Monday, December 05, 2005

School Choice Vouchers

Can't seem to get the kids off my mind this week.

We've observed the critical importance of education and educational opportunities here in inner city Dallas over the past 12 years. Children who receive encouragement, attention, mentoring and affirmation in connection with their schooling tend to find hope and a reason to really learn and to explore.

Whenever a conversation turns to public education, someone always asks about or champions "school choice vouchers" as an option that we all should consider. I try my best to listen to folks with this opinion. Most of the time I am able to be civil at least. But, I must admit it is getting harder and harder for me.

I think that is true because in many cases, not all I am sure, but in many cases the hidden agenda is not about the impact of vouchers on educational outcomes. There is a social ideology underneath most of these discussions. I suspect the hidden agenda is about race, class, perceptions around safety and even moral norms and mores as defined and conceived by those who push vouchers.

I've noticed that one simple observation, couched in a question, seems to turn these conversations upside down.

Recently, I was having such a discussion with a school leader from another county. The subject of vouchers came up. So, I asked my question.

"How many private school desks are in your county today?"

My new friend pondered for a moment and then he replied, "Probably 500 or less."

"And, how many students in the county who need an education today?" I followed up.

"Something over 20,000," he quickly replied.

"So, given these numbers, why are we even having a conversation about vouchers?"

There is an answer to that question, but it has nothing to do with educating our children, not all of them, not even a good percentage of them.

Jeremy Gregg, Director of Development here at CDM, did a bit of research on this matter for us. You may have seen his comments on an earlier post this week. It is more good, reality-based information to keep in mind.

Check this out:

Dallas has a MAXIMUM ENROLLMENT of 21,570 in the private school system.

The DISD reports here that its Elementary School Enrollment Projections Fall 2005 stand at 98,146. This does not include middle schools or high schools.

There is no question: vouchers are not a solution if the challenge is the education of all of our children.

No, vouchers take us somewhere else. They provide "solutions" to other "problems" and they answer other questions, often unspoken questions.

Can we just be honest?


Bren Hughes said...

I hadn't really thought that way about vouchers before. Thanks for opening my eyes to this possible dark side.

But what do you think about another popularly touted educational reform plan -- school choice, to encourage competition among schools. Do you think something like this would benefit minorities? I'd like to have more of a clue than I do now.

Dallasfan said...

My understanding of vouchers is that is encourages school choice. You can use the voucher to take your child across town and therefore are not bound by school districting that we have today. Therefore,one could "support" a school that is performing rather than be mandated to attend a underachieving school because of your address.
Vouchers have come into vogue because the school systems have no motivation (other than their good hearts) to perform. They get their monies irregardless of how well they accomplish their job. This, to me, seems rather short sighted by the political leaders who provide the monies for public education.
Larry, what exactly is the drawback to having vouchers if they can be used to foster competition in our school systems?

Ivan said...

The numbers do indeed make it clear that vouchers which allow kids to attend private schools are not "the" answer. Neither is school choice. The single parent in the "projects" relying on public transportation cannot simply "choose" to take their child to a blue ribbon school in far north Dallas, assuming that school had any extra capacity.

However, vouchers would allow many more kids from families who could never otherwise consider private schools due to the cost to give their kids this advantage. It is clearly not "the" answer, but it might be a transformative experience for the 1 kid in 20 to whom it provides an alternative to a failing public school. Let's at least give it that.

Larry James said...

All good posts. Thanks!

Please understand, when we speak of "school choice" and vouchers, we are speaking of two different things. Sorry for any confusion my post may have created.

Vouchers represent public funds that can be used to pay tuition in a private school--like a church school, etc., as Ivan pointed out. My main point was that there aren't enough slots available to make the voucher route viable, plus I think there is something else up with all of that besides concern for high quality education.

Choice is the freedom a student has to attend any public school in a school district.

Charles said...


One question on school choice - how do we handle safety? If we stay in our current home, our kids will attend schools that are substantially less safe statistically. I'm OK taking risks myself, but I have trouble sending children into a school that has a significant chance of harming them.

Just curious as to your thoughts.


Larry James said...

Great question, Charles.

To begin with, I am not completely opposed to school choice in a public school district--I just don't think vouchers should be issued to allow students to leave public schools for the private route. Choice might be an option for your children.

Having said that, I can almost guarantee that if you stay and are involved in the school where your kids attend, things will improve there as you band together with other partents, etc.

Dallasfan said...

Vouchers are not just used to attend private schools. They can and are used in an attempt to provide school choice. The bigger question is, why are we having this discussion in the first place. IF our schools were doing the job they are supposed to be doing we wouldn't be having the conversation at all. The PROBLEM is that by and large they are not doing the job of educating our children. Is it a problem with monies or is there something else that is the root of the problem. Vouchers is a policy that is an attempt to take some of the power out of the system and put it back into OUR (parents) pockets as we attempt to ensure that our children are able to function in our everchanging world.

Larry James said...

How would you use a voucher to attend anything but a private school? Do you mean a voucher could be used to pay to go to a public school district where you did not reside? I was not aware of such arrangements. I am not sure that such exists in Texas, but I could definitely be wrong.

I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of vouchers are used to pay for private education.

Janet said...

The way I understand things right now is that if a child is attending a school classified as low-performing, they do have the option of going to a different school. However, many parents (as Ivan mentioned) do not have the transportation and means to go back and forth to a school that is somewhere away from the community. Though the outside/private schools may be "better" in terms of education, parents like having their children close where they can get to them if they need to. To me, vouchers seem to be a way of taking money out of the community. Instead, why don't they focus on making the schools within our communities better resourced, higher quality, etc?

Dallasfan said...

You might be right Larry about only being able to use the vouchers for private schools in Texas. I will have to do some more research on Texas. I can say that in other areas of the country that is not the case. Parents can use the voucher for public or private schools. They have the choice as to where they spend put their voucher (state money). I would hope that the benefits to this would be self evident, if you can use the voucher in the public, private or charter schools. This is my opinion is the best way to get to what Janet is asking for, which is higher quality schools.

I will say, as one who has a job where I move frequently, it is very troubling to have to move with kids of school ages. My wife and I are moving to San Antonio in the summer and have been busy researching the different school districts in SA. My tax dollars go toward education just like your money goes and there should be some accountability to the schools to ensure that they are using our money to educate our kids and not just provide daycare for 13 yrs. This, I believe, is the mindset or foundation behind vouchers and their potential benefits. My focus is NOT the school system, my focus is ensuring that my kids recieve a good education. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule in today's educational system.

IBreakCellPhones said...

Would the market adapt if vouchers were made available? Back at the beginning of the 20th century, there certainly weren't many automobile mechanics around, but people still bought cars, which created the market for the mechanics. If vouchers were available, increasing the size of the pool of private-school eligible students, do you think more private schools would come into existence?

And what do you think of vouchers and their potential impact on homeschoolers?

IBreakCellPhones said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
IBreakCellPhones said...

Oh, and vouchers could be structured so that they're not just for private schools. Just have every child issued a voucher, and the parent can take that voucher wherever they want their child to attend school. They could take it to their neighborhood elementary, or one across town. Possibly the private school, and possibly some way to convert it into cash to buy books or supplies for homeschool. Of course, some might object to this because what the state pays for, it can definitely regulate.

Jeremy Gregg said...

dallasfan: " Is it a problem with monies or is there something else that is the root of the problem."

Schools do not have problems. They have messes, which are bundles of many problems.

That being said, the lack of money is one of the largest problems. Imagine a for-profit company that is in the business of building widgets.

- To build a high-quality widget (i.e. a kid that can go to college), it costs $1.

- To build a widget that won't break (i.e. a kid that graduates), it costs $.50.

- To build a widget that might break, but which probably won't (i.e. a kid that just drops out), it costs $.10.

They have $1,000 starting capital.

The demand is 100,000 widgets.

What should they do?

Jeremy Gregg said...

p.s. a bad answer would be "buy 1,000 lottery tickets"

O, wait a minute, isn't that the exact solution that our state has for school funding?

Charles said...

Actually I don't think the lottery money has gone to education (except as an incentive to learn probability), but it sounds good in election years.

IBreakCellPhones said...

If I remember right, it was sold to Texans as going to education, but then dumped in the general fund.

Dallasfan said...

Yes that was the idea that many states had in order to get their constiuents to buy into the lottery/gambling ideas. But where has the great windfall of money into the school system gone? You are correct, sir. It has gone into the general fund in the great majority of our states. This is one of my big gripes with government. They get us (the general public) to accept something that many of us do not agree with because of the "greater good" to our society.

I do not believe that is a solely a problem with monies. I believe that is a problem with mismanagement across the board. There are too many people with their hand in the pot and the pot is never as full as it should be when it reaches our kids. I beleieve that there are a myriad of institutional problems in too many of our schools. My wife used to teack high school in CA. As an example, a teacher noticed some girls flashing gang signs. Rather than confront the students herself, she went to the office and had the principle to come in and put a stop to the situation. When the opposing gang girls saw the principle, they in colaboration jumped on the principle and began to bite, pinch, hit and scrape him. These girls were back in school the next day. One had been identified as a "troubled" child and was scheduled to have an evaluation by the school, which had not been accomplshed due to a backlog. This girl could not be held accountable for her actions, because the school hadn't accomplished their part.

The bottom line is, what message are we sending our students, when you can beat up the principle and return to school the following day without any repuscusions.

I use this example to illustrate that the money is not the only problem that our schools have today. As you say, Jeremy, our schools are a mess.

This mess is why I stand behind vouchers. Vouchers are an effort to encourage our school systems to fix the mess at their level and to be rewarded with vouchers by parents who believe that the school is making an effort to fix the bottomline which is our children's education.

Anonymous said...

I believe he said "the lack of money is one of the largest problems," not THE problem.

Your point is well taken, those girls should have been suspended. But his point is also well taken: one of the primary drivers behind the mess is the lack of appropriate funding. I think this is more significant a problem than blaming administrators, which is an excellent smoke-screen for disguising an arugment for decreasing funding of public schools.

Dallasfan said...

It is my understanding that spending adjusted for inflation has increased by the federal government. Take a look at these sights.

My point is this that legislatures ARE placing more money in administrators hands but the money is not there for the vast majority of our children in our schools. Texas school districts are mandated by Gov Perry to spend 65% of their budgets in the classroom, yet many do not accomplish this task. They would rather spend it on Steven Covey seminars. Do not get me wrong, I love Steven Covey, but not to the detriment of my child's education.

Jeff said...

When will we understand that simply throwing more money at a problem will no solve it?

A big step in the right direction would be to completely reform or do away with the N.E.A.

Beyond that, bring choice and competition in. When you have choice and competition, prices go down and quality goes up.

It's the American way.


Anonymous said...

All or nothing, huh, Jeff? Sort of like WalMart and its impact on wages. Real quality improvement there, huh? Come on, man.

Darin London said...

You are right that there is an underlying agenda. Education is one of the primary services which private companies are trying to pry away from governments all over the world. The idea of vouchers has been misused (this coming from a former voucher nut) to lull people into thinking that they could get their kids into that private school using government money, especially that good catholic school where they are not afraid to talk about God. The problem is that most private schools perform better because of selective enrollment, and can use price descrimination to maintain this advantage in the presence of vouchers. But there is probably some corporation (or soon will be) which will provide the lowest cost education solution to children all over the world. Call it the Walmart School. It wont be any better than what we get now, it may very well be worse, it will be as buerocratic as the cable company is when a parent has a problem, and it most definitely will not have much religious diversity, as it will be designed to be portable to any country in the world with just a metal shed and some computers. If only we could do what England, Canada, Australia, and just about every other country in the world does, and allow public money to fund religious schools who meet certain fundamental education provision criteria.