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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Vouchers, and why a Conservative Might be Ambivalent

We had lunch with a nice young couple with a handful of kids and in the post-yeshiva/pre-employment stage. They were engaging in some wishful thinking about school vouchers. I nearly ruined lunch at one point when I pointed out the cost of day school/yeshiva. Oops, my mistake! I had no idea that elementary school was already pushing $13,000 + wasn't public knowledge. I brought up this fact in an attempt to explain just one of many reasons why vouchers haven't garnered mass support, even amongst Republicans and Conservatives.

(The presentation of the "facts" contained below are based on my own reading. I've been reading about this subject for a while as it is interesting to me).

A little history first. The idea of school vouchers was the brain child of Nobel Laureate Economist Milton Friedman. He introduced the idea of school vouchers in an essay The Role of Government in Education published in 1955 with the following conclusion:

"The result of these measures would be a sizable reduction in the direct activities of government, yet a great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children. They would bring a healthy increase in the variety of educational institutions available and in competition among them. Private initiative and enterprise would quicken the pace of progress in this area as it has in so many others. Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy."

For the most part, the voucher debate was relegated mostly to academic circles. When the idea did make its way out of the ivory tower, it was quickly opposed by Teacher's Unions. In the 1980's "school choice" became a household term. The idea was being studied and promoted by think tanks and Americans were becoming increasingly frustrated with the state of American education, especially education in the inner city. In 1990, the first voucher program was implemented in Wisconsin and a small number of other pilot programs in other locales followed.

Since the implementation of both school voucher pilot programs and charter schools (the charter school movement has sapped some of the momentum behind "school choice"), achievement results have been mixed. Without confidence in the long-term results, support isn't particularly forthcoming. Additionally (and I this is hard for some to relate to) I think many Americans generally like their children's public schools and fear that vouchers would result in diminished programming. Those who went to public schools might be able to identify programming that has been cut, even as public school budgets have increased two fold.

Another study that has sapped momentum and support for vouchers has to do with the economics of private education. There is little taxpayer and political support to subsidize those who are already paying for private school. There is even less support for supporting parochial education. Which brings us to another issue.

Taxpayers and politicians must be convinced that support for vouchers will increase access to schools, as in create greater educational choices. The price of non-sectarian private schooling in America is so extremely high, that the amount of voucher that could possibly be given to low income students simply won't make a dent. If I handed even a high income earning couple $25,000 towards the cost of a Lamborghini, will that make the Lamborghini affordable? Nope. The couple I was conversing with seemed to think that if vouchers were to pass that they would cover most of the cost of a (yeshiva) private school. Fat chance. Remember that the Utah voucher proposal voted down in 2007 by 60% of the voters, the most generous voucher proposal that I know of, would have only offered vouchers across the board in the amount of $500-$3,000 depending family income.

In the mind of the family I was conversing with, school voucher is something that Conservatives/Republicans have always supported and putting through vouchers was just a matter of gaining enough seats. My recollection tells a different story. Perhaps today it is very popular for Conservatives, including the "religious right" to support vouchers today (the support is not at all universal, even if public support makes for good talking points), but as I recall, support from conservatives was cautious and often lukewarm. And I imagine that if vouchers actually left the arena of talking points and entered the arena of consideration for widespread implementation, you would see serious debate ensue amongst Conservatives and Liberals alike. As Dr. Cordato of the John Locke Foundation (a think tank committed to individual liberty and limited, constitutional government) writes, there is a lot for liberals to like about school vouchers and a lot for conservatives not to like.

1. All Those Attached Strings

Milton Friedman writes that with the implementation of vouchers, "Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy." And in theory, vouchers should introduce market competition and create efficiencies. But, as most regulate business owners know (and don't think for a second that education will not be a regulated good!!!) government money always comes with strings attached. Introducing government money into the private market will inevitably blur the distinction between public and private, eventually eroding, if not destroying, the ladder.

2. Blurring the Line Between Public and Private

This might not be politically correct, but parents often choose public schools private schools because they want their children be in a certain type of environment made up of a certain type of students who are learning a certain curriculum. . . . . or to state in the negatives they don't want their children being educated with certain "undesirables" be those "undesirables" students of lesser means, lesser academic ability, lesser connection, or other more discriminatory reasons.

I think the same holds for private schools. The administrators of private schools have no desire to admit all students. They want to hand pick their students to bolster the goals of the school and promote the vision of the school. They want to pick staff that can promote that mission and if the staff isn't "qualified" as per state standards. And most importantly, they want to pick the curriculum.

It is very tempting to support vouchers when a "system" such as ours needs rescued. But it will come at a price. One might think that should a school not want to come under the umbrella of public accountability, all they need to do is opt out and not accept vouchers. But how many schools will have the ability to opt out once there is government money on the table?

3. Welfare, Inefficiency, and Disincentives

Within the school walls, government money might in practice actually create inefficiency and make schools less accountable to parents as the government replaces the parent in the market. Additionally, if vouchers were to function like other welfare programs--a near inevitability-- you can be certain that families will be fearful of losing their benefits.

It is very tempting to support vouchers when a "system" such as ours needs rescued. But it will come at a price.

4. Threat to Limited Government, Potentially Higher Taxes

Those who desire a limited government, have every reason to fear vouchers. While most private schools parents appreciate building inspections, fire certificates, and fingerprinting, it would be naive to believe that the accountability standards that are sure to follow mass vouchers, would not result in a bigger, more powerful government. Should mass vouchers take root, the public will still need to educate those that the private sector will not educate. There are some libertarian thinkers who predict higher taxes will result when money is stripped from the public schools and only the children who are most "expensive" to educate (e.g. children with severe emotional issues or learning disabilities) are left.

5. Ultimately, a Lack of Choice

Speaking of naivete, it is comforting to believe that a certain type of education would be saved if there were only more money available to it. But, the opposite could happen. Simply put, in a mass voucher program, the government will dictate what schools parents can spend "their money" at. Those schools that engage in discriminatory practices, or that fail to teach a government approved curriculum will not make the list and their existence will be threatened. Like these schools, or not, if you want to empower parents and promote "choice", introducing artificial market factors into a the private system is sure to lack in less choice, not more, especially as time goes by and the government tightens their grip in the name of accountability to taxpayers.

I hope this serves as a good primer for those who haven't been exposed to the voucher debate (from the Conservative side) outside the confines of believing the pipe-dream of vouchers saving Yeshivot (which might also be a pipe-dream).

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent summary SL. Well written and thoughtful.

I also find it troubling that there is a couple with children and they are still unemployed and have no idea what it will cost to educate their children in yeshiva and have no plan for funding their childrens' education.

Lion of Zion said...

great post.

"While most private schools parents appreciate . . . fingerprinting"

not where i live. out of the hundreds of jewish schools where i live, i dount more than 2 or 3 fingerprint, if that many. most oppose it.

but the point still stands that most frum people don't understand that government $ will come with government oversight and demands (including possibly much feared fingerprinting)

i'd also like to see a yeshivah that benefits from vouchers try and reject a kid from a family whose frumkeit is not up to par.

as much as jewish leaders dream about vouchers, they'll never give up the tight controls that they would have to sacrifice.

"higher taxes will result when money is stripped from the public schools and only the children who are most "expensive" to educate (e.g. children with severe emotional issues or learning disabilities) are left."

i don't undestand why. the public schools have to pay for the kids regardless of whether or not the regular ed leave?

" government money might in practice actually create inefficiency and make schools less accountable to parents as the government replaces the parent in the market."

our schools are not accountable to parents to begin with. i can only see goverernment as a good thing, as maybe the government can enforce some type of accountability to parents. at the very least schools might have to publicize their finances (and under these conditions they'll never take a penny of voucher money)

Lion of Zion said...

"i'd also like to see a yeshivah that benefits from vouchers try and reject a kid from a family whose frumkeit is not up to par."

or for that matter a kid who is not halachically jewish

Commenter Abbi said...

"This might not be politically correct, but parents often choose public schools because they want their children be in a certain type of environment made up of a certain type of students who are learning a certain curriculum. . . . . or to state in the negatives they don't want their children being educated with certain "undesirables" be those "undesirables" students of lesser means, lesser academic ability, lesser connection, or other more discriminatory reasons."

I don't get this paragraph. Most people I know who choose public schools do so for the opposite reasons you cite: They want their kids exposed to all kinds of other kids because they believe in the ethos of diversity, multi culturalism, etc. People will move to better neighborhoods to get better public schools, but I've never heard of people davka sending to public schools in order to avoid less desirable students. People send to private schools in order to avoid the hoi palloi.

dvorak613 said...

Abbi- I don't think she was referring to choosing public school over private school; it seems more like she's talking about choosing one public school over another. Since there isn't much choice in that arena, parents look at the quality of the surrounding schools when they go house shopping. Sorry to say, but the neighborhoods with the best schools are not exactly what we'd call diverse and multicultural, and that is usually at least partly intentional.

I have cousins (not frum) who grew up in a particularly ritzy part of Long Island and went to the local public schools. The student body there was not all that much more diverse than that of the typical yeshivah- white, upper-middle and upper-class Jews (except they had a few Italians and Asians sprinkled throughout). And yeah, my aunt and uncle wanted the neighborhood where "you don't need to look over your shoulder", where the schools are top-notch, and where everyone has the same educational "hashkafah"- do well, go to "the right" college, go to "the right" law school, make tons of money. Not all that different from us.

orthofan said...

"most frum people don't understand that government $ will come with government oversight and demands"

And as we see in our Holy Land, as soon as the govt decides to cut back, those who have received benefits will be very unhappy.

Orthonomics said...

The typo was corrected! It is not PC, but parents prove private schools to avoid what they consider "undesirable."

But, dvorak613 touches upon an important point (which I didn't really touch upon in detail, although some of the ideas fall under heading #5) which is that in the current system parents exercise quite a bit of choice! In the current system, parents with the means to do so move themselves into the right school district, the correct part of the neighborhood, and there are parents who push the district to get their children moved even withina district to a school that is better for their children.

Plus, parents have a wide away of choices for private schools, which if eroded/destroyed, they will no longer have.

Charlie Hall said...

Milton Friedman was not the first voucher advocate: Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut had voucher programs before he was born! They are quite popular. However, the schools receiving the vouchers have to take all students and are regulated just about as much as are public schools.

Charlie Hall said...

Vouchers will result in substantially higher taxes anywhere where there is a large private school population. That is one reason why no voucher program has ever come close to approval in a statewide referendum.

It also doesn't help the cause when the stated objective of many (not all) voucher proponents is to eliminate public schools entirely. Lots of people like their local public schools.

And you cannot overstate the impact of the fact that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and (later in his life) John Adams were outspoken supporters of a total separation of Church and State -- and they meant zero funding for religious institutions. Jefferson would not permit religion courses to be taught at the University of Virginia.

Charlie Hall said...

It also goes without saying that any Jewish school that participated in a voucher program should expect that it will have non-Jewish students. The one Jewish school in Ireland -- which is supported by the government -- does. Why, Yeshiva University even has the following anti-discrimination policy:

"The University's policy is designed to insure that recruitment, hiring, training, promotion, and all other personnel actions take place, and all programs involving students, both academic and non-academic, are administered without regard to race, religion, creed, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, veteran or disabled veteran status, marital status, sexual orientation or citizenship status as those terms are used in the law."

Charlie Hall said...

It also goes without saying that any Jewish school that participated in a voucher program should expect that it will have non-Jewish students. The one Jewish school in Ireland -- which is supported by the government -- does. Why, Yeshiva University even has the following anti-discrimination policy:

"The University's policy is designed to insure that recruitment, hiring, training, promotion, and all other personnel actions take place, and all programs involving students, both academic and non-academic, are administered without regard to race, religion, creed, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, veteran or disabled veteran status, marital status, sexual orientation or citizenship status as those terms are used in the law."

JS said...

Great post.

I think vouchers would be a complete disaster for most frum communities (not to mention broader society as well). Think of a suburban community for example that has a very high percentage of Orthodox Jews. None use the public school system. Now, through a voucher program, the town must give, say, $1,000 for each child. This will bankrupt the public school system. Services will be cut, teachers fired, class sizes raised. The educational quality will plummet. In turn, people will move out. Property values will plummet.

Vouchers will hurt areas that are very Orthodox because they already don't use the public schools. The voucher isn't granting the ability to go into the open market and see if better educational opportunities exist, it's just a big property tax refund.

People are just looking for free cash without thinking of where it comes from or what the consequences will be. It's the same shortsightedness that leads Orthodox Jews to constantly vote down school budgets.

The yeshivas are expensive. That much is obvious. Solve the problem internally. Even if every child was given $1,000 (doubtful), the yeshivas will just raise the costs anyways. It won't save anyone money. You can't throw cash at the problem and expect it to go away.

Another issue I have, is that government oversight can be good. As an extreme example, we wouldn't want to privatize the military despite the cost overruns that the government has. Look at so many of the yeshivas. The educational quality is horrible. I can't even count how many times ProfK, for example, has written posts or commented about how her students are barely literate in their native language of English due to low-quality secular education in yeshivas. In the private realm, this is acceptable. In the public realm, at the very least flags are raised and steps are taken to try to fix the problem.

JS said...

Oh, and I also want to echo the comment above.

Young couple, kids immediately, no jobs, no idea how much yeshiva even costs. And we wonder why there is a tuition crisis.

DAG said...

This is the time of year we usually see some "genius" saying that we should all register all the Orthodox children for Public Schools a week or two before the school year starts in order to force the State to pay yeshivas or face the destruction of the Public School system.

Lion of Zion said...

JS:

"Even if every child was given $1,000 (doubtful), the yeshivas will just raise the costs anyways."

gee, you think?

at the end of the day, schools, rabbis and most other communal leaders are confident that despite the struggles, it works out for most families. any new $ pumped into the system is just a bonus for the schools.

hint: hwo much do you think kindergarten tuition went down when UPK was introduced in new york?

(although i'm curious how the yeshivah UPK programs get around the discrimination issues. is it just a matter that no one yet has tested it in the courts?)

Lion of Zion said...

JS:

"Even if every child was given $1,000 (doubtful), the yeshivas will just raise the costs anyways."

gee, you think?

at the end of the day, schools, rabbis and most other communal leaders are confident that despite the struggles, it works out for most families. any new $ pumped into the system is just a bonus for the schools.

hint: hwo much do you think kindergarten tuition went down when UPK was introduced in new york?

(although i'm curious how the yeshivah UPK programs get around the discrimination issues. is it just a matter that no one yet has tested it in the courts?)

ProfK said...

Charlie,
That anti-descrimination statement from YU is not limited to them. Many schools are getting city/state/federal funding and are required to have that type of statement made public. All those Ocean Parkway yeshivas have the same statement on the books--see any non-Jewish kids in the school? And no, the government doesn't go after those schools.

Chani said...

As someone who grew up in England, and I know that it's a completely different story because there is no separation of church and state, the funding of Jewish schools by the government seems to have increased standards. First to be approved for "voluntary aided status" as it is called the schools have to pass rigerous testing and inspections.
Then once they receive this status there are constant inspections, books have to be completely open and transparent and complaints if not addressed by the school go to the city board.
Yes there are issues, every few years a politician starts fighting that faith based schools should be forced to accept students from other religions but it never passes and with the amount of Muslim faith based schools i doubt it ever will.
In addition although the government does not pay for Limudei Kodesh the parents are not allowed to be forced to pay it has to be optional and most schools fit art and PE into the morning making it partially funded.
I don't know if vouchers would work, UPK and Headstart seems to work fine, but i do think that more government involvement would enhance our schools scolastically and financially.

Lion of Zion said...

PROFK:

"All those Ocean Parkway yeshivas have the same statement on the books--see any non-Jewish kids in the school?"

i don't have any handy, but if you do, can you check those statements again. as i recall they are more limited than the ones you would normally see. (e.g., i don't think it mentions religious discrimination).

(and btw, i think charlie's point was precisely that YU doesn't discriminate. so there is nothing for the gov to go after. the only YU division that would not allow a non-jew is RIETS, which in any case is incorporated separately from YU and does not take any government $, so its safe)

Anonymous said...

Rather than school vouchers, we should be pushing for tax deductions for payments of tuition, which would avoid many of the problems outlined in this post (though would likely be similarly politically impalatable).

Offwinger said...

It's a two-way street.

I wouldn't want the government having the strings/right to tell me how to educate my child in exchange for a fistful of cash.

I also don't want the government to give money to schools that don't have public oversight and accountability either. Do you know what is taught at fundamentalist schools (no matter whether we're talking about Christian, Jewish or Muslim)? Do you want your tax $ paying for that? Somehow, many Jews seem to think that you can take a voucher as a tax break, without thinking through the possible consequences (e.g., government funding of Holocaust denial).

Orthonomics said...

but i do think that more government involvement would enhance our schools scolastically and financially

Perhaps some yeshiva schools would improve with government involvement, but (speaking as a Conservative) I don't think that this is good enough argument to introduce more government involvement into a private sector that is very broad.

I will also add that we can and should improve our schools. We don't need the hand of government to force it.

Lion of Zion said...

http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/furor_at_budget_for_rabbis_pcVkJ4zRPotwDjMFYs8zTN