Other private schools operate under an operational license issued by their county," she said. However, she added, there is little more regulation than there would be for "a business delivering vegetables. In essence, [private schools] are in the business of delivering education."
With even less regulation and public accountability, then, religious schools are free to teach whatever they'd like, and to ignore whatever they'd like.
The Charter School Compromise: All the Problems of An Entire County Public School System Distilled into This One Little Classroom, and a Pissed-Off Parent Can Fire the Principal.
While some states have been slow to implement voucher programs, many now provide for charter schools. A charter school, in theory, is something of a compromise between public and private education. Such schools are organized by citizen groups, usually consisting of parents who feel that, for whatever reasons, a smaller, independently managed school will meet their children's needs better than a run-of-the-mill public school.
Technically, charter schools are public schools. Their budget comes from the state, usually on a per-student basis. How that money is spent, however, is determined by the schoolıs board of directors, who also decide how the school will be operated.
Even the U.S. Department of Education seems to have mixed feelings about charter schools. In its June, 2001 Study on Charter School Accountability, the department said, "Some charter schools have managed to produce acceptable student outcomes but are still a long way from creating strong internal accountability arrangements and stable working relationships between the governing boards and management."
Further, it said, "Only a few of the hundreds of...authorizing agencies have faced their own responsibilities in holding charter schools accountable." However, its analysis ends on a hopeful note, avowing that charter schools can work--it will just take time to iron out all the kinks in accountability.
The Canadian Teachers' Federation is less hopeful. Canadian provinces only recently began introducing charter school legislation, which is being "enthusiastically promoted by many of the same groups that have championed the weakening of other public institutions: right-wing think-tanks, governments, media and public figures," says the Federation's publication, "Ten Charter School Myths."
Charter school programs are subject to many of the same problems inherent in voucher programs, the study revealed. Data drawn from programs in the U.S., Britain, and New Zealand indicates that transportation logistics, the use of selection criteria for choosing students, and an increasing reliance on "donations" from parents--which it dubs "thinly-veiled tuition" --all undermine the "choice" concept.
"Charter schools siphon off funding from the public system, siphon off the attention of school reformers, and siphon off the most concerned and articulate parents," the Canadian study adds. Charter schools also siphon off the best students, leaving behind the lower achievers in neighborhood schools that, as they shrink and fail, will receive even less funding.
The study goes on to explode the myths that charter schools improve curriculum and performance, that academic results have been favorable, and that charter schools can level the playing field for students by allowing equal-access education. In fact, it says, there is "a lack of compelling evidence that entry into a choice school actually results in measurable achievement gains."
Statistics from New Zealand, they say, show that parent boards end up focusing on property and financing issues rather than on learning, principals spend less time on instruction-related tasks and much more on fundraising and marketing, and teachersı workloads have increased while morale has declined.
And rather than level the educational playing field in Britain, it adds, charter schools have helped increase "the inequalities in schooling and the segregation by social class."
Privatization: Put that pair of Golden Arches in Front of the Building--Right There by the Flagpole.
"Charter schools may be the 'thin edge of the wedge' to privatizing public schools," said the Canadian publication, which notes that U.S. state charter laws allow for-profit corporations to enter into the education industry, with public assistance.
Such entrepreneurial experiments so far have produced less-than-favorable results, for either stockholders or students. For example, the Edison Project is the brainchild of entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, who also put Channel One into America's Schools. (see IMPACT press Aug.-Sep. 2001, "Education on the Auction Block." )
By the beginning of this school year, Edison had 75,000 students in 22 states, and had been hired to take over 20 schools and 15,000 students in Philadelphia. (Boston Globe, June 14, 2002) Yet this past summer, Edison's overstated revenue projections and other inaccuracies earned it a ruler across the back of the hand from the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Its stock fell from $38 per share to about a buck, and it took a $40 million loan to bail it out of its financial woes. At least ten class action lawsuits have been filed against Edison, and the company has fallen under intense scrutiny for its inconsistent delivery of a quality educational product.
One of Edison's earliest privatization efforts, a takeover of an elementary school in Sherman, Texas, resulted in the school system allowing their contract to expire after four years. The community ended up paying Edison up to $1 million per year more than they had intended, thanks to "hidden costs" in the contract.
The San Francisco school board has also yanked a charter from Edison; most of its teachers had quit by the end of its second year, and the school board had found evidence that the school had padded its performance record by weeding out students that were unlikely to perform well on standardized tests.
Cookies and Spam: Web Schools and Other Bad Ideas
The last decade has seen an ever-increasing number of children being home-schooled, perhaps as a response to parental fears about school violence and general hysteria about "failing" public schools. To capitalize on that trend, several Internet education companies have emerged, offering web-based curriculums to home-schooling parents.
Perhaps the most frightening issue to arise from this trend is the ability of unethical marketers to use Internet education as a doorway into the budding consumer's mind. This might sound paranoid, but something similar has already occurred in a larger-scale, institutional setting, when ZapMe! offered free computers to schools in exchange for the schools' commitment to funnel their students' Internet activities through the company's service network.
While researching the web, the students were constantly shown ads for ZapMe!-sponsoring products. At the same time, their research habits were monitored for market research--without their or their parents' knowledge or consent. (see IMPACT press, "Education on the Auction Block").
Even were such devious marketing strategies to be outlawed, home-schooling and web-schooling are less-than-adequate means of educating young people. Again, parents are rarely the best judges of their children's educational needs. And perhaps more important, school is more than just a disseminator of curriculum. Time spent in the company of others and of peers is an important part of personality development. While some schools may not always be the most positive of social environments, hothouse isolation could easily cripple a child's social development.
In Conclusion: We Deserve an Educated America, and We're Willing to Pay the Price.
Our government is constitutionally obliged to ensure America's children an education. We, as voters, have a moral responsibility to demand that our government provide not only an education, but a good education. A solid education is the bulwark of a free society, and is critical to one that strives to have equality for its citizens.
Of course, some Americans don't have children, and others have already paid the property taxes and sales taxes that financed their own children's schooling, and resent having to pay for your child's.
However, we owe it to ourselves as a society to have an educated populace. We deserve coworkers, employees, and even the people that sell us hamburgers who can read, write, do basic math, and have the other fundamental skills they need to do their jobs competently. We deserve to live with others who have learned a little about history, about the arts, and about science, and have learned enough critical thinking that they can make informed decisions.
An American's education should include the best possible information. Not all parents want that for their children, unfortunately. Many are willing to have their children learn in school what they should learn, if at all, in church. Theories that do not stand up to scientific scrutiny, such as creationism, the existence of God and the "rightness" of Christianity have no place in public education.
Nor, for that matter, should we tolerate our children being farmed for their market potential while they should be learning their ABCs.
If we taxpayers are to pay for education, then we should insist that we get our money's worth. It's time we told our political and community leaders to stop kicking our kids around the school grounds with smokescreen ideas like charter schools and vouchers, and get them back into the public classroom. Evidence and common sense tell us the most reliable way to get the most bang for our buck is to invest in quality public education--to hire the best professional educators we can find and let them do their thing.
Contributing Editor Morris Sullivan has written for IMPACT for more than five years. A freelance writer and former high school teacher living in DeLand, Florida, Sullivan is also a playwright. His most notorious work, Femmes Fatale, contained the infamous ³Nude Macbeth,² which has been covered by diverse news media from the BBC and NPR to Playboy, HBOıs ³Real Sex,² and Comedy Centralıs The Daily Show.
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