Saturday, September 02, 2006

The ABC's of Why School Vouchers Suck

As promised, I said I would begin sharing some of my more controversial viewpoints here. I occasionally will participate in online discussion forums where I can hammer out my own perspectives and get a clearer understanding of where I stand on any issue.

In this case, the topic was John Stossel's 20/20 report on "Stupid in America" and school vouchers.

This is my portion of the debate:

I watched the 20/20 episode with my husband and was *SNORTING* through it most of the time.

I understand the idea of vouchers and competition. I really do. My problem isn't with the children who can use them to go to a 'better' school--my problem is that you can't give them to EVERY student in the bad school.

There aren't enough seats in the 'good' schools to take every child in a 'bad' school.

So what do vouchers do? They select a few (first come, first serve) that can escape a 'bad' education, and then leave the rest 'behind' to rot in a bad situation.

I consider it the same thing as not reporting to the police that your child was molested because you don't want to 'deal with' the trauma of a trial, public scrutiny, any sort of stigma on your child. Because of your fear, your ego, your self-serving issues--you would ALLOW another child to be harmed? Another child to be sexually assaulted by this predator? To me, that makes the parent just as culpable in what happens to the next child. (And, it sends a VERY unhealthy message to the original victim.)

This is why I can't get behind school vouchers--but am instead for national standardization of our schools, modeled through high expectation and yearly stardardized testing (based on competition in the global market) for advancement--of both the teacher and the student.

If the ratio of students passing falls below a certain level, then the teacher doesn't advance. If the ratio continues to fall, then the teacher is replaced. Very simple and truly a common-sense approach to what ails our educational system.

But of course, there's no money to be made in that approach, so obviously, it won't work.


When asked to clarify, I wrote:

It would be the WORSE thing that could happen to our school system, and I'll tell you why.

A) Cronyism:

If you've ever been a part of any school system, you know for a fact that friends of those in 'high places' get picked first when it comes to 'lotteries'--and then everyone else gets put on waiting lists. Children shouldn't be sorted by the popularity of their parents and who's got the right connections. Vouchers--without correcting the corruption already in place--would only further this dispicable process of condeming children who are all ready at a deficit.

Working parents don't have the time, or the ability to do what stay-at-home mom's can do. Very few have the ability to be part of the PTA or 'volunteer' in order to make those connections. Last but not least--these 'lotteries' are often held during school hours--which, in most cases, are the very same hours that these parents have to work. In other words, the 'first come, first served' basis of the vouchers is really only practical to those who have the time to be first in line.

This punishes children for that which is not in their control. So, vouchers fail on this front all the way around.

B) Collective Conscience:

Once 'government' declares there is a 'fix' for a problem, the rest of the country goes to sleep, believing it's already been taken care of. The people hear bad and good and figure it's just sour grapes and nothing more. They forget that our school system is failing our students until the hue and cry raises to the original decible.

In other words, using vouchers as a 'fix' only prolongs the inevitable. Becuase without nationalized standardization, without creating higher expectations, these kids might be getting into a 'safer' school (and only maybe, you'd be surprised what the government is allowing as a 'school' these days) but that doesn't mean they are getting a better education. Sure, there may be less students without a police record--but is the curriculum any different?

So, create the voucher system and the American public will go to sleep on what is the real heart of the problem: NO public school in our country is graduating children who are prepared to compete in a global economy and world market. Private schools may do just a touch better, especially those who are geared toward preparing students for further (University, College) education. But in the end, it's really the state of our public education that's at question here.

Look what happened with welfare reform in the 90's. The vast majority of the public beleive that anyone who is in poverty today is just there because they want to be--not because they weren't given every advantage the richest country in the world can offer. (More on this below.)

C) Laying blame on Parents and Kids who are left Behind:

If you pass the voucher plan, without addressing the real problems in the school, then all those kids left behind will be labeled as self-fulfilling-losers. They, and their parents, will be seen as "not caring enough to use vouchers" despite the realities of the limited number of vouchers available, the length of the waiting lists, etc. They will be exposed to a stigma that goes far beyond just attending (and graduating) a 'bad' school, but to the stigma of 'apathy' and disregard for their own personal acheivement.

They will be relegated the corridors of 'soft bigotry' every single time they apply for a job and name their high school. Every single time they try to get into a 'good' college or university.

It's a set-up for bigotry. "Why didn't you use the voucher program? You must not care about succeeding."

The same way that "Why didn't you use the welfare programs to succeed? You must want to be poor" has worked in this country ever since, despite the realities on the ground.

D) Doesn't fix a damn thing:

Not to mention, the real problem isn't with money, or the 'where' as is illustrated by the 20/20 report. I believe there is plenty of money in the education system, which should not indicate the quality of education in ANY neighborhood. Does McDonalds have a different *basic* menu in the Bronx than it does in Beverly Hills? I would bet it doesn't. They all serve the Big Mac, fries and soda, right?

Why would we allow our education system to be any different?

It's the currriculum and lack of standardization that is the problem. THAT would be a fix. Which leads me to expound on my comment below:

E) Money shouldn't be the issue:

But it is. Good teachers see the only way that they can make the sort of income they expected when they entered school to train for the position, is to teach at good schools--private or public, makes no difference. That shouldn't be the case. There should be a guide, a structure, to pay raise and tenure, based on performance--which is to be measured by the amount of children who LEARN beneath their tutelage. In this way, we could easily weed out those who don't teach well, and those who do, and advance the ones who have earned their advancement.

If the curriculum were standardized and tested regularly, the results would be clear. Right now, it's a mish-mash of crap that doesn't serve the students.

I'm not talking about non-imaginative, passion-less teaching. Any teacher worth his or her salt can take a standard curriculum, the information the students MUST know for that grade level, and do ingenius and wonderful things to help the students learn. Within any curriculum, there is always room for excitement, one just has to be smart about it.

We don't need more money. We need people who are thinking less about more money, and more about advancing themselves and their students.

F) Bandaids only HIDE a problem, they never SOLVE a problem. Less money makes it WORSE on those left Behind:

Since I've already shared my evaluation about why vouchers are merely a bandaid, and the money issue, I'll close with this.

We're not just talking about a lucky few winning 'the lottery' of a decent education, we're talking about the millions more left behind to deal with a bankrupt school that, if the issues are clear here, was 'bad' to begin with. In other words, making a bad situation worse for the majority of our kids.

I believe it's something like 8 or 9K that we spend on every student in public school (FAR more than is really necessary) and if you multiply that by say, thirty students using the voucher program, you're looking at taking 240-260K away from an already 'disabled' school.

Basic math, economics and business sense says that's a BAD idea. So while those who have gotten into the better school are celebrating, those left behind will deal with not having enough paper, books, or maintenance in their schools, higher pupil-to-teacher ratios as the school can no longer afford to keep as many teachers as they did before, etc. etc. and on and on.

NO where in my book does that sound like a *good* idea. In fact, the idea of competing with the future of our country's children leaves me down-right nauseated.

It's not a 'monopoly' on paying customers who opt-in for a benefit they may want--it's about giving the citizens of our country the ability to have successful lives. You take that rug out from beneath them before they're even old enough to have a job or vote, and you can expect the future to look very grim for everyone.

Imagine a future where the worst-educated people on the planet are in charge of making policy decisions about Medicaid, taxes, and whether or not our country should go to war. Imagine that and then think about school vouchers and if it's really the best idea for saving our children's education, or if higher standards and strong curriculum are the best bet.


Steven said...


It might help if you tried to think of vouchers in this way:

Good schools can always increase their capacity for students. The more students they teach the more money they have. They have an incentive to attract more students.

Bad schools will lose their students to good schools unless they improve. If they lose their students then they lose money and have to close their doors. The people who run these schools are out of a job. These bad schools have an incentive to improve.

J.R. Turner said...

Steven wrote: "Good schools can always increase their capacity for students."

Are you sure of this, Steven? Not all schools can absorb hundreds of children when a community loses an entire school. We're talking about over-crowded classrooms--which all the studies have found to be the leading cause of a failing school. (Not money, not 'bad' teachers, not corruption--but oversized class rooms.)

"Bad schools will lose their students to good schools unless they improve."

I disagree--bad schools will lose SOME students to good schools. That's one of the major problems with the school voucher idea. You're expecting parents to be thrilled with the idea that the quality of their children's education fully depends on whether or not they win the lottery.

We don't 'bank' on anything else in this country on the hopes that we will win the lottery--least of all with the success of our children's future.

"If they lose their students then they lose money and have to close their doors."

Fewer schools means fewer options. And it's not an overnight occurrence--ask families who've been on waiting lists for years. During that time, they're children are being forced to endure oversized class rooms, lower-paid teachers, and fewer teachers.

Is that really a solution to our education problems in this country?

"The people who run these schools are out of a job. These bad schools have an incentive to improve."

'Bad' schools already have an incentive to improve--our children and the families who demand it from them. It's not about "punishing" bad schools--which in return only punishes the children--but rolling up our sleeves and getting smart about how we approach these problems.

Every study out there indicates that children who are using vouchers to attend a 'better' school don't do any better (and often worse) that children who attend poorer schools, but who have smaller class sizes. Every study indicates that higher teacher-to-student ratios are the solution to higher achievement.

Closing schools and firing teachers only results in overcrowding, the exact opposite of what works.

In the end, to entertain ANY solution that does not include ALL the children is a failed option from the onset.

Now, if school vouchers were mailed to the homes of every student, for every child, this might be a different case all together.

But as our president has said time and again: No child should be left behind. And in this case, to languish in a 'bad school' with overcrowded classrooms simply because they didn't win the lottery.