Arnold Kling  

Vouchers and Education

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Hayek and Tobin... Hydrogen Cars...

In an essay called Mandatory Libertarianism, I address the distrust of markets voiced by opponents of vouchers in education.


opponents asserted that there could not possibly be enough private schools to support a voucher system. However, if education were completely privatized, then every school would be a private school by definition. All of the schools that exist today would still exist. Of course, parents would attempt to leave some existing schools and send their children to other schools. This increase in demand for alternatives to existing schools would induce today's private schools to expand as well as stimulate entrepreneurs to create new private schools. Ultimately, a better school system (as judged by parents as consumers) would be created...

For Discussion. Are parents sufficiently qualified to judge school quality, or would many families be fooled by profit-seeking charlatans?


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COMMENTS (91 to date)
COD writes:

Whether or not parents are qualified to make good choices is beyond the point. As parents, they automatically have that right. A right, like many others, that over time has been denied them by threat of force from the so called benevolent government.

That said, school choice exists today for middle and upper class parents. Many middle class families can massage the family budget and come up with money for private school, or they can forego the second income and homeschool the kids. The fact is, they choose not to. They've decided the executive home in a gated community and two late model, not-paid-for cars in the garage is more important to their kid's upbringing than actually learning to read and write.

Paradoxically, school choice is being thwarted by the very people that proclaim to care so much about "working people," who really do need taxpayer help to open up those types of educational options.

Boonton writes:

Here's a different question, should the tax payers have little or no say in what happens in a gov't funded school? That is, in effect, what a voucher system would do.

If education is entirely a private good, then parents should pay for it themselves just like they pay for their kids toys, clothes etc. If education is a public good, then does it make sense that 100% of the control of funds be given to parents? Somehow I don't think we would accept this logic as applied to police protection (everyone get's a voucher to buy their own body guard).

I generally don't trust the constant refrain of 'the schools are failing'. Does anyone remember 'A Nation at Risk'? That report in the early 80's said the schools were so bad that it would be an act of war if they were inflicted on us by a foreign country. Well since the early 80's, that generation of supposedly poorly educated children went on to make the booms of the 80's and 90's and private companies did not have to spend a lot of money teaching basic skills. Anyone care to compare with the performance of Japan, a country with a supposedly perfect education system?

The reason vouchers are having a tough time is because most people are happy with their schools and see no need to disrupt a system that has worked for over a hundred years. There are areas where the schools are absolutly horrible such as some inner cities. I could see vouchers being used there as an alternative but even there I'm skeptical. I don't like the idea of forcing a system on a population that doesn't want it (in other words, don't force an inner city community to adopt vouchers on the theory that 'we know what's better for them, they are just being fooled by the teachers unions'). More to point, I think the larger problem with inner city schools is really the problems of the inner city and not the schools. When you have high levels of crime, poverty, drug use and child abuse that is simply not going to produce a healthy student body even if you have great teachers and new computers in every classroom.

JT writes:

A parallel question: do parents and students make informed, generally accurate evaluations about the performance of their undergraduate institutions?

Boonton writes:

I would say they probably do, but then they also incur nearly all the cost of undergraduate education. Granted there are government scholarships and subsidized student loans but the cost burden for post High School education is weighted almost entirely towards the student & parent as opposed to the taxpayer for kidnergarten through grade 12.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>If education is a public good

Eric Krieg writes:

Companies do spend a lot of time and money on remedial training. If you don't think that this is a big problem, go over to the National Association of Manufacturers website and see what they say about the issue.

Some of my suppliers will train basically skilled kids to be welders, because they can't find people with welding skills. But the operative word is "basic". Most kids don't even have basic skills (at least, those that don't go on to college, which is the pool of kids that these manufacturers are drawing from). You would be surprised how hard it is to find good entry level employees.

Not that this should be laid entirely at the foot of the schools. But these kids do have high school degrees. You would think that they could do artithmatic, one of the skills needed to be a welder.

As for Japan, there are certain things that education cannot fix, like cultural issues like a dearth of risk taking, and a monetary and banking system that is REALLY screwed up. Japan would be worse off if their education system has US style results (or, lack of results).

Boonton writes:

I don't mean to say poor education is not a problem but where is the actual data demonstrating that the US economy is impacted by 'horrible schools'. I suspect the 'horrible schools' for most people exist in movies.

Since the early 80's when _A Nation at Risk_ was first published, the US economy has not only grown dramatically but has done so in a way that utilizes a lot of brain power. This economic growth was not only produced by a hyper-educated elite but rather a huge group of both white and blue colar workers who had to embrace new technology quickly. Let's not forget that not only did they have to embrace new technology but they also had to quickly learn replacement technology (remember DOS? Windows 3.X? Lotus 1-2-3 etc.) almost as quickly.

Let's face it, education is important but either the role that formal education plays in economic growth has been over-hyped or the schools are a lot better off on average than the doomsayers hae been telling us.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>I don't mean to say poor education is not a problem but where is the actual data demonstrating that the US economy is impacted by 'horrible schools'.

Boonton writes:

I agree with you regarding the poor quality of inner city schools. But where is the proof that the schools are the causative factor? It seems that the community makes the school good or bad. Communities with poor opportunities, deep problems, etc. seem to create poor schools.

Is the problem here really lack of competition in the public school system or systemic problems of the inner city? Most communities do not have much competition. Outside the cities many areas are too small to support more than one or two schools and the cost of private education (even lower cost Catholic schools) remains so significant that even for many upper middle class communities the public school remains a de facto monopoly. Yet these communities are doing a good job with their school (at least I do not see evidence countering this assertion).

Here we are also getting off the original justification for vouchers. If most of the schools are good (even though they lack competition), then what is the problem with the bad schools? Teachers unions? Is it really believable that evil unions have managed to somehow take over just the inner city schools? What exactly will a 'competitive private' school do in the inner city to trump the public schools? Hire good teachers? That implies the problem with the public school system is that all the bad teachers got dumped into the inner city. Again is there emperical evidence of this?

JT writes:

Boonton - can you name a single enterprise that is not improved by effective competition?

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Teachers unions? Is it really believable that evil unions have managed to somehow take over just the inner city schools?

Eric Krieg writes:

Yeah, good point. Give me an example of anything that is improved by a monopoly.

rvman writes:

Boonton says:
I would say they probably do, but then they also incur nearly all the cost of undergraduate education. Granted there are government scholarships and subsidized student loans but the cost burden for post High School education is weighted almost entirely towards the student & parent as opposed to the taxpayer for kidnergarten through grade 12.
______________________------

False. This may be true for higher income students at private schools, but for low and low-middle income students it isn't. For example, the State of Texas paid for almost 1/3 of my undergraduate tuition at a private school (Rice), the Feds paid for another 1/3 (Pell Grants). Obviously, state universities are heavily subsidized, either directly from the state account, or by the results of investments of state funds, or through the original land-grants many received. (It isn't just tuition, either - between the Feds, the state, and Rice itself, I paid less than $1000 per year in Tuition, books, fees, room, and board. I was unusual in being on scholarship - but much of the Pell money, for example, is available to many low-mid income students, and is based on need.) (I could have received many of the same deals at Baylor, or Houston Baptist, or whatever private parochial you wish to name in Texas.)

Everyone:
If you are a student - FILL OUT THE FEDERAL STUDENT AID FORM!!! You never know what you qualify for, unless you do. You'll be surprised.

Just to add some informative background resources to this interesting discussion:

1. An overview article with additional readings on some of the economic issues behind vouchers and public education can be found at:

http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/Teachers/education.html

The article includes discussions of public services, externalities, and state-funded education, with links to and discussions of Coase, Smith, Marshall, and Bastable on the subject.

2. Also of interest on vouchers and public schools, John E. Chubb's _CEE_ article:

http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/PublicSchools.html

Boonton writes:

"Boonton - can you name a single enterprise that is not improved by effective competition?"

No I cannot off the top of my head. That, however, is not justification in itself for overturning a system that appears to have basically worked for over a hundred years. Nor does it address the first question I raised, if education is a public good, then why should taxpayers be excluded from having a say in it? If it is a private good then why should it be funded by taxpayers at all?

"The teacher unions are at the top of the list. The stranglehold that education schools have on the school system is also at the top of the list."

This is put forth often as dogma yet it dodges the requirement of hard evidence:

1. What circumstances have supposedly allowed teachers unions to grip the inner city schools yet other school systems seem to be able to cope?

2. What is it that poor public schools fail to do that they would be forced to by vouchers? I'm skeptical that the problem with the inner city can be linked to just poor teachers. I suspect the true problems are systemic.

I'm not anti-voucher so much as a voucher skeptic. I'm also a big skeptic regarding doomsday rhetoric regarding the school systems. I suspect that much of this type of rhetoric is unchallenged and simply accepted as a self-evident truth when a bit of investigation may lead to some unexpected insights.

Regarding the state funding college; it is true there is a lot of state subsidy but it is still nowhere near what is provided for K-12 where the education is basically provided for free. Also the trend seems to be moving more towards subsidized student loans these days which means the student is picking up more and more of the cost of higher education.

Boonton writes:

"And I don't think that suburban schools are so great. Like I said, they are fine if you are a girl of average intelligence. But if you are brilliant, below average, or a boy of any intelligence, the public schools are not for you."

I'm not sure I necessarily agree with the above statement. It certainly is true in some places and is not true in other places. Does the exceptional case justify overturning a system that was designed for the entire population along with the risks that will entail? Or is the above problem something that could be dealt with on a local basis (say extra help for the below average, 'gifted' courses for the brillant and specialized schools for those with offbeat needs)?

Here are some risks that I see; Competition will be to meet parents needs and wants since they will be granted almost all the power over spending decisions. Certainly there will be some extreme cases of abuse; I can imagine the Nation of Islam school opening up, all sorts of other marginal cult-type groups lining up for money. But will there also be less extreme but more dangerous abuses? Think about grade inflation, think about children being used as experimental test subjects for various educational/business fads or even schools that become more like television (keeping kids entertained while getting them out of the hair of parents)...

There is something to be said for old-fashioned conservatism. The public school system may be slow and bulky, maybe quite wasteful but there very well may be hidden dynamics...hidden markets where taxpayers express their interests via votes on budgets, PTA/School Board meetings, Teacher's Union vs Principals that help keep things from changing too quickly...that keeps the fads and trends limited until they have proven themselves for a while.

If I ran the world (or even was just mayor of a large city) I probably would be taking an axe to much of the public system and doing things that would be viewed as quite radical like easing requirements to be hired as a teacher etc. But I would still tread very carefully before overturning the system and replacing it with something else.

Mark Bahner writes:

"Granted there are government scholarships and subsidized student loans but the cost burden for post High School education is weighted almost entirely towards the student & parent as opposed to the taxpayer for kidnergarten through grade 12."

Well, considering that most people consider our universities to be better than our K-12 schools, maybe we should switch the funding on K-12 to look more like the funding for universities.

Boonton writes:

The thought of 13 year olds paying back student loans from their Kindergarten days is kind of amusing ;)

While we are on the subject of comparing our semi-privatized university system to K-12 education, has anyone noticed that costs of college education have not been very well contained despite the fact that the consumer pays more of the cost AND there is a wide array of competition among suppliers?

Eric Krieg writes:

>>That, however, is not justification in itself for overturning a system that appears to have basically worked for over a hundred years.

Jim Glass writes:

"What is it that poor public schools fail to do that they would be forced to by vouchers? I'm skeptical that the problem with the inner city can be linked to just poor teachers. "
~~~

To begin with, vouchers would equalize spending within big city school systems so poor neighborhood schools would be able to spend as much per student as rich neighborhood schools. Today in cities like NYC they spend as little as half as much.

One of the union's most valued rights is seniority transfer. In NYC and other big urban unionized public school systems, teachers and adminsitrators pick the schools they want to work in by seniority. Of course the most senior teachers and staff pick the richest neigborhood schools with the easiest students to teach. The poorest neighborhood schools with the most challenging students get beginner and uncertified teachers.

As senior teachers and staff make more than double the money of beginners, but teacher & staff to student ratios are the same for all schools, these public school systems *systemically* spend twice as much on teaching the richest kids as they do on teaching the neediest.

Vouchers would remedy this by giving each school the same amount per student. This wouldn't solve the problem of educating poor students -- but it would eliminate one major obstacle that stands in the way of solving the problem.

"I suspect the true problems are systemic."

Of course they are, and here are some of them, as evidenced in NYC public schools:

* Overfunding of rich neighborhood schools at the cost of poor ones.
* Teachers get their pick of jobs by seniority even when principals don't want them.
* Teachers are immune from accountability for performance, 99% receive satifactory ratings and near 0% are dismissed for performance reasons annually, when only 1/3 of eighth graders are academically at grade level.
* Principals can't even hire their own assitants.
* Principals who make $100k a year can't even buy shades for windows or call a plumber if the toilets don't work -- everything has to go through the custodians and central procurement office, adding tremendously to both cost and delay.
* Custodians can't be ordered by anyone to fix a broken shade or toilet -- since the custodians are both (1) independent contractors who work for themselves, not anyone else, and (2) protected by tenure, so they can never be fired.
* Principals themselves are immune from accountability, 99% of them are rated "satisfactory" each year too, and it's been many years since even one has been fired for performance reasons.

Vouchers would remedy all these problems. The principal of a voucher school is accountable to the school sponsor -- thus the principal must meet performance standards. The principal selects the teachers, instead of vice versa, which makes them accountable. The principal can hire or fire the custodian, which makes the latter accountable. The principal can call a plumber or buy basic supplies for the school directly, which eliminates a vast bureaucracy and gets more money spent at the school level. And the poor neighborhood schools get as much money per student as the rich ones do.

Those are all pretty much *common sense* steps for running schools, aren't they? E.g., they are the way private schools are run. But they all defy NYC schools union work rules.

The real reason why the public schools unions so hate and fear vouchers is *not* because they pose any "threat" to the public schools at all -- in reality there is no way that voucher schools could represent any more than a *very small* percentage of all students in any plausible future.

The reason why the unions hate vouchers is because they are a threat to union *work rules*. If voucher schools are seen to work well and to make parents happy, then people might begin to ask *why* in the failing public school system do the poor neighborhood schools get all the uncertified teachers who are paid half the money? Why can unwanted teachers force themselves on schools? Why can't principals call the plumber or buy shades on their own, like in the voucher schools? Why is there so little accountability for performance? Why do custodians have tenure? Why are there all these bizarre work rules and all this expensive centralization, when voucher schools work well *without* them?

Those are questions the schools unions don't want to have to answer.

Eric Krieg writes:

The evils of teacher "certification":

http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/bminiter/?id=110003809

Boonton writes:

"Times change. Society changes. Work changes. Educational needs change."

This is nice poetry but it doesn't make much of an explanation.

"The public school system, both here and abroad, is modeled on a factory from the 1890s. Everyone is put on the assembly line that is the grade level system. There is one curriculum, and you learn X on day Y, and then move on to the next subject, much as a part moves down the assembly line."

This is probably Exhibit A of what I was talking about. Let's keep in mind it was only a few years ago very smart people were making fun of the 'old-fashioned' company that paid dividends and had profits, now the 'new dot coms' have moved beyond those old-fashioned standards. K-12 education is about the 'basics'. Letters, words, grammer and numbers, math, geometry, calculus and logical proof. These were not the fundamental building blocks of a factory educated worker in the 1890's, these were the foundations of an educated gentleman. The biggest difference is probably that classical languages are no longer standard.


"The public school system has worked in the past. It worked as recently as the 1960s. But it doesn't work now, and more importantly, it doesn't fit our societal needs at this point."

What does this mean? By what standards were the schools working in 1950 but not 1960? How do I know what societal needs you are talking about and how can will I be able to measure whether or not your solution does a better job if it is implemented? Keep in mind that during the 80's people were fretting that the US economy was going to be hampered by a poor education system but those students seemed to have been able to do a good job keeping up the economic growth (and shifting the workforce more towards a knowledge based economy to boot!).

Boonton writes:

Regarding the NYC School System:

Wouldn't many of those problems be solved if facilities were removed from the education system and schools simply rented buildings the way most companies do? Then it would be up to the landlord to deal with unions & by reasonable window shades. Does the NYC Police and Fire Departments (which are also unionized) suffer from the same tenure rules? Are high crime areas under policed because union rules let cops with senority choose to police nicer neighborhoods?

If not, then it seems clear that such rules can be overcome if the political will is there. That's not a sufficient case for vouchers anymore than Enron is a sufficient case for Marxism.

Jim Glass writes:

"Wouldn't many of those problems be solved if facilities were removed from the education system and schools simply rented buildings the way most companies do? Then it would be up to the landlord to deal with unions & by reasonable window shades."

You're kidding, right?

Of course some school buildings are leased. Why would this cause the unions to give up *any* of their exclusive rights regarding how schools are run?

BTW, how do you imagine that leasing buildings would solve the problem of poor neighborhood schools getting such lower expenditures per student than rich neighborhood schools due to seniority transfers? Or the problem of 99+% "satisfactory" performance ratings for teachers and principals when only 50% of students graduate high school, and most of them -- the top 50% -- do so performing below grade level?

Eric Krieg writes:

Boonton, SAT scores have been falling since the mid sixties. Discount test scores if you want, but they're as good a measure of "the 'basics'. Letters, words, grammer and numbers, math, geometry, calculus and logical proof. " as any.

Why have test scores fallen? Unionization. Unionization rates and test scores are negatively correlated.

I know, correlation is not causation. It's a curious phenomonon nonetheless.

>>These were not the fundamental building blocks of a factory educated worker in the 1890's, these were the foundations of an educated gentleman.

Jim Glass writes:

"The public school system has worked in the past. It worked as recently as the 1960s."

The public school system in the past never worked any better than it does now. Arguably it was worse in the past.

The illusion that it used to work results from three things:
1) Formal education was much less important in the old days -- pre-1970s -- and the majority that didn't finish high school could still get good jobs. The further back you go the fewer the number who finished high school, it was only 10% a hundred years ago. There was no need to do so for most. But today anyone who can't do at least good high-school work is going to be really hurting. So the quality of the schools is becoming *visible*.
2) During the 1930s to early 1960s there was a faux "golden era" for urban public schools, like NYC's. That is, post WWI laws cut off immigration from abroad, internal immigration was minor, and the Depression's deflation raised the wages of school-system personnel while they still enjoyed rock-solid job security, enabling the school systems to attract better people than either before or since. Chronic internal problems that existed before and which came back later went away temporarily, while the school systems got a temprorary influx of more skilled workers -- but that all ended. During that one stretch the schools were less bad due to the temporary factors.
3)There's a lot of both selective memory and self-selection among people who talk about how the urban public schools worked so well back then. They invariably were among the *minority* for whom the schools worked.

E.g., I once had a conversation with a bunch of people who claimed the NYC public schools had worked just great for them in their day, so I asked them what schools they went to. The answers were "Stuyvesant" "Bronx Science", etc. So I said, great, you were all *tracked* into the elite top 10% and did fine in an era when the total graduation rate was 40%. But do you believe in tracking now? And do you think the 40% graudation rate of your day is good enough for now? It's even worse than today's!

Jim Glass writes:

"That's not a sufficient case for vouchers anymore than Enron is a sufficient case for Marxism."

Some analogy! Talk about getting things backwards.

It would seem that the collapse of Marxism -- state socialism, state monopoly ownership and operation of facilities and services -- was sufficient cause, in those places where state socialism formerly existed, to try out the alternative of market incentives that had been proven to work in practice everywhere else in the world.

Similarly, the collapse of our big urban school systems (NYC's is now soaking up $11,000 per student, up 40% over the last five years, with *declining* results) -- which are the biggest example remaining of the state socialist model in our economy -- would seem to indicate the time is ripe, or well past ripe, for trying out some market reforms here as well.

Think of all the places where vouchers or their functional equivalent work every day: housing, medicine, food and agriculture, higher education, private vouchers for K-12 education, the list goes on and on... What the heck is supposed to be so threatening about them?

So it's not like one bad experience with markets causes us to resurrect failed state socialism. It's more like *yet another* failure of state socialism should finally get it into our heads that we should try a market remedy here too and at long last.

Boonton writes:

"Of course some school buildings are leased. Why would this cause the unions to give up *any* of their exclusive rights regarding how schools are run?"

Leasing buildings moves the burden for maintaining the structure to the landlord, who is usually a property management firm of some sort. Facilities could, in effect, be put up for bidding like any other city contract.

"BTW, how do you imagine that leasing buildings would solve the problem of poor neighborhood schools getting such lower expenditures per student than rich neighborhood schools due to seniority transfers? Or the problem of 99+% "satisfactory" performance ratings for teachers and principals when only 50% of students graduate high school, and most of them -- the top 50% -- do so performing below grade level?"

Again you have made an implicit assumption, inner city schools are suffering because they lack teachers with seniority. First of all, I reject the notion that we should be concerned that one school has an expenditure of $50K per year for a teacher while another one has an expenditure of $75K for a more senior teacher. If the teachers are of equal value then the 'poorer' school is better off. Any stats or studies demonstrating that teacher seniority makes a real difference?

As I pointed out, even if seniority did make a difference the problem could be solved politically by abolishing it. Yes the teacher union would fight that but I asked does the police union have a seniority rule that allows experienced cops to have first pick on easy assignments? If not then it is clear that the seniority rule can be dealt with by less radical measures than vouchers.

Boonton writes:

"Boonton, SAT scores have been falling since the mid sixties. Discount test scores if you want, but they're as good a measure of "the 'basics'. Letters, words, grammer and numbers, math, geometry, calculus and logical proof. " as any.

Why have test scores fallen? Unionization. Unionization rates and test scores are negatively correlated."

Are you comparing average SAT's? If so then you should be aware that in the 60's and before many students didn't take the SAT's. In the past SAT's were reserved for those who were college bound and they were a smaller portion of the student body than they are today. Are you sure you are not comparing the top 10% of 1960 with the top 50% of 2003?

Also where is the evidence that SAT scores are related to anything relevant besides College admissions? Has anyone shown a relationship between worker productivity and SAT scores? Anyone estimate how much GDP would increase if SAT scores were what we think they should be?

I understand your criticism of 'old-fashioned' school and todays skills of teamwork, group projects, etc. I would respond that such changes are already happening. In my tutoring I've seen colleges switching to study teams and there's no reason to think that such changes are beginning to be incorporated into the High Schools & maybe even below. Nevertheless, you should avoid assuming that the system serves no purpose other than to have made your transition to work more difficult. Again there is a value to a conservative institution that is slow to embrace changes and new ways. If something is of legitimate value (i.e. computers, team exercises) then it will be implemented eventually. The delay isn't without benefit if it saves us from a lot of fluff, silliness and other fads.

Finally, I would point out that education is not the same thing as work. Before education for the masses, the idea behind it was to allow the elite to enrich their minds and aquire wisdom (which is different than knowledge). I suspect many of the most valuable aspects of education are best taught to the individual and NOT to a pretend team trying to produce a PowerPoint presentation on Milton.

Boonton writes:

"It would seem that the collapse of Marxism -- state socialism, state monopoly ownership and operation of facilities and services -- was sufficient cause, in those places where state socialism formerly existed, to try out the alternative of market incentives that had been proven to work in practice everywhere else in the world."

Nice analogy but it falls short of the mark. We aren't talking about a monopoly. There are plenty of alternatives to the public school system. Yes the state doesn't typically pay for you to go to them but the state doesn't pay for your membership in a country club if you don't like the local park either.

Let's return to my original questions which remain unanswered:

Where is the evidence that there is an education crises which merits radical reform?

Where is the justification for removing or drastically decreasing the say the taxpayers have in the money they are required to supply for education?

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Finally, I would point out that education is not the same thing as work. Before education for the masses, the idea behind it was to allow the elite to enrich their minds and aquire wisdom (which is different than knowledge). I suspect many of the most valuable aspects of education are best taught to the individual and NOT to a pretend team trying to produce a PowerPoint presentation on Milton.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Are you comparing average SAT's? If so then you should be aware that in the 60's and before many students didn't take the SAT's. In the past SAT's were reserved for those who were college bound and they were a smaller portion of the student body than they are today. Are you sure you are not comparing the top 10% of 1960 with the top 50% of 2003?

JT writes:

Boonton writes, "Where is the evidence that there is an education crises which merits radical reform?"

I don't think I'd describe the situation as a crisis. We have a system which has seen greatly expanded funding over the last 10-15 years and has shown absolutely nothing for it (test scores over that period). I am not an expert but that is the broad picture.

Rather, I'd say it's a question of improving a system that has shown it cannot change itself through the current proposed alternative to vouchers & competition, which is increased funding. I don't see any reason to be satisfied with the status quo. No other industry would say, "our products our mediocre but hey it's not a crisis so we'll keep doing things this way." The education industry shouldn't be allowed off the hook either.

Paul Zrimsek writes:

Let's suppose for the sake of argument that teacher seniority doesn't make any difference to quality. Then isn't the fact that NYC public schools are structuring their salaries as if seniority made a big difference-- paying 50% more money to more-senior teachers who aren't any better-- prima facie evidence of mismanagement?

David writes:

"If education is a public good, then why should taxpayers be excluded from having a say in it? If it is a private good then why should it be funded by taxpayers at all?"

I think this a good argument, Boonton - "he who pays the pipers calls the tune."

One counter-argument is to emphasize the importance of parents as active participants in their children's education. In other words, to claim that children learn more when their parents exert pressure on them and their schools.

I think vouchers will have this effect on many parents - but perhaps only at first.

It will be interesting to see if vouchers perform better in pilot programmes, than when rolled out over large populations.

Boonton writes:

Responding to JT

"I don't think I'd describe the situation as a crisis. We have a system which has seen greatly expanded funding over the last 10-15 years and has shown absolutely nothing for it (test scores over that period). I am not an expert but that is the broad picture."

Before you say there is nothing to show for education you have to answer some fundamental questions (which are almost always overlooked).

1. What do you expect to see for it? Are test scores the measure of all things, if so then I'd like to see an apples to apples comparision. How did the top 5% do on the SAT in 1960, how about the top 5% today.

2. Why do you want to see it? I'd like to see improved income (GDP). I don't think there is any clear evidence that higher SAT's in general lead to higher productivity. If education does mean improved productivity then you have a hard case to make because the US economy has been growing much more productive in the last 20 years....all during this supposed period of educational decline.

"Rather, I'd say it's a question of improving a system that has shown it cannot change itself through the current proposed alternative to vouchers & competition, which is increased funding. I don't see any reason to be satisfied with the status quo. No other industry would say, "our products our mediocre but hey it's not a crisis so we'll keep doing things this way." The education industry shouldn't be allowed off the hook either. "

1. No evidence has been presented that the system cannot change. Certainly there are many positive changes such as increased computer use and 'team' learning exercises that have happened. Schools may be slow to change but they can change and the fact that there are many good schools (even in NYC which despite its problems has some of the best as well as worst schools in the nation) shows that the system can work.

2. What evidence is there that vouchers will eliminate funding increases? Certainly this *is not* the case with healthcare. With the notable exception of the Catholic School system, most private schools are very expensive. The Catholic schools, though, enjoy advantages such as selective student selection (parents of Catholic school kids have to be dedicated at least on some level), volunteers and a very low paid staff, tax free buildings & such that make educating a small % of the population very inexpensive but may not be scalable to the entire student body...

3. Your argument commits the fallacy of the false choice. In other words, you are trying to assert 'either vouchers or the status quo!' In reality, while I feel the schools are on average pretty good, there is no reason to think that vouchers are the only possible source of positive change.

Boonton writes:

Response to Paul Zrimsek

"Let's suppose for the sake of argument that teacher seniority doesn't make any difference to quality. Then isn't the fact that NYC public schools are structuring their salaries as if seniority made a big difference-- paying 50% more money to more-senior teachers who aren't any better-- prima facie evidence of mismanagement?"

No its not. There are still more than a few private enterprises that base pay on seniority. It is not an obviously absurd way to structure pay, especially in an industry where it is very difficult to measure quality of work. The kids doing well on test scores could just as easily mean the kids have a better home life than their teacher has some exceptional skills. The doctor who takes nothing but cancer cases will have a higher death rate that the doctor who only does tattoe removal, it doesn't mean he's a worse doctor.

Even in NYC, which I'm sure could use quite a bit of radical change, one should still be mindfull of the 'hidden markets' for why things are the way they are. For example, consider how letting Principals and/or school boards set pay could create a climate where teaching jobs become patronage.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>I don't think there is any clear evidence that higher SAT's in general lead to higher productivity.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>It is not an obviously absurd way to structure pay, especially in an industry where it is very difficult to measure quality of work.

Boonton writes:

I agree that the mystery of productivity growth or lack of it cannot be explained easily...much less by just looking at SAT scores. It does seem clear that if the education system has become horrible, it hasn't shown itself to be a dramatic drag on our economy. Our economy seems to be quite happy with the workers and consumers that the High Schools and Colleges turn out.

I also agree that we should not permit Unions to create unreasonable barriers to entry for new teachers. This can be solved by simply changing the rules, however. Yes unions may fight it but not as hard as they would fight vouchers. If there's not enough political will to overcome the unions on credentials then there isn't will to impose vouchers.

I disagree that the lack of metrics to measure teaching indicates failure. Perhaps the desire to quantify is going too far here. Suppose education is more like literature. We can certainly assert the US has been a literate society for quite some time, but its pretty difficult to say the literature of the 80's was better or worse than the 90's. We would laugh at someone who tried to claim any change in the quality of literature was helping or hurting the economy in a significant way.

I'll look for the link but it came out a while ago that developing nations had actually a very small return on investment with education. While its accepted dogma to say 'more education, more growth' it may very well be that once you get past the basics diminishing returns have long set in for US education. 'Fixing the schools' may make us feel better...just like 'higher quality TV shows'...but it is not significant from an economic point of view.

Jim Glass writes:

"'Of course some school buildings are leased. Why would this cause the unions to give up *any* of their exclusive rights regarding how schools are run?'"

"Leasing buildings moves the burden for maintaining the structure to the landlord..."

Not if the lease says otherwise, obviously.
~~~~~

"First of all, I reject the notion that we should be concerned that one school has an expenditure of $50K per year for a teacher while another one has an expenditure of $75K for a more senior teacher. If the teachers are of equal value then the 'poorer' school is better off."

OK, so you are rejecting is the idea that if one school spends twice as much (not 50% more) as another that should make any difference. And you are rejecting the idea that teachers with 20+ years experience should be any better than uncertified beginners. So the schools with the uncertified beginner teachers are maybe "better off", you say. Hey, you should be testifying for the defense in some of these "unequal funding" law suits!

And while you say that doubling the amount spent per student has no effect on results, and that 20+ years of professional training and experience produce no improvement in teaching skill compared to an uncertified beginner, you also say you see no serious problem with the system. ;-)
~~~~~~

"Where is the justification for removing or drastically decreasing the say the taxpayers have in the money they are required to supply for education?"

Hello? Who voted to bring in vouchers in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and everywhere else they exist? And who will vote to bring them into being every place they ever will exist? Taxpayers, of course.

Who are you to say that taxpayers in such places who decide vouchers will improve education shouldn't create them? How is the taxpayers' exercise of power to create vouchers a reduction of their power???

BTW, are you equally disturbed by taxpayers having been denied (by themselves) "their say" over how the money they are required to supply for medical expenses is spent? I mean, people over 65 spend all that Medicare money going to their own private doctors! Where are the local political boards that should be running all the details of medicine to protect the "taxpayers' say" over that?

Then their are all those housing vouchers that the government hands out that people can take to any private landlord! And all those Pell Grants that students can take to any college. And so on, program after program.

This all must make you very irate, as a taxpayer who has no say in it all. ;-)

Jim Glass writes:

"For example, consider how letting Principals and/or school boards set pay could create a climate where teaching jobs become patronage."

Now you're kidding again. As if the public school system, the School Construction Authority, et al, aren't the biggest patronage mill in municipal politics right now -- in NYC and all such urban centers.

Of course, the fact that urban public school systems are now and always have been *notorious* patronage mills hardly results from "merit pay" -- it results from the fact that they are *politically* administered. They are the biggest politically run organizations in major cities, so they are where politicians stash their buddies, sell jobs and offices, and worse. Where else comparable is there?

Here's a NY Times Magazine story on the history of education politics in NYC in recent decades:
http://www.frontpagemagonline.com/Articles/articles.shtml?ID=3654

And in many other cities things are much worse than in NYC, e.g. in Washington DC.

Let us say that thinking politics is the *cure* for such things is ... optimistic. If one want to get such gross political and patronage abuses *out* of school systems, one has to get the *politics* out of them, self-evidently.
~~~~~

"Let's suppose for the sake of argument that teacher seniority doesn't make any difference to quality. Then isn't the fact that NYC public schools are structuring their salaries as if seniority made a big difference -- paying 50% more money to more-senior teachers who aren't any better -- prima facie evidence of mismanagement?"

It's double the money on the up end. The top is 2x the lower, the lower is 50% less than the top. And the answer is, yes, of course, obviously.

The real issues when a system is not accountable for performance are first waste in the form of rent seeking by the unproductive who extract income from it, and then, well, lack of accountability for performance among the rest who are supposed to be productive.

Re NYC, the first issue was described by Robert Sarrel while Budget Director of the NYC Board of Ed a few years back...

"[T]he paradox of urban school reform is the steady increase in education cost per pupil with no increase in student outcomes. ... Over the past 20 years, factoring for inflation, (NYC) per-student spending has risen 80% while graduation rates, SAT performances, and Regents results have declined ...

"To explain this it is necessary to understand the relationship between costs and outcomes by 'unpacking' the allocations process from the school board to the chalkboard...

"The figures are shocking and indicate that less than one-third (32.3%) of the dollars provided by the various funding sources to the Board of Education ever get from the school board to the chalkboard... it is inconceivable that the public willingly supports this structure as a valid educational expense..."

More from Sarrel with cites at http://www.mindspring.com/~jimglass/Sarrel.htm (originally from a fun old usenet discussion in the eponymously named misc.education)

The second issue, lack of accountability among those actually working in the schools, was memorably described by a NYC school teacher, Emily Sachar, who got the facts from Union heads and Board of Ed officials in a book that was nominated for a Pulitzer. Here's an extract:

http://www.mindspring.com/~jimglass/accountability.htm

Let's see if anyone knows of any private business that promotes by seniority that operates like *that*!

Pau;l Zrimsek writes:

Boonton, is this the first time in your life that you have encountered the phrase "suppose for the sake of argument"? The claim that seniority has nothing to do with skill was not mine; it was yours. I was pointing out an unwelcome logical consequence of it.

David Thomson writes:

Public education is doomed because of extreme pluralistic differences. A secular government entity is utterly incapable to find a viable compromise. For instance, how do you keep parents happy who disagree about such basic issues as corporal punishment and vulgar language? There simply is no way to reconcile the values of parents who hold such incompatible views. The apparent consensus of fifty years ago no longer exists---and it is most unlikely that a reversal will ever again occur. Thus, only a voucher program makes any sense.

John Dewey greatly exaggerated the need for a public school system to Americanize the general population. After all, I see little evidence that children attending religious schools are less loyal to the American vision.

Boonton writes:

Reply to David Thomson

I think you blow the differences out of proportion. Is there really deep disagreement on corporal punishment? Is a school system doesn't use it out of respect to those parents who don't want other people hitting their kids will pro-corporal punishment parents pull the community apart? How about vulgar language? The consensus of 50 years ago exists today, however it is in the reverse towards toleration. Even so, I've never seen parents demanding their kids be allowed to swear in school. Perhaps in the old days a kid saying 'fuck' in class would get beaten by his parents, today they may punished much less dramatically but I have not heard about parents marching into the school demanding that their kids be allowed to swear.

Most public school systems are locally controlled allowing most places to develop a reasonable consensus. The dynamics of most of these systems allow the taxpayers to set up reasonable policies that both represent their values but also are tolerant enough to recognize that those with different views should be respected.

Boonton writes:

"Boonton, is this the first time in your life that you have encountered the phrase "suppose for the sake of argument"? The claim that seniority has nothing to do with skill was not mine; it was yours. I was pointing out an unwelcome logical consequence of it."

My argument is that seniority does not necessarily equal skill. Let's suppose some other things for the sake of argument. Pay being tied to seniority is a common system used in both the public and private sector. While I agree it has its flaws, it is not de facto wrong in all situations.

Consider this, suppose you are treated in a private hospital. You discover that this hospital pays the nursing staff based on seniority.

Question: Should you be allowed to prevail in a lawsuit on the grounds that such a policy is "prima facie evidence of mismanagement" as Paul asserted in an earlier post?

Question: Say you learned that all the nurses that cared for had less experience than average (imagine the experienced nurses, seeing you're a rather cranky guy pawned you off to the newbies). Should you automatically prevail in a malpractice suit even if you couldn't identify anything they did wrong?

I'm not saying experience is irrelevant, only that it is not automatically relevant. Regarding some schools getting stuck with all the newbies, there seems to be a host of easy fixes that could address the question. Require the average experience of any school to not deviate from the overall districts average by more than a certain degree, for example. Or require that a certain number of new teachers have at least one older teacher to act as a mentor.

Take the police department, which is also unionized. Do they allow districts to have no experienced cops? If not then it seems quite possible for the political system to overcome the seniority issue.

Boonton writes:

Reply to Jim Glass

Isn't the real problem with the NYC System that the Board of Education has little oversight by the Mayor? After a long time, things have finally started to move with the Mayor being given the power to appoint the majority of the seats on the Board. As far as accountability goes, the mayor would then be held accountable for the management of the schools as he is for the police, sanitation & other major services. That isn't a utopian or radical solution either. Nearly all taxpayers will have some direct or indirect contact with the school system i n their life. Many people will go their entire lives without having anything more than minor contact with the police. If the political will is enough to give the Mayor the upper hand over the police unions, there is no reason to think it would be impossible to do the same for NYC's education unions.

Regarding Medicare, Pell Grants, Housing Vouchers etc.

Yes, yes, vouchers do work in some situations. What's interesting, though, about Pell Grants and Housing Vouchers is that these are small elements inside a much larger private market. Medicare is more along the lines of insurance than a voucher system and taxpayers have a large say in how the funds are distributed. I recognize that vouchers have been adopted in some places when put up to a vote...often in deeply distressed school systems. I also am aware that vouchers are often voted down, even in generally conservative areas that are usually friendly to the idea of the market making decisions.

My stance is more of skepticism than opposition. Public education in the US is a very complicated system that is largly localized. It has been around a long time and for the most part it seems to work. Even systems that are thought to be bad, like NYC, often boast some of the best schools in the nation. When dealing with such a beast the burden is on those advocating radical change to demonstrate that the current system is really bad and their new system would not have serious unintended consquences. Sorry, saving 25% on chalk contracts is not enough to make the case.

David Thomson writes:

“Perhaps in the old days a kid saying 'fuck' in class would get beaten by his parents, today they may punished much less dramatically but I have not heard about parents marching into the school demanding that their kids be allowed to swear.”

I cannot believe your naiveté. Unfortunately, today you must have a consensus of just about every parent if you desire peace in the classroom. It often only takes one crazy adult to screw up everything. Have you ever heard of the ACLU and other such ultraliberal organizations? These extremists have made it virtually impossible to enforce a consensus morality upon the student population. The US Supreme Court has not helped anything with its insane decisions that for all practical purposes handcuff school administrators. Theoretical abstract principles may sometimes sound nice, but in the real world fail miserably.

How horrible is the situation? My buddy taught in an affluent public school where lawsuits are a constant threat. The school district takes for granted that it will spend minimally $60,000 every year. Much of everyday duties of the principal is focussed on preparing for court room battles. One parent sued because her mediocre student daughter was not accepted into the honor’s program. Sigh, the teenager was allegedly suffering from low self esteem. A private school does not normally endure such silliness.

David Thomson writes:

“When dealing with such a beast the burden is on those advocating radical change to demonstrate that the current system is really bad and their new system would not have serious unintended consquences. “

This is a slam dunk. I feel like the proverbial batter who has been pitched a slow ball over the middle of the plate. Is the school voucher program a mysterious pig in a poke? Not in the least. A prudent and rational decision can be made at this very moment. We already have abundant evidence how well private schools have accomplished their educational goals.

Boonton writes:

It is indeed sad that your friends district has to allocate $60K per year to lawsuits but I'm anything but naive concerning classrooms. Believe it or not rules still exist, kids still go to the Principal's office, there is still detention and suspension & a host of other common punishments. The parents suing because their kid was suspended for saying 'fuck' in class remains quite rare. I don't see that as a problem that vouchers could address much. In fact, since privatized schools would presumably have a contractual relationship with the parents it might be even easier to sue over administrative things.

"This is a slam dunk. I feel like the proverbial batter who has been pitched a slow ball over the middle of the plate. Is the school voucher program a mysterious pig in a poke? Not in the least. A prudent and rational decision can be made at this very moment. We already have abundant evidence how well private schools have accomplished their educational goals."

Excellent, then make the case that the schools are failing and a radical change is necessary. So far the attitude has been that simply saying the schools are bad is sufficient.

I do agree we have abundant evidence that when 5-10% of the population spends $5000-$25,000 plus per year of *their own money* on private schools the results are generally pretty good.

Boonton writes:

Really, the majority of school districts are rather sedate in their politics and local school board elections rarely center on super hot-button issues. Most communities are quite capable of reaching a reasonable consensus that respects the fact that the minority will have a difference view. Believe it or not, 50 or so years ago was not some ideal utopia where everyone agreed. When was the last time National Guard troops had to be called in to keep order in a public school?

It's not a good idea to be using Leave it to Beaver as historical reference material for wat the world was like in the 50's.

David Thomson writes:

“Excellent, then make the case that the schools are failing and a radical change is necessary. So far the attitude has been that simply saying the schools are bad is sufficient.”

What is this “radical change” stuff? Are we suppose to take this premise as a given? Why in heaven’s name do you find it so dangerous that parents are allowed to spend their tax dollars for the private education of their own children---or even the public school of their choice. Are parents so stupid that only government bureaucrats can keep them out of trouble? Are you even hinting that only the parents able to afford the extra burden of paying “$5000-$25,000 plus per year “ possess adequate intelligence to make such decisions?

Also, I do not have to make “make the case that the schools are failing.” The case for the failure of many schools is already abundantly clear. You merely need to stop ignoring the many reported instances. The bottom line is this: parents have a right to determine what’s best for their own circumstances---and they don’t need your paternalistic interference.

Boonton writes:

First of all it is taxpayer's money, not parents. To my knowledge, there are no special taxes imposed just on parents to fund schools. In fact, as far as schools are concerned parents are net beneficaries since they typically are putting more costs on the local gov't than they are paying in taxes. When you talk about 'their own money' you are really talking about those without children and businesses since those are the ones who are paying for the schools and receive only indirect benefits from them. Your opinion seems to be that the taxpayers are too stupid to police their local school system and therefore parents are entitled to basically a blank check at their expense.

In fact, supporters of vouchers should drop the entire 'its the parents own money' argument. In almost every small scale implementation of vouchers, those receiving them are almost always paying far less in taxes than they are receiving. If you really believe its just the parents money, then you should advocate abolishing the system entirely and eliminating all school taxes. Then education could simply be a requirement of parents in the same way they are financially required to provide their children with food, clothes, medical care etc.

"Are you even hinting that only the parents able to afford the extra burden of paying “$5000-$25,000 plus per year “ possess adequate intelligence to make such decisions? "

No I'm only pointing out the obvious. When people choose to spend $5k-$25K+ per year of *their own money*, they will probably do a good job on average. That doesn't mean that the same performance can be replicated by giving people checks of other people's money.

David Thomson writes:

“That doesn't mean that the same performance can be replicated by giving people checks of other people's money.”

Your point leaves much to be desired. After all, it is “other people's money” that fund the public school systems. The involved taxpayers will not notice a dimes worth of difference on their pay stub. You are making something of a Freudian slip. It’s obvious that you strongly believe government bureaucrats know best how to run things. Parents are generally “dangerous” people.

“Your opinion seems to be that the taxpayers are too stupid to police their local school system and therefore parents are entitled to basically a blank check at their expense.”

You unwittingly embrace the socialist fallacy about the “people.” It is inherently impossible for the typical taxpayer to make daily decisions on these matters. Thus, this leaves the bureaucrats in virtual full control. I strongly believe that everybody concerned would be far better off if the parents were the primary decision makers---and the public schools were compelled to compete for the honor of educating their children.

Boonton writes:

My point is simply that you cannot suppose the performance of the minority of students in private schools that are paid for out of their parents pocket will mirror the performance of a privatized system where parents are not the primary source of funds.

In other words, if you are footing the bill for something, then you will have the most responsibility for getting your money's worth. If someone else is footing the bill for something, you are getting a free ride. You are still saying that the system is so bad that the taxpayer who funds it must be accorded little or no control over the disbursement of funds. How ironic that while you attack me with charges of socialism you hold up Medicare as a model for why your plan would work so well.


"Also, I do not have to make “make the case that the schools are failing.” The case for the failure of many schools is already abundantly clear. You merely need to stop ignoring the many reported instances. "

What am I ignoring? Vague claims that we live in a 'post-factory world' and the modern public school cannot catch up? Despite the fact that this new economy has been built mostly by those who have come through the public system? Claims that since parents do not agree on vulgar language we must abolish public schools least they spark a new Civil War? Ancedotal stories about the kid whose lawyer parents sued over their kid getting a B+ instead of an A?

I began this thread with a simple observation, while people seem to have been doomsdaying the school system for a long time the actual evidence that there is a serious shortfall with the public system is not there. Neither the economy nor the population is suffering from any shortage of education.

Nublius writes:

"sufficiently qualified to judge school quality"?

Are they sufficiently qualified to judge the quality of a car engine, or a computer chip?

The neat thing about free markets is that they tend to reward success and punish failure.


"fooled by profit-seeking charlatans"?

As if it's not happening today with tax-hungry charlatans.

Boonton writes:

Back to the beginning, the real question is not whether parents can be trusted. They already are. They are obligated to educate their children and they can use free public schools or they can pay for private schools (or they can do it themselves with homeschooling).

The question is should taxpayers be almost entirely excluded from the government of the school system they are obligated to pay for? This isn't a trivial question since public schools have been a locally funded institution for almost as long as police departments, roads, parks, fire depts. etc. Before the system is dumped those in support should be obligated to provide real evidence that the schools do not work. Not ancedotal cases and not 'well we all know they are bad'.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

"The involved taxpayers will not notice a dimes worth of difference on their pay stub."

True enough, David, but irrelevant. They won't notice a difference on their pay stubs if there's a change in police protection, either,but the change will affect them nonetheless.

Boonton makes excellent points. The money to fund schools, whether by vouchers or otherwise, comes from all taxpayers, and the purpose is to educate the children of the community. As a childless taxpayer I have no objection to paying these taxes.

But I want to know that I'm paying for education. To take an obvious example, I don't want to pay for a school that passes off creationism as biology. Nor do I want kids going to school in firetraps, or sitting sixty in a class. So I fear we will need some of those nasty bureaucrats to set minimum curriculum standards, make safety regulations, etc.

I am dubious about vouchers, but could be convinced. Right now I think that they fall into the category of proposals whose logic has some appeal, but whose proponents have not dealt with the realities of implementing them, preferring to smother theproblems under rhetoric about the wonders of the market. There certainly will be charlatans, financial and religious, and there certainly will be parents who make unwise decisions, despite all the sanctimony about it.

So I would liketo hear from voucher advocates what sort of (shudder) regulatory scheme they advocate to make sure MY money is being spent wisely.

Eric Krieg writes:

There are lots of governmental activities that are funded through vouchers rather than being provided by government itself. It's the difference between Medicare and VA hospitals.

Does anyone argue that Medicare is a free for all, with no governmental oversight of providers? Not that they do or do not do a good job of oversight, but that there is no oversight system whatsoever?

What is so special about schooling that the government needs to directly provide the service? Why wouldn't the government provide the funding, but the private sector provide the service?

It is strange that, in America, the last bastion of the free market, we have their one socialistic enterprise right in the middle of our communities. It is very strange. We don't just need vouchers, we need privatization!

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Eric,

So are you suggetsing that voucher schools be subject to some sort of licensing requirement, as medical providers are?

Are you suggesting that they be subject to audit to be sure the money isn't going to outsize salaries for administrators or football coaches?

Are you suggesting that there be safety inspections and requirements?

Should voucher schools be required to accept all comers, subject only to the facility's limits? Didn't happen in Cleveland as I recall.

Are you suggesting that curricula meet certain requirements?

All these things make sense to me. But they represent a significant amount of government involvement.

My point is really pretty simple: I think voucher advocates are comparing an idealized system with a real one. I would be more impressed by explanations as to how a voucher system would deal with some of these problems.

Boonton writes:

"Does anyone argue that Medicare is a free for all, with no governmental oversight of providers? Not that they do or do not do a good job of oversight, but that there is no oversight system whatsoever?"

On the other hand, Medicare is hardly a model for fiscal restraint. In fact, it seems to be something no one is happy with. On the one hand its busting government's budget and on the other hand doctors seem deeply unhappy about what it pays.

I'll admit that the market does a good job of providing desired goods but what really are the desired goods? Removing the taxpayer entirely (or mostly) from the decision making process opens up a lot of unknown territory. For example, I hardly think it is clear that at the college level money buys the best education. When I tutored, it seemed to me that community colleges taught at the same level as higher level schools despite the fact that the 'better' schools charged up to 10X more for the class. Parents (& studends) seem to be willing to pay for grade inflation & a fancy exclusive name.

That's fine if you are spending your own money. If a parent wants to put their own money into a 'Kindergarten by Harvard Inc.' school that teaches fingerpainting & the alphabet that is fine. If the taxpayer is involved doesn't he or she have the right to say that resources should not be wasted? That's the tip of the iceberg. No doubt the Nation of Islam & other radical groups will be more than eager to open taxpayer supported schools. Even though that will be a minority it's not a trivial matter for the white or Jewish taxpayer to be required to fund such an outfit. Such a policy would make the somewhat overblown NEA arguments look like playground squabbles.

"What is so special about schooling that the government needs to directly provide the service? Why wouldn't the government provide the funding, but the private sector provide the service?"

This is actually a different issue than vouchers. There is no reason that a gov't cannot put a service up for bids by private companies. It happens all the time. As I tried to point out, one possible solution to the facilities waste in the NYC system might be to get the schools out of the building game. Let the schools rent from property management companies who will bid on providing the schools with the best facilities at lowest possible cost. There are plenty of companies now that will handle accounting, human resources and other back office functions. In fact, some districts have not opted for vouchers but have outsourced the management of their schools to private companies. We should be careful of the false choice that is sometimes presented. Just because vouchers are not accepted does not mean that the status quo is the only other option.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>This is actually a different issue than vouchers.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>So are you suggetsing that voucher schools be subject to some sort of licensing requirement, as medical providers are? >Are you suggesting that they be subject to audit to be sure the money isn't going to outsize salaries for administrators or football coaches? >Are you suggesting that there be safety inspections and requirements?>Should voucher schools be required to accept all comers, subject only to the facility's limits? Didn't happen in Cleveland as I recall.>Are you suggesting that curricula meet certain requirements?>All these things make sense to me. But they represent a significant amount of government involvement. >My point is really pretty simple: I think voucher advocates are comparing an idealized system with a real one. I would be more impressed by explanations as to how a voucher system would deal with some of these problems.

Boonton writes:

Eric,

Sometimes vouchers are presented as a replacement for the entire school system...which would be privatization IMO. Other times they are presented for areas of concentrated horribleness...which would be privatization on a limited scale IMO.

I assume for this discussion we are talking about vouchers being used to replace the entire system since many supporters of vouchers seem like they want to use impoverished areas as demonstration projects for a larger implementation. This doesn't mean that vouchers cannot be used in other ways...such as an 'internal market' where parents can take them to any public school etc.

Boonton writes:

Eric part 2,

I would suggest you really investigate your town's public schools. Remember, war stories are just that...war stories. No doubt they have been filtered to be just the juicy parts.

I think your comments about making parents pay for part of their kids education is interesting. It dovetails with my observation regarding colleges. If the material taught in a $500 community college course is about the same as a $3000 University then what exactly are parents & students paying for? Perhaps they are paying for more than just plain old education...perhaps there are other variables that are really more of a private good than a collective good....I would say, for example, that knowing how to read is something that benefits the rest of society to a degree but belonging to an exclusive Fraternity is really more of a personal good.

This doesn't mean that it is irrational for parents or students to pay more for the 'better' College....it does mean however that some of the goods being purchased are properly considered personal goods that the gov't should not necessarily feel obligated to subsidize to a great degree.

Eric Krieg writes:

There is no political will to make vouchers replace the entire government school system. So that's a non-starter, argument wise.

But to get minority students out of rotten schools, vouchers may work. That is where you get the most bang for your buck. That is what we should limit our conversation to.

Eric Krieg writes:

It is ironic that I don't want my sons going to government primary schools, but I think that they SHOULD go to community college before university, and that university should be a state school.

Or else Notre Dame! On a full ride, of course.

Just because you don't support a system doesn't mean that you shouldn't take advantage of it. Just make sure that the cost/ benefit analysis works out in your favor!

Boonton writes:

I agree there's no will right now for dumping the whole system in favor of vouchers but isn't that really where the voucher movement is going? I thought a voucher plan was recently voted down in a district that had reasonably good schools? Was it limited to just minority kids in the worst of the district?

Regarding using vouchers in the worst districts; I'm willing to give them a shot however I think they should not exclude overall reform of the public system. I think there has been quite a bit of 'forget about reform, its not workable just toss vouchers at the problem' by the right. For example, it seems like a lot of NYC's problem can be found in the fact that the Mayor had until recently no effective control over the Board of Ed.

This meant that the voters would have a difficult time holding the Mayor accountable for the state of education since he could turn around and blame the Board for standing in his way. Board elections, being much smaller affairs, were more easily dominated by special interests.

IMO there are large school districts that work. So if you give me an example of a large system that is failing the first serious question that needs to be answered is why is it falling short. You can't just chalk it up to the nature of government since there are other districts that have gotten it right.

Failing to address these issues is pretty dangerous IMO. For example, suppose NYC's worst schools are the way they are because the interests of those communities are not represented for whatever reason. Say those communities do not have the organizational skills to demand quality. It would seem that failing to address this problem would be akin to treating the symptons but not the disease. I could see a voucher program turning into a grab of resources by the more powerful communities. For example, if the district is now spending $10K per student other communities would cut the vouchers down to $4K per student while grabbing the freed up $6K for themselves.

Boonton writes:

BTW, didn't at least one voucher proposal for one of those 'worst of the worst' districts automatically give a voucher to students who were already attending private schools for the dubious cause of 'equal treatment'? Doesn't this directly contradict the idea of using vouchers only for the worse cases since right off the top resources that could have went towards providing meatier vouchers for the deprived students were directed towards students who already were in pretty good situations?

Eric Krieg writes:

>>I think there has been quite a bit of 'forget about reform, its not workable just toss vouchers at the problem' by the right.

Eric Krieg writes:

Peripheral issue: I downloaded that "study" from Stanford Unoversity that supposedly psychoanalyzed the conservative mind. It's a total crock.

HOWEVER, I can agree that conservatives across time and cultures DO want to conserve or move back to the past. But the difference between a Mussolini and a Reagan is what is being conserved!

Reagan wanted to conserve the classical liberal, small r republican foundation of this nation. The totalitarians he was compared to in the "study" were conserving quite different things.

Which brings me to the schools. Conservatives are the radicals when it comes to schools. They don't want to "smash" the current system. And the left wingers are the conservatives in this case, fighting for the existing system. It's interesting how things have gotten totally backwards on this one issue.

Boonton writes:

"You're damn right there is! And for good reason."

"The "Nation at Risk" report is over 20 years old! We have been "reforming" the public schools for a generation, and have absolutely nothing to show for it."

Yes over 20 years old and what happened since then? The graduates of those 'horrible' schools went on to build not only an economic boom but one with heavy concentration in knowledge industries. This is the exact opposite of what you would expect to happen in a country with a failing educational system. Meanwhile what happened to another nation from 20 years ago that supposedly had a wonderful school system? Anyone hear from Japan these days?

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Anyone hear from Japan these days?

Eric Krieg writes:

Another thing. Shouldn't we be talking about cost? We are spending significantly more than we were 20 years ago, even on an inflation adjusted basis. Shouldn't we have something to show for all that money?

Boonton writes:

Now you're getting rather vague Eric, is education a diaster or is it not? Does it cost more than it does 20 years ago? Yes. How much of this is due to the nature of the economy (see the discussion over 'cost disease'...in other words education costs more because other things like TV's, computers, etc. cost less in relative terms)? How much of this is due to taxpayers purchasing non-education output (schools with big football teams, fancy facilities, computer labs whose relationship to actual hardcore education is questionable) and how much of this is actual improved education?

None of these are easy questions to answer but an even harder question is what *should* we expect to see for all the money? Most schools in the US are locally funded with a regressive property tax. This means that the taxpayers must be getting something they deem worthwhile from all of these increases otherwise the pressure to downsize would be great.

Eric Krieg writes:

Why don't Catholic schools have this so called cost disease.

More money for education has always been sold as reform. Don't blame the victim when he asks for evidence of the efficacy of this reform.

Again, can you give me an example of a monopoly that has successfully reformed itself?

Boonton writes:

"Japan is at the leading edge of a phenomonon every industrialized nation will one day face: a lack of population. Simply put, Japan is too old to be economically competitive. Its birth rate has been too low for too long.

And it has some other problems. But it would be much worse off if it had our schools."

Odd isn't it that they didn't see that coming with all of their quality education? That still doesn't explain how the US managed to pull off such a great job leaping into a technology based economy over the last 20 years. Even if Japan is hampered by an aging population one would think that it would have preserved their lead in technology. If US workers, most of whom were educated in public schools within the last 20-30 years, were so poorly educated the performance of the US economy would certainly have been different.

Perhaps we should seriously consider the possibility that either _A Nation at Risk_ overstated the problems with the US system or that beyond a certain 'basic' level education has only marginal returns in measures of economic output. While this idea does go against the 'common sense' orthodoxy of 'more education = more growth' there is some evidence showing that investment in education in developing countries has only small payoffs.

Boonton writes:

"Why don't Catholic schools have this so called cost disease."

They don't? Are Catholic schools as affordable today as they were 20-30 years ago? I know for a fact that Catholic Colleges certainly ARE NOT!

"More money for education has always been sold as reform. Don't blame the victim when he asks for evidence of the efficacy of this reform."

And 'our schools are a diaster' also serves the interests of those demanding more money...as in 'education in the US is horrible, we need to raise taxes to pay for a new scoreboard!'. When this is used by either the left or the right we should challenge the assertion, which is all I'm doing. I cannot judge every school district in the US but I can observe that when school budgets are being set by taxpayers in individual districts and I can conclude that whatever they are getting it makes them happy enough to keep the status quo. Does that mean they are getting better education or a nicer football team?

"Again, can you give me an example of a monopoly that has successfully reformed itself?"

Errr, public schools are not a monopoly. If you want examples, though, I can tell you a lot of people feel Microsoft has improved itself greatly since its Windows 95 days and even the Post Office has improved greatly (at least from my point of view).

Eric Krieg writes:

>>public schools are not a monopoly

Boonton writes:

Public schools are monopolies even though Catholic schools are available at less than $250 per month? Somebody here overpaid for his Introduction to Microeconomics course...

Boonton writes:

A more subtle issue is how much do Catholic schools really cost? Do they rely on donations? Do they have clergy and other volunteers that work for below market wages? Do they enjoy indirect subsidies such as exemption from property taxes that a 'for-profit' business would not? The real cost of your Parish's schools is almost certainly greater than $2500 per year. The parents, though, only get billed for a portion of it.

Even more subtle is the question of what population does the Catholic school system in your Parish represent? Say I have a hospital with 1000 patients. The average bill is $12,560 per patient. If I select a *random* sample of 5% the average of that sample should be close to $12,560. If I sent that sample to another hospital and they performed the same care for $7,000 per patient then we can conclude the second hospital is much more efficient.

But what if I took a *non-random* sample? Say I took 5% of the easiest cases...the nose jobs, broken legs etc. Now my second hospital cares for that sample for just $2500 per patient! Also, since the left over population is made up of sicker people the original hospital now costs an average of $15,500 per patient! Someone who wasn't looking that the situation clearly might conclude the second hospital is staffed by miracle workers and the original hospital just keeps getting worse and worse. Perhaps someone running for office may want to tell us that all the healthcare problems would be solved by giving everyone a $2500 voucher and letting them go to the second hospital.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Public schools are monopolies even though Catholic schools are available at less than $250 per month? Somebody here overpaid for his Introduction to Microeconomics course...

Eric Krieg writes:

B, from what I've read, in inner cities at least, the school population isn't all that different than the general population. So the Catholic Schools are educating substantially the same kids for substantially less money.

As for the subsidies, there of course is the property tax exemption. But tuition payments are not tax deductable.

And my parish recently jacked up tuition so that the school actually subsidizes the church, not the other way around! Parishoners who tithe a certain amount of money per week get a discount on tuition.

Catholic schools no longer rely on nuns for cheap labor. They employ lay people, for the most part. Salaries are low, but somehow they find people to do the work.

Boonton writes:

"The problem is market share. Despite Linux being free, Microsoft dominates the operating system market.

Despite not costing all too much, the Catholic schools have a very small sliver of the educational market. And because of competition from the government schools, enrollment is declining and schools are closing."

So you are telling me the Catholic schools are not worth $250 a month? Parents would rather send their kids to the public schools? That's hardly a monopoly.

Eric Krieg writes:

Yes. It's hard to compete with free.

The Catholic schools have a dillema. In areas where they are superior to the public schools, like inner cities, the population cannot afford $250 per month. In areas where the schools are good, like certain suburbs, people are unwilling to pay anything in tuition, because they can get an equal schooling for free.

This is why vouchers are so powerful. The poor can afford at least a Catholic education with a voucher. And it is a win-win situation because inner city Catholic schools are the most at risk for closing, mainly because most inner city residents aren't Catholic anymore.

Boonton writes:

"B, from what I've read, in inner cities at least, the school population isn't all that different than the general population. So the Catholic Schools are educating substantially the same kids for substantially less money."

Actually the population issue is more subtle. In any population you may have an average... For exampe, among sick people the avg cost might be $12K. Some of those people will be cheaper and some more expensive. If you draw a representative sample then your average should match the overall population.

Take the inner city, 95% of the kids may be minority, 95% of the kids may be low income and 95% of the kids may fit various other common demographics. Even so, some of those kids will be easier to teach and some harder. If you took 5% of as a *random* sample and sent them to the Catholic school you have an apples to apples comparision. But if the Catholic school was able to select a non-random sample then you are not comparing apples to apples. Right off the bat, the fact that the Catholic parents are willing to sacrafice $250 a month means that they have a higher than average interest in their kids education. This probably translates to other things like discipline at home, being involved with their kids' school work etc. Even though these parents may look like their public school neighbors, they really aren't. This means that the results you achieve for the 5% going to Catholic school cannot be so easily scaled up to 95% of the population.

"Parishoners who tithe a certain amount of money per week get a discount on tuition.... Catholic schools no longer rely on nuns for cheap labor. They employ lay people, for the most part. Salaries are low, but somehow they find people to do the work."

I'm interested in knowing *why* Catholic schools seem to cost less. I think part of the reason is that they get a discount on the 'raw materials'. The Church has ample property, exemptions and a low cost labor force (granted a lot more teaching is now done by non-clergy) as well as sources of finance. I think a bigger part is that the Catholic School system is teaching a self selected part of the student body. Even if they don't do this on purpose it happens because:

1. The fact that a parent has to jump through even a few modest hoops to get into the school screens out a lot of harder to teach students.

2. Harder to teach students can be dumped back into the public system.

3. Since many of the students are part of a smaller community inside the larger population, it's a lot easier to use both positive and negative tools to keep people in line. Positive because it is easier to find volunteers & sources of free labor to supplement the paid staff and negative because parents are more likely to have relationships with the staff & other parents. Your kid says 'fuck' in the classroom and he not only embrasses you in the abstract but you have to think about your golf buddies, the people you sit next to in Church, your wife's best friend etc. knowing you have 'The Bad Kid(tm)'

Boonton writes:

"The Catholic schools have a dillema. In areas where they are superior to the public schools, like inner cities, the population cannot afford $250 per month. In areas where the schools are good, like certain suburbs, people are unwilling to pay anything in tuition, because they can get an equal schooling for free."

Nevertheless schools are not a gov't monopoly. Yes it may be hard to compete with free but nevertheless there are education providers who are available on the open market. Public schools are not like the post office which has a gov't enforced monopoly on the mail.

I will grant you that your choices are limited if you are demanding education for free but that's usually the case since very very little is free in life.


"This is why vouchers are so powerful. The poor can afford at least a Catholic education with a voucher. And it is a win-win situation because inner city Catholic schools are the most at risk for closing, mainly because most inner city residents aren't Catholic anymore."

This leads more than a few people to suspect that inner-city vouchers are really more of an indirect way to support Catholic Schools than about improved education. If the Catholic Church wants to keep economically unviable schools open then it should use its own resources to do so...not taxpayer resources.

I noticed that in cases of 'vouchers just for the bad areas' the vouchers are usually offered for all students...even ones already in private schools. While this benefits the Catholic School doesn't it cast doubt on the whole purpose of helping just those in the worst public schools? Why not offer a beefier voucher in the neighborhood of $5K-$7K which could put students within striking distance of a host of private schools...even ones operating for profit?

Boonton writes:

"The problem is market share. Despite Linux being free, Microsoft dominates the operating system market."

"Despite not costing all too much, the Catholic schools have a very small sliver of the educational market. And because of competition from the government schools, enrollment is declining and schools are closing."

I just realized that this first fact totally undercuts your monopoly argument. Microsoft can be a monopoly even though its competition is free (and many say its competition has a better product to boot!). So not only is it possible to compete with someone (i.e. public schools) who are charging $0, it's even possible to dominate them in the market!

Boonton writes:

Thank you Arnold Kling for selecting me for post of the week! I agree that the US did import many highly educated immigrants in the last 20 years. I think its a stretch to establish that the economic boom since _A Nation at Risk_ was published & the US technology boom can be pinned on such a cause, though.

This implies that the US has a labor force of poorly educated slackers who are being carried by foreign born workers and those that attended private grade school. I suspect that that the portion of the labor force that fits this criteria is just not that large. That means they must be amazingly productive...so productive that by now someone must have noticed that they are carrying the rest of us!

I think a better explanation is that education effectiveness is overstated. Consider SAT scores, low SAT scores are cited as evidence of poor education but if I told you Bill Gates had bad SAT's would you tell me he had a poor education? Would Microsoft be a better company if his score was 100 points higher?

I've noticed more than a little degree inflation going on in the private sector as well. Jobs that were being done 30 years ago by High School graduates (or even those without a HS degree) now require a college degree. I think the return on additional education has diminished in terms of economic growth. There are other returns to education such as personal happiness and a more cultured society and they may make more education worthwhile but I suspect the quality of US education today is pretty much more than what the economy needs.

For those of you who said 'I'm never going to use this!' when you were learning calculus or the history of the Spanish-American War...on average you turned out to be right!

Bernard Yomtov writes:

"The Catholic schools have a dillema. In areas where they are superior to the public schools, like inner cities, the population cannot afford $250 per month. In areas where the schools are good, like certain suburbs, people are unwilling to pay anything in tuition, because they can get an equal schooling for free."

So shouldn't we be asking why the public schools in those suburbs are so superior to the ones in the inner cities? Why are they the equal of the Catholic schools, while the inner city ones aren't. Sounds like government-run schools are fine some places.

Boonton writes:

I would suggest not only are gov't schools fine in some places, they are actually fine in most places! Look the public schools is probably one of the few gov't institutions an average person will have a lot of contact with. You could live in a place for many years and never have to deal with the local police, mayor, zoning commission etc. but chances are you either will have kids or have close family with kids who will either be in the public schools or the state of the local public school will be a major consideration.

If there is so much contact with this particular gov't institution one would imagine that shoddy service would quickly generate a lot of political pressure. If the zoning commission treated people disrespectfully, how many people would be effected in a month? A handful maybe. If the school did that they would be offending hundreds or thousands of people who have day to day contact with them.

So in most areas I'd be pretty surprised if the school was dominated by some special interest like the teachers union. Since so many people must deal with the school I would imagine it would be the one institution that would be the least able to stray from the desires of the voters.

On the other hand since it is the one institution that people are always coming into contact with you can expect every mistake and problem to be caught and talked about all the time. This means that have the impression that the schools are the #1 issue to address since they hear about every single problem they are having while more obscure gov't agencies may in fact be much worse off. In other words, everyone may be screaming that the school is running Windows 3.1 while the zoning board has an IT system circa 1952....

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