The Spitfire's Grill
Regular Rants from a Pragmatic Liberal
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
Topic of the Day: Vouchers
I've been doing lots of Florida Blogging lately, and since the future of Florida's voucher program is about to be dealt a { crushing defeat / enormous victory }, its got me thinking: why do Democrats dislike vouchers so much? I had, honestly, never really thought about it until now. Finally I concluded Democrats just are hopelessly unable to express just why moving public money into private schools isn't a smart move for governments.


I wanted to find a good background article about vouchers, what both sides think, their reasoning, etc. Well, I couldn't. (UPDATE: Florida Politics seems to think this Orlando Sun-Sentinel article is a good overview, haven't read it through yet because I can't be late for work) So if anyone can find a good one that's fairly balanced, please forward it my way. I could find lots of news about vouchers in the Florida Supreme Court as well as this John Tierney piece that really makes me wonder if the man has ever been in the state of Florida.

Every state's voucher proposal is different. In short, the parents of any child who is going to a school that is "failing" or has low marks on some metric, you can pull their child out of that school and you receive some cash from the state (presumably, the amount that would have been spent on publicly educating your child) to send him or her to an "approved" private school.

Admittedly, I went to private school grade K-12, so this might have helped my parents pay for my schooling if they were willing to live in a district with a failing school. Furthermore, all the African American leaders who, over time, have supported vouchers because they believed it would speed up the socio-economic plight of their people seemed rather convincing to me. Thus to say, I gave vouchers more than their fair shot, and I'm sure in a year or two I'll re-visit the issue and decide whether I was dead wrong or not, which I've concluded several times before in my life.

The most common liberal argument against vouchers is that taking money away from public schools just makes the problem worse. Well, theoretically it shouldn't--there would be less children to educate, smaller class sizes, etc. But in reality that's the case because it makes public education funding more un-predictable. Why hire a new teacher if you're a failing school and you'll just have to fire him/her in a year when your budget gets cut? Furthermore, does student-based funding really work on a proportional scale? (ie, if it takes $15,000 to educate 15 children (in reality it's much more), does it require $16,ooo to educate 16 or do economies of scale increase efficiency?)

Those arguments, unfortunately, don't matter. The only reason education is a major public issue in every election is because the most consistent swing voters are middle-class suburban white women (the proverbial "soccer moms"). These voters, quite frankly, don't give a shit what's best for the entire system. Their poor Johnny and Sally are in failing schools. The only people who buy the liberal argument against vouchers are teachers, and in case you haven't seen what's been going on in California recently, Democrats have a sure lock on their constituency.

So let's return to a line of argumentation so devoid in current-day politics: logic.

Vouchers qualify for the Logical Extreme Test, and they fail it. How do they qualify? I think we can almost universally assume that parents love their children and will do what they can given their means to educate them in the best way possible. For most parents, this means they must rely on public education anyway. Since all children who attend public schools have some form of legal guardian who can make the decision to take the school voucher, all children at failing schools should thus qualify (there are need-based vouchers, but in this case the financial status of the parents would mean they already possess to move their children, just not qualify for the subsidy). The Logical Extreme Test simply states that if you take an argument to its logical extreme, is the idea disastrous or does it still work? Qualifying simply means that the logical extreme is not only possible but somewhat likely as well. I think it'd be quite likely that if a voucher program was build correctly, every parent would pull their child out of a failing school. Perhaps the future of public education could be a de-regulated system of private schools (certainly an issue to discuss) but vouchers don't really get us there. Vouchers go in the opposite direction: keep all the public school infrastructure, reduce the public school income.

Luckily for Jeb Bush, the Florida voucher program doesn't quite qualify for the Logical Extreme Test. Why? Because, luckily for "Jeb!", his voucher idea sucks. It rely's on two principles to specifically prevent qualifying for the logical extreme test:

1. Don't give enough money for all parents to afford a charter school.
2. Don't regulate charter schools at all.

Also luckily for "Jeb!", the two groups that will be the most hurt by this program don't vote for him anyway. Presto! Those two groups are:

1. The poor that will still not be able to afford private education.
2. The educators who will have little to no job security depending upon their school's latest FCAT scores (really, don't even get me started on the FCATs).

Thus "Jeb!" gets a dual benefit - he can claim the theoretical successes of a voucher program all the while knowing that it won't really get as bad as the Democrats say it might because it was designed to be horrible from the get-go. What a wonderfully new political concept: design failure into the system.

But back to the general concept of vouchers. Before anyone argues that I'm only considering the worst case, I simply want to establish that my worst-case scenario is, at its heart, the whole point of vouchers. If, after all, a set of children go to a failing school and only a small percentage of parents take advantage of the voucher system, is there not something wrong here? Honestly, is the excuse, "well, they DO have a way out, if their parents so choose" really what it all boils down to? Do you have no obligation to protect those students whose parents, despite voucher money, still couldn't afford to send them to a private school?

At its heart, the voucher idea is about freedom versus the greater good. And in this country--God bless it--we have a habit of going the path of individual gain. There is no invisible hand when it comes to education. So while I think the argumentation of the greater good is important, those against vouchers need to find a much better way of packaging their message. I say take advantage of the conservative education lexicon. Ask how vouchers can truly "leave no child behind" and how we can truly have "accountability" in a system where teachers have no job security. Think what happens when the economy changes: the bigger the economic hit of a recession, the more parents will have to send their children back to public schooling. Can we truly have "accountability" in private schools? Because, think about it, how much of a good education can be reflected by a standardized test? If no state in the Union seems to be happy with its public education system, can private schools on the whole be that much better?

Ultimately the voucher system isn't a system at all. It's a quagmire. The more students that might be helped by it, and you get an impossible education environment. The less students that might be helped by it, and you get an increased "educated class" system in which those that need it the most get even less.

The Florida Supreme Court is deciding these issues as I type. Their decision won't change the debate one bit, it will likely merely increase the volume. But the decision will be nonetheless important, too many children depend on it.

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