Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Considerations Regarding School Vouchers

While I am on the subject of things that conservatives get right and liberals get wrong, I want to bring up the subject of school vouchers.

This is a system where the government takes tax money and pays a parent or guardian to get their child educated. The state does not manage the school or pick the teachers or pick the coursework – but it does require that the student meet certain standards. It is, after all, paying for a service – the quality education of a child. It does have a need to adopt some measure of making sure that it gets what it pays for.

One of the common objections to this system that I hear is that it is a tax subsidy for religion. There are a lot of parents who would use these vouchers to send their children to some form of religious school, where they will get religious indoctrination at state expense. This violates the separation of church and state – which does not permit the government funded religious indoctrination.

I think that this is a flawed argument. The government is not paying for religious indoctrination. It is paying to educate a child to acquire a certain set of knowledge and skills. It just so happens that, at the same time as the child is being given these skills, in some setting, it is also getting religious indoctrination. However, this is not something that the state is paying for.

It is also the case that, while a child is being educated, it is breathing – consuming oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. The fact that this happens while a child is getting an education paid for by the government does not imply that the government is paying the child to consume oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.

To determine what the government is paying for, we do not need to look at what happens while the child is learning. We need to look at what the state considers to be a successful completion of the contract on the part of those who get the money. That contract cannot include any type of religious indoctrination, but this does not permit religious indoctrination going on at the same time as the terms of the contract are being met.

On this matter, we still have many and good reason to set high standards. We benefit from a well educated population, and we have reason to condemn the uneducation and miseducation (myth-education) of children.

However, the fact of the matter is that the political compromise necessary for public schools is to teach ignorance on all controversial matters. By 'controversial', I am no talking about scientific disagreements about (for example) whether t-Rex was a carnivore or scavenger. I mean any fiction that a segment of the population absolutely refuses to let go of.

The option that I would propose is not to oppose school vouchers, but to use them.

Lets create our own schools.

I would love to see an Academy of Reason for K-12 education.

This would not be an atheist school – I would oppose that. An atheist school would mean picking winners and losers on matters of fact. Though I think I know what the facts are concerning the existence of a god, I reject the arrogance of presuming infallibility.

However, it would be a school where a philosophy course covering the arguments for and against the existence of a god ( along with free will, epistemology, logic, and value theory) may well be a required course.

It would be a school that discusses creationism in its biology class – specifically for the purpose of educating children to understand exactly why creationism is not science. One could devote whole lectures in biology class to, "Here is what the creationists say. These things are false, and those things over there are not science"

It would be a school that could offer honest and informative classes on the history of religion - and even of history, for that matter. The question of what counts as evidence and whether there is evidence that Jesus actually existed could be discussed.

It would be a school where those students who are interested could take in a class that looked into the biology and psychology of homosexuality, and where students would get accurate information about sex, pregnancy, and venereal diseases and how to prevent them.

There are other potential concerns about school vouchers. For example, some worry that taking the best students out of the public schools and putting them into private schools will lower the quality of public education. Also, public schools are concerned about having less money to spend on education. Consolidating schools to cut costs will mean longer commutes for school-age children and their parents. This is not the end of the discussion.

However, there would be a lot that could be gained from having schools where teachers are free to teach and students are free to learn. And a school voucher system would help parents of modest means to get the it children into those schools.

9 comments:

Jesse Reeve said...

Thank you for-- as usual-- a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. As a teenaged atheist, I went to a Catholic high school due to the low quality of public schools where I grew up. I certainly wish I could have gone to an Academy of Reason, instead!

You briefly mention the strongest argument I know of against vouchers: that they would increase the financial and professional burden on public schools. Most proposed voucher programs implement a flat rate based on public schools' average spending per student. But some students are more expensive to educate than others. Some are below grade level and need special remedial programs; some have serious behavioral or psychological issues and need counseling and other support services. Some have disabilities that require wheelchair ramps, elevators, Braille textbooks, sign language interpreters, and so on. Unlike public schools, private schools are free to deny such students admission.

There is no reason, in principle, that a voucher program could not account for this problem by adjusting voucher amounts or making voucher schools subject to "affirmative action" type policies. But, again, the voucher programs that conservatives have proposed make no attempt to address the issue.

Alonzo, would you mind explaining why this argument:

To determine what the government is paying for, we do not need to look at what happens while the child is learning. We need to look at what the state considers to be a successful completion of the contract on the part of those who get the money. That contract cannot include any type of religious indoctrination, but this does not permit religious indoctrination going on at the same time as the terms of the contract are being met.

applies to a private school where students experience religious indoctrination, but not to a public school where students experience religious indoctrination?

mojo.rhythm said...

It is also the case that, while a child is being educated, it is breathing – consuming oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. The fact that this happens while a child is getting an education paid for by the government does not imply that the government is paying the child to consume oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.

I don't like this analogy.

After all, even if the state does not give the child a voucher, that child will still breathe carbon dioxide and oxygen. It is highly debatable whether or not that child would have received comprehensive religious indoctrination if he or she attended a public school instead.

Kristopher said...

@ jesse
they could make school vouchers the average spent on a child with "noraml" needs to fix your first problem. this would lead more money for the public schools.

any policy that says a smart child should be held behind in a bad learning enviroment becuase some of the children with learning disablities will not get as much money from the gov as they need is a bad argument

we should never hamstring the fastest runners (when it comes to educating children) so as not to leave the slowest behind.

we need to let inetelligent children get the best education they possibly can and focus on giving the struggling children the best education we can give without holding anybody back.

if struggeling children need more funding they should lobby for more funding not take it by keeping the children that are excelling from reaching their goals.

for example i teach english in highschool. my school breaks the children up in each class by their most recent test scores (so they can change classes with hard work) and puts all the students with the best scores in mixed class Alpha and the average children in mixed class beta and the lowest scoring children in mixed class gamma

does siphoning off all the smart children that pay attention make the gamma class insuferable. yes it does. do the children in the gamma classes, becuase they are not surrounded by smart students doing clever things get a worse education then the alpha class. yes they do.

but the same is true the other way as well. bad (not "special" kids just kids who don't care)students bring down the whole class and make the learning process slower for everyone including themselves. when you group the children who are really trying hard and have an aptitude together they can get twice as much done in an hour. furthermore in the classes that are not mixxed if you teach to the speed of the slower children the quicker children get bored and become didcipline problems. if you teach to the quicker children the slower have the same problem. and if you teach to the middle children the slow are still left behind and the quick are still bored.

seperating children by their ambition and ability for each subject is the best thing you can do for a learning enviroment. that is not a drawback of this program it is a giant advantage. hell schools are already doing this by offering AP courses and fast track programs for gifted students

Jesse Reeve said...

Kristopher--

It sounds like we agree. I support tracking and remedial/advanced classes more or less as you describe.

As I said in my first comment, there are several ways a voucher program could avoid the problem of concentrating students with special needs in underfunded public schools. But a voucher program that did not address this problem would make the educational system better for the "best" students, at the expense of students with special needs. ("Bad" students who don't care will break even-- you can lead a kid to knowledge but you can't make him think.) This is not an insurmountable problem, just something to consider when developing a voucher program.

I hope you grade your students' spelling and grammar generously :)

NAL said...

However, vouchers don't cover the entire cost of a student's education. Those who can afford it least won't be able to come up with the additional funds. Vouchers are a tax payer subsidy for those who can already afford the tuition to a private school.

Jesse Reeve said...

NAL--

It's true that a voucher program would subsidize families that can already afford to send their children to private schools, and that a family unable to pay anything toward private school tuition would not be able to benefit. But you neglect to mention the group in the middle: the people who can afford part of private school tuition, but not all, for whom vouchers close the gap.

For the exact reason that vouchers don't cover the entire cost of education, a voucher program can actually be a net profit to a public school system. Suppose that a school district receives 2 dollars per child, and a voucher is 1 dollar. Googling indicates that current private school enrollment is around 10% of total enrollment, so voucher payouts to families that can already afford to send their children to private school would be 5% of the district's budget. However, for every child that moves to private school on a voucher program, the school system nets 1 dollar: they receive 1 dollar instead of 2, and they don't have to spend it on that child's education (the family makes up the difference).

If there are 100 students in the district, 10 in private schools, the district receives 200 dollars a year divided among 90 students: $2.22 per student. If another 10 students move to private schools under the voucher program, the district receives 200 dollars a year, pays out 20 in vouchers, and spends the remaining 180 on 80 students: $2.25 per student. If 20 students go to private schools, it comes out to $2.42 per student, and so on. In other words, if enough people opted for voucher-supported private schooling, this system would actually subsidize public education. (If fewer than 9% switch to private schools, it will be a net loss as well; but that would suggest there wasn't much demand for a voucher program in the first place.)

The math changes based on the size of the voucher relative to total per-student revenue, so those calculations won't apply to all voucher programs.

NAL said...

Jesse:

Too many unspecified assumptions to make your math worth anything.

If school districts are funded based on the number of public school students rather that total number of students, your math doesn't hold.

If school districts are funded based on the total number of students and the school budget is decreased to offset the cost of vouchers, your math doesn't hold.

If the percentage of private school students only increases 2%, say from 10% to 12%, then the voucher system is an obvious subsidy for the 10%.

Kristopher said...

@ Jesse

touche sir. you actually made me laugh out load! i never double check my grammar and spelling in internet comments... i am sure it is awful. as long as it isn't so damaging as to lose it's meaning that's good enough for me on the internet... though i never thought about that irony of saying i was an english teacher (haha) i can assure you i double check other documents! lol

i just think grouping children with special needs in the same classes tends to be in their best interest not harmful. in fact that is why public school have special ed classes... siphoning off the smart kids at the expense of the slower children is a non-problem of school voucders. they are being seperated now in the current system becuase that is the best way to handle education.

The Heathen Republican said...

Alonzo, I agree.

Kristopher, you said "i teach english in highschool". Do you teach capitalization in your classes? (Kidding)