29 June 2006

Debating Vouchers

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

There are only three types of people who oppose vouchers: those who are beholden to the teachers’ unions, those who don’t know the facts, and those who hate children, especially black ones.

It has become an unchallenged fixture in the political landscape that some persons should be forced to pay for the education, arts, and sports of other people’s children. I can understand why this might be the case for the poor, but not for others. But let’s put aside the antiquated notion that persons should pay for their own children.

The public schools spend money like drunken sailors. According to government figures, as reported by David Salisbury of the CATO Institute, the average per pupil spending for public (government) schools is $9,354 per year. This underestimates the amount since reported costs typically leave out such things as capital outlays and pension liabilities. Almost 22% of state budgets went to K-12 education and the states provide less than half of K-12 spending. In New York, even drunken sailors would stare in disbelief at the $16,469 per pupil spending orgy ($14,870 in Fredonia and $15,165 in Dunkirk). These figures come from May 14, 2006 article in the Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer on the proposed 2006-2007 school budgets that were submitted for voter approval and reflect a report by The Public Policy Institute.

What have we gotten in return for this war on the taxpayer? Lots of administrators and staff. According to Salisbury, teachers now make up only 40% of total school employees. We also got well-paid teachers. The average public school teacher gets 35% more than that of the average private school teacher and much better benefits (benefits are worth 31.3% of the former group’s salary, 15.8% of the latter’s). Despite spending more per student than any other country, we get poor results. In math, U.S. students do worse than most of their peers and their comparative performance worsens as they advance through grades. In reading, the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 30% of fourth graders were proficient and not one state had even half reaching this level.

Vouchers would save the taxpayers megabucks. According to government figures, the average private elementary school tuition is less than $3,500 and the average private secondary school tuition is $6,052 (1999-2000 figures). A voucher amount of $5,000 would thus give students access to most private schools and still allow for at least a couple of thousand dollars in savings that could be split between the taxpayer and the public schools. Even if vouchers produced no educational improvement, the money saved is justification enough. It is worth noting that even the sworn enemies of vouchers, the NEA and AFT, don’t claim that voucher beneficiaries learn less.

Vouchers probably benefit students. One 2002 study was done by researchers at Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, and Mathematica Policy Research on the effects of voucher-like scholarships on low-income black student achievement in New York City. The way in which scholarships were handed out allowed for a randomized study, the gold standard of research protocols. The researchers found that black students who used the scholarships to attend private schools for three years had standardized math and reading scores 9% higher than comparable black students who did not attend private schools. There was also substantial achievement among black students who attended a private school for only one or two years. Researchers from Harvard and the University of Houston looked at the effects of private school vouchers for families near or below the poverty level in Milwaukee. Again they found significant increases in math and reading scores. Harvard researcher Caroline Hoxby found that the competition from vouchers and charter schools correlated with statistically significant improvements in the scores of students who remained in the public schools. She attributed this effect to competition.

It should be noted that the evidence for charter schools (a government school-voucher hybrid) is weaker. One government study found that these schools did worse than public schools.

The failure of public schools is unsurprising. Human history has repeatedly shown that government monopolies produce worse goods at greater cost. This is why no one wants to nationalize the car, food, and movie industries. There are only three types of persons who oppose vouchers…


The Constructivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

There he goes again. The Objectivist’s case for implementing Milton Friedman’s idea of replacing direct state funding of public elementary and secondary schools with vouchers to parents of school-age children depends on his dramatizing the costs and minimizing the benefits of state investments in public education. It’s not just that he leaves out inconvenient facts like the relative strength of New York public school students’ performance--at or above national averages, with marked improvements in almost every category assessed--particularly noteworthy results given Albany’s foot-dragging at remedying the unconstitutional disparities in the funding of school districts across the state. He also assumes that private schools--most of which do not have as strong accountability measures in place as do public schools--have the capacity, ability, and desire to educate more students well.

But let’s give The Objectivist the benefit of the doubt this time. After all, whereas U.S. academia is the envy of the world, our primary and secondary schools do not stack up as well against international competition. Given that roughly as many American students fail to graduate from high school as graduate from college each year, there is plenty of room for improvement. Can shifting tax dollars from schools to students aid this effort? So far, the record has been mixed and the controversies over interpreting it have generated far more heat than light (compare the positions of rival school reform organizations: Alliance for School Choice and Rethinking Schools). I propose two new ways of finding out how well vouchers can work.

First, let’s see if vouchers can help improve the range and quality of day care and preschool options for parents of young children. While these parents spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on what Alissa Quart, in the July/August 2006 issue of The Atlantic, calls the “Baby Genius Edutainment Complex,” experts in cognition, neurology, and psychology increasingly question the value of educational television and favor the developmental benefits of interaction with adults and peers. What if New York state were to fund educational savings accounts for all young children, with $1,000 per year of age added to the account each birthday before the sixth? Parents could spend these funds only on accredited day care and preschool programs. Whatever they save from the $15,000 (plus interest) over the five years would be converted into a portfolio under New York’s 529 College Savings Program. Any funds unused by age 25 would be distributed equally among the state’s public primary, secondary, and higher education institutions.

If voucher proponents are correct, such a program would have numerous benefits. In response to a greater demand for day care and preschool, both supply and competition should increase. In response to the increased diversity of offerings, parents should scrutinize their options carefully, thereby providing incentives for institutions to minimize costs and maximize quality. The state can limit its role to setting accreditation and assessment standards, penalizing fraud and abuse, and publicizing reliable information and analyses. By providing “educational start-up capital” to parents and setting ground rules for “early education institutions,” the state can facilitate the formation of a public-private day care and preschool system on a quite different financial and infrastructural footing than the existing K-12 system. These investments in early education should increase performance levels and graduation rates, reduce the need for remedial education, and provide models for reform throughout the K-12 system, not to mention improve poverty, crime, and college graduation rates throughout the state over time.

To be sure, this early education investment program has significant start-up costs. To offset them, I propose making New York’s public high schools more like New York’s public colleges and universities. Right now, the typical New York public high school receives about 50% of its annual income from local property taxes, 45% from state funds, and 5% from federal funds, whereas the typical SUNY or CUNY college or university relies on tuition for about half its annual income and a mix of state and federal funding, donations, and endowment returns for the other half. Why shouldn’t local property tax income for public high schools be replaced by a mix of vouchers and tuition? What if elected school boards and voters were allowed to set and approve voucher and tuition levels for their local public schools? Communities would then decide through a democratic process how much to reduce local property taxes, how high to set vouchers, and how high to set public school tuition. Along with reforming labor law to allow all teachers to form or join unions, this local voucher experiment should improve educational options for all New York high school students.

If so, perhaps the more contentious debate over whether to distribute state and federal funds to students or schools may someday be resolved.


The Constructivist said...

O, things are not as rosy in Milwaukee as you make it out to be. Also, have you been following the debates over Hoxby's findings and Rothstein's critiques? For instance, here's one anti-Hoxby analysis from the Economic Policy Institute....

The Constructivist said...

O, here's a Media Matters analysis of John Stossel's special report on school choice from the beginning of this year. It points to problems with his reporting that to me at least seem to mirror your op-edding....

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
I have two questions.

(1) I note that you endorse a voucher system for funding public schools. I wonder why you think that vouchers are a good idea for public schools but not for private schools?

(2) Is there any area in which the government competes against the private sector and delivers goods more cheaply or at the same price but with greater quality? If not, why would you want to continue to provide education via government schools?

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

I read over the response to John Stossel's special report. Note that as far as I can tell, the only evidence that vouchers make things worse is the Ladd data on charter schools, but I don't argue that charter schools work. Hence, it appears that the debate is over whether vouchers have no effect or a positive effect. Do you agree with this?

Also, even if vouchers have no effect, wouldn't the costs savings be an excellent reason to adopt them.

Leaving aside our ideological differences the extreme spending on schools in the U.S. ($8-$10K depending on who does the study) has to be troubling given that it is the highest in the world and produces below-average results.

Isn't your suggestion of voucher-like funding of public schools an implicit acknowledgement of this?

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
One more question, then I'll stop being a pest. Currently there are government grants students can receive if they attend private colleges, including religious ones. If you think this is kosher, and I'm guessing that you do, why would you have a different attitude toward ordinary vouchers?

The Constructivist said...

O, where in my high school proposal do you see me saying vouchers would be limited to those choosing public schools? Maybe it wasn't clear, but I meant to be calling for vouchers to be free to be spent on any accredited high school, private or public, providing private schools incorporate the same accountability measures as publics are required to and allow the uninization of their teachers, and provided publics are allowed to charge tuition like privates. If this wasn't clear to you, where did I go wrong in explaining it? And now that I've clarified my position, what is your reaction?

Personally, I'm more interested in your reaction to my early ed proposal. If vouchers are so great, why aren't advocates willing to put their weight behind a system that would supplement rather than compete against the public K-12 system? Success there would create a demand for a similar K-12 system. Or is my idea less original than I think it is?

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

My apologies. Your proposal calls for vouchers for public schools, but does not address whether they apply to private schools. I was was just assuming.

If we have to fund pre-K with taxpayer dollars then I think your idea is an excellent one. But why should we use taxpayer dollars to fund it for rich and middle class families?

In addition, I don't see the argument for trying vouchers first on pre-K before applying it to other schools. Every year we wait we lose massive tax dollars and probabaly, although you're right the studies here are mixed, harm many students. Is there an argument for waiting?

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
Relating to the issue of educational quality, why is it important to unionize private school teachers?

I'm guessing that teachers at Andover, Exeter, Saint Paul, Sidwell Friends, etc. aren't unionized and many probably don't have educational certification. If this is correct, and I might be wrong about it, isn't this a good indication that at least at the top end these sorts of things are unnecessary?

I do agree with you that if you want a very high caliber of teachers, you have to pay real money, just as you do for any other specialist.

I wonder if you would support paying high school teachers in needed areas (e.g., math and science) more than areas in which there is a glut (e.g., social studies teachers). The union might not like it much but it is a way to get better teachers in needed areas and more choice.

The Constructivist said...

O, after rereading my post, I admit I left too much implied in my high school vouchers idea. What I was trying to get at is the notion of competitive fairness: if private schools can charge tuition over and above what a voucher would cover, public schools should be able to, as well. What do you think of the mechanism I proposed for determining voucher/tuition levels and the idea of tying vouchers to local instead of state or federal taxes?

On why I wouldn't means-test my version of vouchers in my early ed proposal, I have a few grounds: 1) equity: a public good should be available to everyone equally; 2) unity: making it so should promote a feeling that "we're all in it together," despite families' choosing from a greater variety of educational institutions than in the K-12 system--and avoid stigmatizing voucher recipients; 3) support: I want to give everyone a reason to vote for this kind of vouchers. (True, $15K over 5 years is a small amount to those who are truly well-off, but for those families among them worried about costs of college, they could simply use the NY Saves option for future higher education expenses and use its mutual funds to [hopefully] see it grow over the next dozen years, while the civic-minded among those who aren't worried could just "donate" the amount back to the general fund for public education by not using it.)

On why wait, I'm not exactly calling for waiting, since my pre-K and high schol proposals work together. But as for waiting on K-8 completely and 9-12 state/federal funds, I have a few reasons: 1) given the strong opposition to vouchers and the lack of conclusive evidence supporting voucher proponents' arguments, it's important to get evidence that will be convincing to opponents as well as proponents of vouchers--and I can't think of anything more convincing than successfully using vouchers to take on the paucity of affordable and excellent day care and preschool options for parents of young children; 2) my proposal tests voucher proponents' sincerity--something their opponents doubt--by seeing if they will support an expansion of government investments in education that gives them a chance to prove that vouchers can work in practice as well as in theory and that doesn't involve (potentially) defunding or dismantling an existing public program; 3) whatever you or others think of the returns on public education, NY voters continue to elect school boards and approve school budgets that result in the costs you disapprove of; rather than subvert that democratic process, we'd be better off giving voters good reasons to reform it.

On different salaries by field and using higher salaries to attract people to high-priority fields, that's pretty standard in higher education and the higher ed unions haven't tried to stop it, so I wouldn't be opposed to it in the K-12 arena.

On unionization, I think it's a basic right of workers. If the Supreme Court ever allows profs at private colleges and universities to unionize, I'd bet many would. (The excuse that they exercise "managerial" powers is ludicrous, given how bureaucratized universities have become since the Yeshiva decision in 1980.) Given the salary disparities you cite between public and private school teachers, I suspect many private school teachers would also join unions.

The connection to quality for me is encapsulated in the slogan "our working conditions are their learning conditions." Not only can unions help improve the terms and conditions of employment, they can provide job training, professional development opportunities, support networks, and other incentives to do the job well. They also provide both formal and informal checks and balances, helping put teachers on more of a par with administrators, which hopefully leads to smarter institutional decision-making. Good teacher unions become advocates for students, for learning, and for education. That's how they should work. That not all do is not a reason to assert they can't.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

I very much enjoyed your points. I’d like to respond to them.

1. Unionization leads to better schools.

Let us assume that unionization is a basic right and that it’s good for teachers and professors. As a side note, neither claim is obvious to me, but we can argue over this in a later editorial.

What evidence do you have that it’s good for students? I’m guessing that the unionized public schools perform worse than the non-unionized private schools. I’m also guessing that the same is true for public and private colleges. Note that I don’t have evidence for either claim, but I suspect if we look at things like graduation rates, SAT scores, future income the pattern would be borne out (although, to be fair, we would have to control for genetics and socio-economic factors). I believe that elite high schools (e.g., Andover and Exeter) and elite private universities (e.g., Stanford, Chicago, and the Ivy League) don’t have a unionized faculty?

So let me put this as a question: What evidence is there that unionization will increase learning?

2. We shouldn’t means test vouchers.

You give a number of pragmatic arguments against means testing vouchers (i.e., unity and incentives for widespread public support). I’m interested in your first argument: education is a public good. A public good is often characterized by a number of features but the usual one is that is relevant to public policy is non-excludable good (that is, a good that, if consumed by one person, is automatically available to others).

How is this true of education?

If taxpayers pay for Frank’s education, this does not mean that the taxpayer gets more education. You might mean that we all benefit when someone becomes more educated, but how is this different from any other case where a person improves themselves. For example, we benefit if Frank exercises (e.g., he can work more) or becomes religious (e.g., he is less likely to commit crimes). In any case, there is a net negative externality if the net costs of public education exceed its gain for the public. It’s not obvious New Yorkers gain $195,000 (13 years x $15,000) from persons getting educated. The average college graduate only gains about $1 million dollars in income and it’s not clear the taxpayers gain 20% of that.

Do you have an argument that taxpayers gain from the $15 thousand per pupil expenditures?

3. We should wait to fully implement vouchers because of lack of conclusive evidence they work.

Why the evidence for vouchers benefiting students is weaker than the evidence that unionization does so? If we count cost-savings as vouchers working, then I suspect the evidence is very strong that they work. This is particularly true since, as far as I can tell, no one is claiming that vouchers worsen students’ performance. The critics at most claim that it doesn’t improve them. Note I’m leaving aside the data on charter schools since I consider them at most half-assed vouchers

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

One more question. You also note that public schools are doing poorly despite spending lots of money relative to every other country in the world. That is, you think they have some serious problems.

Why do you think they perform badly?

Also, do you think these schools are top-heavy with administrators? If so, and I don't see how you can deny this, do you see any indication whatsoever that government schools will fix these spending problems?

The Constructivist said...

O, many of the OECD countries which spend much less on education than we do--and most even spend less relative to GDP than we do--use predominantly government-run schools, so in answer to your last question, I say we look at what they're doing and take some lessons to get a better return on our public education investments. (Japan, for instance, has clearly articulated national standards. Last I checked, it was conservatives who shot down the last attempt here to generate our own in history.) Of course, as we do this we have to look hard at what features of others' government-run schools are incompatible with our culture or values, as well as be open to rethinking our own assumptions....

At the same time, I suggest we look hard at how the expensive private schools you point to as paragons of educational quality in the US spend the money they take in (from large endowments as well as high tuitions)--their per-pupil spending is very high from what I've seen. The fact that they can afford to be highly selective means that not all their lessons can be applicable to all schools, but I agree with you they must be doing something right.

Whether they are more effective than others is another question, though. What do you think of Kuh, et al.'s Student Success in College? To the extent that faculty unions help foster community, a collaborative atmosphere, and a real voice for faculty in institutional decision-making, I think there's a chance for them to help improve the odds for student success in college. I'll look for some evidence to support this hypothesis.

No time to get into the public good argument in detail right now, but let me ask you first whether any public goods exist, and if so, whether it is government's job to foster them. My larger follow-up question to these would be what government functions do you think are indispensable (i.e., not outsourceable). Voucher opponents have pointed out that just because crimes and fires continue to occur, that doesn't mean we should replace police with private security or give people vouchers for fire prevention instead of directly funding a fire department. If you think police and firefighters are legitimately employed by the government, why not teachers?

Rather than means-test vouchers, I'd simply allow public and private schools to set their own tuition levels. The public schools would do it through the democratic process I outlined in my column, where they set both voucher and tuition levels, while the private schools would set their own tuition.

As I said before, my main argument for waiting on a large-scale vouchers implementation is to not short-circuit the democratic process. In my column I also questioned whether private schools have the "capacity, ability, and desire to educate more students well," which is a pertinent issue if vouchers provide incentives for families to take their children out of public schools. I noted that since most private schols "do not have as strong accountability measures in place as do public schools," it's hard to tell if they're actually doing a better job than the public schools. Still, because there is a perception they are more effective, there could literally be a rush on these schools in some districts, which would lead to last-second hiring of teachers and could possibly destroy whatever it was beyond selectivity that might have made them more effective in the first place.

More later!

The Constructivist said...

O, quick question: why do you disagree with Jefferson's notion that public schools are crucial for the success of American democracy?

The Constructivist said...

O, on reform initiatives, you might be interested in the work of the National Center for Restructuring Education, the School Re-Design Network, the documentary School--whoops, baby's crying, so can't say more than there are plenty of good reform ideas out there already.

The Constructivist said...

O, would you argue Pell Grants for college are a form of vouchers? If so, what would you see as an appropriate level for them? Should they cover 100% of the average public college tuition, 75%, 50%, 25%, or less?

On school spending, have you looked at medians as well as means? You'll find that there are incredible differences among funding levels of public schools.... My point is that we should be looking at what works and what it costs and decide how to extend it so that there is equal educational opportunity for all....

The Constructivist said...

O, Chile hasn't had much success with its vouchers program, according to Martin Carnoy's 1996 essay.

The Constructivist said...

O, I suppose GM is your example of the success of the American car industry? Seriously, can you give examples of privatized education or training systems that actually work? Some economists argue that education is a classic labor-intensive, difficult to streamline process whose core issues won't change whether privately or publicly run....

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

As always, yoiur comments and questions are interesting and troubling for my position.

Let me turn to your two excellent questions.
(1) Are there any public goods that the government should support?
(2) If the government pays for firefighters and police, why shouldn't it pay for public-school teachers?

My answer to the first question is that (within the boundaries of citizens' consent - and let me put that issue aside), my view is that government has permission to provide those public goods necessary to protect negative rights (rights agains force, fraud, and theft).

This means that the government may and probably should support the military and the criminal justice system (e.g., police, courts, and lawyers).

Firefighters and roads are tricky cases. I'm not sure what I think about them, but let me argue that they should be supported because of the enormous efficiency gains in doing so. This also likely includes democratic machinery.

So my position is that a government program is justified only if it is necessary to support rights or is justified by efficiency. This includes protection of rights (military and police) and efficiency-related concerns (e.g., roads and firefighters). I suspect that voting and democratic machinery fit into one of the two, but need to think about this.

I don't see how government schools are more efficient than private schools. You mention the elite ones spend a lot of money. This sounds plausible to me, but is the same true of the run-of-the-mill ones? I don't know of any evidence of this (to be fair, I haven't looked that hard). My background argument is that since the government almost always performs worse than the marketplace, I don't see why we should expect anything different in the area of public education.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

As to your question as to whether public schools are necessary for the success of American democracy? I say no. What argument is there that they are?

Does anyone seriously content that middle class and rich persons wouldn't have their children educated if they couldn't charge it to their neighboring taxpayers? What evidence is there in history or theory to suggest this?

Other than developing children's and young adults' minds, I don't see public schools as performing any other function relevant to American democracy. Perhaps I'm missing something.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

You ask what level of Pell Grant I would support. I would treat all adult students as independent of their families (they are, after all, adults). I would then give grants only to the poor at at most subsidize or guarantee loans for other students. I don't see why adult men and women can't be asked to pay for their own education.

I think of education as a capital good. Like other capital goods, the person who will profit from should have to pay for it.

I think this will provide a serious incentive for schools to control their costs and avoid frivilous programs, buildings, or faculty/staff and will also direct students to areas that the economy needs.

Isn't this a better sytem then one at a hypothetical university where a subtantial amount (e.g., 1/3) don't graduate within 6 years?

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
You ask a good question: what evidence is there of private schools that actually work?

I think since voucher-funded private schools are cheaper than public schools and no one, even their critics, claim they do a worse job than public schools. This is strong evidence that they work.

But let us interpret your claim more narrowly to mean: Is there evidence that private schools provide more education, leaving expenditures aside?

Here is my evidence.
(1) Catholic schools substantially outperform public schools.
(2) At the college level, 25 out of the top 30 ranked colleges (U.S. News and World Report) are private.
(3) In no other area that I'm aware of does the government provide better services at the same cost or the same services at a lower cost.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
A couple of questions for you.

(1) Would you like the government to own and run supermarkets, psychiatric-service providers, or car-repair places?

(2) If your answer is no to all three, how is education any different?

(3) Aside from increasing learning, how are public schools related to our democracy?

Again, I very much enjoyed your comments and links. I'm bummin' that you're checking out for a while.

The Constructivist said...

O, I'll let Jefferson speak for himself on your last question. See, for instance, Publicly Supported Education and Educating the People and Creating a Virginia Republic.

What evidence do you have that Catholic schools do outperform public schools and that such outperformance is not attributable to a selective admissions policy? I take it you have no problem with people being "priced" or "abilitied" out of even elementary education in a fully privatized education system.

What would you do about the many private schols that fail midway through a school year in a fully privatized system?

I think if you look at Foner's opening chapters in The Story of American Freedom (which I've already boxed and sent to Japan, unfortunately), you'll see that negative liberty (freedom from) has historically been defined much more widely and that cases have been made for positive liberty (freedom to). There's more to it than that, but I'd start there in response to your definition of "public good."

Would you support vouchers for all if they were made a loan for middle-class and up students and a grant for people below a definition of middle class we could agree on?

Sorry to be so out of it this month. And that I haven't responded to your reparations draft argument for a long time--I think it's your best one.

The Constructivist said...

O, a comment on Echidne's analysis of a recent NCES report on vouchers?

The Constructivist said...

O, over at 11D there's an interesting discussion of the public students doing better than private students on test scores from the perspective of a liberal in favor of vouchers. Reactions?

The Constructivist said...

O, here's Kevin Franck of People for the American Way rebutting attempts to spin a recent study in a pro-voucher direction.

The Constructivist said...

O, this essay by Sara Robinson at Orcinus is on how to confront right wing authoritarians, but it raises larger issues about the purpose and value of education. I'm particularly interested in what you think of her take and what you think would happen to her ideas under a privatized education system. Do you believe good ideas would rise to the top (through imitation of success), that people would move to or create shools that enact their values, or what?

The Constructivist said...

O, here's another one by Sara R at Orcinus which should give you plenty of examples from health car of how government-insured programs like Canada's (or, for that matter, Japan's), as well as examples like SUNY's hospitals and the VA system, can be better-run, more effective, and more efficient than privately-insured health care systems. If it can be done with hospitals and health care, why not schools?

The Constructivist said...

O, you might find this Nation forum on vouchers and more interesting.

The Constructivist said...

O, here's a critique of the practicability of vouchers.

The Constructivist said...

O, here's a recommendation from Crooked Timber on who the real experts on fixing schools are.