Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Harrumph! Harrumph! Harrumph!

Getting past the racial nonsense from earlier, Eric Luedtke wrote a spiel about school vouchers today and how vouchers are not the "silver bullet" conservatives claim that they are. Of course, I'm not sure who exactly calls them a silver bullet. Nor do I know of anybody who says that vouchers were the be all and end all of education reform. Nor is it only conservatives who support voucher programs. But hey, let's humor the lad, pat him on the head, and accept his premise for the moment.

Luedtke's arguments (and virtual recitation of NEA talking points), of course, can be easily deconstructed in excruciating length and detail below the fold......


Four decades ago, far too many minority kids and kids living in poverty were put into 'vocational' tracks, rather than college prep tracks. Four decades ago, very few schools in the country were confronting the challenge of teaching english language learners, something standard in schools today. And, something major that Chapman neglects to mention, four decades ago most schools didn't even make a reasonable attempt to accomodate students with special needs. Meeting the moral obligation and federal mandate to provide quality special education is alone responsible for a huge uptick in education spending. As to no visible payoff, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that both reading and math scores have increased since the early seventies, despite increasing challenges and demographic trends. In other words, Chapman's either too lazy to back up his assertions with research, or he lied.
Luedtke is a history teacher, so he really should no better than to automatically assume that there is only one way to skin the beast here. Just because test scores are up does not mean that the there is improvement. Many of the core subjects that were taught in schools 30, 40, 50 years ago are no longer taught, and if they are taught they are taught in a way to appeal to the most common denominator. Students are not learning the things they learned back in the 1970's. They are not learning the useful life, career, and work skills that they did thirty years ago. True, a lot of that has to do with horrifically bad parenting, but schools have dropped the ball here because instead of teaching children to do things, they are teaching children to achieve on these tests. That's not learning, that's memorization, and there is a difference.

Let me pull out this extra special quote:
Four decades ago, very few schools in the country were confronting the challenge of teaching english language learners, something standard in schools today.
Apparently in Luedtkeville, people were teaching English speakers back in the day. What I think he means is that schools were not forced to teach ESOL students forty years ago in the manner in which they are today. But doesn't the existence of ESOL students and the challenges the Luedtke speaks of flying in the face of the increased NAEP scores that he referenced? Is Luedtke (again) trying to have it both ways? How can tests scores be up with all of these other challenges that require more school spending.
1. Vouchers can not possibly help the neediest students. Why? Because private schools, unlike public schools, get to decide who they accept. This means, among other things, that a school could use voucher money and only accept rich kids, that a school could reject all special education students, or that a school could choose only the highest performers and then claim the success of those students as their own success.
Luedtke immediately shifts from racism to class struggle here. Why? Who knows. The entire concept of private schools, of course, is that they get to decide who to accept. Isn't that the point of private schools? To provide alternatives for students who can best qualify for their services? Of course students should have to apply and be accepted at private schools to use their vouchers. If private schools were being forced to accept all comers who had a voucher, than nobody would accept the vouchers and the system would collapse before it ever got off of the ground. That would force schools to return to the mean, thus meaning that all schools regardless of their being an expensive private school or the worst urban school would be returned to the mean. And let's face it, the mean is not what public education should be striving for. His premise, as usual, is flawed.
2. Vouchers reduce accountability. Private schools aren't subject to the same accountability measures as public schools. In many places where vouchers have been implemented, there is a separate, less stringent, system of accountability for schools that voucher students attend.
Luedtke, as we mentioned, is a teacher. He is a member of the teachers union. Once he reaches tenure, he is virtually unable to be fired. How's that for accountability?

One can take a look around at the students being churned out by some school districts and see that accountability really isn't a big priority, either for the school system or for the students within that system. The "accountability" argument is a strawman because public schools could not stand up to the scrutiny that the education lobby wants to impose upon private schools participating in voucher programs. The only "accountability" at this point lies in tests given only after students are taught to the test. Unfortunately, teachers and administrators have learned that accountability can be sidestepped if students spend more time preparing to take a test than learning important concepts or developing their writing and critical thinking skills. Skills that are useful to be successful adults. Accountability in that way only means that teachers and school districts are meeting requirements only to protect themselves and in order to meet the requirements of the poorly title and even more poorly thought out No Child Left Behind Act.
3. Vouchers are expensive. Places that have implemented vouchers have effectively had to create two school funding streams. Think of it as a financial commitment to an entirely new school system. In other words, those who support vouchers also support large tax increases, or large budget deficits.
Once again, say hello to the strawman. As usual, Luedtke backs this up with nothing. And, frankly, it is an intellectually dishonest argument. The per-pupil cost of a voucher is much less than the dollars spent per-pupil in the public school systems. The only way that there would be "two school funding streams" would be in a situation where politicians wanted to create a voucher system without proportionately reducing the amount of dollars being spent in the "regular" school system. Even in an appropriate situation where voucher money would be taken directly out of the operating budget of the school system, the per-pupil spending in public schools would increase since the cost of a voucher and the cost of educating a student in private schools would be much much less than that of public schools.
4. Vouchers don't work. The research on voucher programs is fiercely debated, but the most neutral observers out there pretty much agree that, for the vast majority of students, vouchers don't improve the quality of education, nor does the competition force much change in public schools. There are, of course, exceptions, individual kids for whom the opportunity to choose their school through vouchers has made a huge difference. But...
The truth is that vouchers work. And it's not just public school voucher programs that work, either. A private foundation in Pittsburgh has made it work there, with fantastic results:

Most of the 830 pupils who attend the Extra Mile schools are non-Catholic and low-income. An average of 70 percent of the pupils -- and as many as 87 percent in some schools -- have family incomes low enough to qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program.

Parents who rely on the Extra Mile subsidies to help pay school costs are on public assistance, are low-wage earners or are not working because they're in school. Many are single parents. Some are grandparents or great-grandparents raising children who were neglected by their own parents.

These families put education first despite obstacles they face in their lives.

"[The children] learn academics, but they also learn a real sense of themselves, that they can fly," said Ambrose Murray, executive director of the Extra Mile Foundation.

And really isn't that what it's all about. Vouchers aren't about being "the silver bullet" to fix all schools. No mainstream supporter of school choice realistically wants to see the abolition of all public schools. But vouchers are about opportunity. The opportunity for talented children stuck in decrepit schools to learn, to thrive and to provide a better life for themselves and for their progeny. That's why one leading former elected official said the following about school choice:

Some say that school choice, especially vouchers, will weaken public education. My response is that choice can only strengthen public education by introducing competition and accountability into the mix. Others claim that school choice is undemocratic. My response to them is that choice is in keeping with the aspirations for freedom that formed the core of American democracy. As former Delaware Governor Pete Du Pont once wrote, "It's about the liberty to choose what's best for your children." All of us should have that choice.

Some say that school choice is elitist, or even racist. The truth is that black low-income children are among the prime victims of the nation's failing public schools. African-American parents know this all too well. This is why they have been so open to the idea of school choice...

...I am convinced that with time, and through open dialogue, critics of school choice will come to see this movement for what it is: part of an emerging new civil rights battle for the millennium, the battle for education equity. We need to give poor children the same right that children from more affluent households have long enjoyed. The right to an education that will prepare them to make a meaningful contribution to society. It is that simple.
Who made that statement? Kurt Schmoke. And he's not the only pro-school choice liberal out there. Newark Mayor Cory Booker is a supporter, too. And when you expand the concept of school choice further, including charter schools in the equation, even more liberals support the concept as well. Just look at the bipartisan support for D.C.'s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has received the attention and support of both DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and Senator John McCain.
5. Vouchers are not the only way to give families a choice. School choice can be provided within the context of public schools. I've written before (a long time ago, so I won't dig it up) about the school choice programs Montgomery County has created, the Down-County Consortium, the Northeast Consortium, and the Middle School Magnet Consortium. These programs allow students to pickwhich school they want to attend, and to pick schools with specialized elective that they either have an interest in or want to pursue a career in. For example, the Parkland Middle School program in Aerospace and Robotics Engineering has given middle schoolers a chance to take extremely advanced scientific courses at a young age. And this is in a community highly impacted by poverty.
This is one argument in which Luedtke isn't necessarily wrong. To have true school choice one would have to have a number of options within the public schools in addition to vouchers. Luedtke, of course, would have institutional knowledge of this as he teaches at one of these schools in Silver Spring.

But let's think about this rationally, too. If public schools were fully capable of meeting the educational needs of all students, providing all students with the opportunities they need in order to succeed and achieve, wouldn't public schools be doing it already? And furthermore, if public schools and public school teachers were already meeting all of these needs and succeeding, would not the union enthusiastically support more teacher accountability in order to highlight those teachers who were achieving and succeeding in these schools. The truth is that public schools currently cannot meet this need, and we owe it to ourselves as citizens to offer students appropriate opportunities to advance. And sometimes that means thinking outside the box and allowing the market to take care of things.
6. Finally, vouchers are unpopular. Conservatives would have you believe that the only people who oppose vouchers are the teachers unions. This simply isn't true. Every time vouchers have appeared on the ballot since 1972, they have failed. And majorities in every public opinion poll oppose them.
When you start citing opinion popularity a reason something is bad, you're in trouble. True, there are a number of states in which voucher referenda went down. But except for Utah, all of those states were and remain heavily unionized states. It's easy when you realize that labor unions would coalesce around the teachers union to defeat a voucher program, even when it against the interest of those some union families.

When it comes to cockamamie arguments like this, I easily and readily remember one addage from my middle school days that always seemed liked liberal groupthink happyspeak, but it fits here:
"What's right is not always what's popular, what's popular is not always what's right".
It is easy to see why Luedtke is dyspeptic about the notion of school vouchers. As a union activist, that's potentially money out of his pocket, more power away from his union, and one way to determine whether or not public schools (and, ergo, union members) are getting the job done. If parents and students have the opportunity to vote with their feet and choose to go to private schools or to another public school with their voucher money, that may mean fewer opportunities for teacher's union members to earn higher promotions and higher pay. The opposition to vouchers by union members and their advocates has less to do with protecting interests of children and more to do with protecting their self-interest. They fear the open educational market that would be created.

For something truly informational regarding school choice, check out the Heartland Institutes's short pamphlet detailing ten arguments for School Choice, which is a nice and concise primer on the issue and why it is so important to improve educate.

The argument against vouchers by Luedtke and the teacher's union, thus, can easily be summed up by the words of one Governor William J. Le Petomane:
We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs here, gentlemen! We must do something about this immediately! Immediately! Immediately! Harrumph! Harrumph! Harrumph!
(Crossposted)

EDIT: The Manhattan Institute is not a liberal think tank, far from it. That error has been corrected, apologies.

4 comments:

Mark Newgent said...

Hey I didn't get a harumph out of that guy!

Mark Newgent said...

Hey I didn't get a harumph out of that guy!

Daniel said...

I'm glad my son was here to hear that frontier gibberish.....

Billz1981 said...

Thanks for writing on this. Just to clear the record, the Manhattan Institute is far from a liberal think tank. They prefer the term "free market," but are regarded by many as having conservative leanings.

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