Saturday, January 07, 2006

School Vouchers II

In yesterday’s blog entry, “School Vouchers”, I discussed three arguments in the school voucher debate.

There are a couple of other issues related to school vouchers that I would like to cover.

Rich and Poor Quality

The rich, insofar as they control most of the money, have the capacity to bid the best education services away from the poor, leaving the children of poor families in comparably worse schools than the children of the rich will get into.

Elsewhere, I applied this issue to health services -- the rich can purchase life-saving medicine that the poor cannot, so the poor die under conditions where the rich may live). I also applied it to energy – the rich can afford to bid the price of a barrel of oil up to $70 per barrel without giving up much, but it puts the poor in significantly worse economic shape.

The Florida Supreme Court declared one of the state’s voucher systems unconstitutional on the grounds that it did not provide all students with a uniform quality of education. The charge is accurate; some parents will use vouchers to send their children to schools that are better than the schools that other children will attend. Furthermore, the rich have the ability to bid the highest-quality education services away from the poor.

Just as the best doctors can handle only a limited number of patients, the best schools will be able to handle only a limited number of students. The only way to bring about uniformity in this type of situation is to close down the best schools, until the schools that are left are uniformly poor. If, instead, we allow the best schools to remain open, then we have to accept the fact that not every student will be able to get into those schools.

The Quality of Education

It would be nice to assume that the schools that will face the highest demand will be those that provide the highest quality education. However, this is not necessarily true. This depends on the parent’s ability to recognize the difference between a good education and a bad education, and the degree to which the parent is motivated by quality of education.

An example of a standard that a parent will use to evaluate a school, other than quality and price, is location. The nearer, lower-quality school will have an advantage over the further, higher-quality school.

The more important issue is the parents’ ability to recognize a higher quality school. Some parents will judge the quality of a school by its tendency to teach what the parent believes is true. The parent who believes that the earth is 10,000 years old is going to think that the best science education is provided by the school that teaches that the earth is 10,000 years old. Thus, vouchers will not necessarily increase demand in those schools providing the best education services, but those schools that promote popular fictions.

Answering These Concerns

We may be able to see what we can expect from a more privatized public school system by looking at the college system. The state governments provide state-run colleges and universities, just as they would continue to provide state-run K-12 schools under a voucher system.

At the college level, there is even a voucher system, of sorts. Students can apply for government financial aid and to use that aid even to attend a private college or university. The only requirement is that it must be an accredited school.

Demand for a high-quality education has bid up the price of the services offered by the best private schools. Tuition, room, board and fees at Harvard is around $40,000 per year. Wealthy parents prefer to send their children to schools such as this, because they know that the graduates of Harvard and similar schools stand at the front of the line when it comes to getting the best job.

To be fair, Ivy-League students are not sought simply because of the quality of their education. In life, it is not always what you know, but who you know that matters. Ivy-league students get an opportunity to know a lot of influential people. Yet, this does not change the fact that Ivy-league school graduates are also thought to be the best educated.

A Check on Quality

There are colleges that teach a particular agenda. For example, there are private colleges that teach “creation science.” However, the school/business system has a system of checks built in to ensure that the best schools will not tend to teach an agenda.

For example, pharmaceutical companies are going to hire biologists and research scientists that are capable of actually making new discoveries in their field. This means that they want to hire students who understand the science. They are going to know which universities produce the best research scientists.

In turn, the student who wants to get a job at one of these companies is going to be able to find out which schools these companies look at when it comes to hiring. This will tell them where to apply for college – which colleges they want to get into. This, in turn, allows those colleges to face a higher demand for their services, and to pick the best of the best.

Similarly, hospitals are going to know which schools produce the best doctors. Companies are going to know which business schools produce the best managers.

K-12 Quality

If vouchers are used for K-12 schools, we can expect that the same check on quality will develop. Universities will know from where they can expect the best quality students. Though some parents will choose to spend their vouchers in schools that teach the correct doctrine, many will look for schools that do the best job of getting its students into the best universities – just as university students look for schools that can get their students into the best jobs.

Indeed, prep schools are popular for just this reason.

California Court Case

In California, several evangelical schools have filed a lawsuit against the state’s university system claiming that they discriminate against the teaching of certain religious views. The California university system has refused to accept certain classes that these evangelical schools teach – such as creation science and revisionist history.

If the evangelicals win this lawsuit, it would be like saying that pharmaceutical companies that do not hire “creation science” biologists are guilty of religious discrimination. It will eliminate an important check on the quality of education that will be detrimental to the whole system.

If a school can teach its students, “God says 1 + 1 = 3”, then demand that the students be accepted into college on the basis that refusing them admittance is “religious discrimination” then we have no safeguards to protect the quality of education.

So, a successful voucher system will require that universities have the freedom to decide for itself which K-12 schools are producing the best students. It even argues for refusing to allow vouchers to be used at schools that produce students that the universities will not accept. This will give even uneducated parents an easily recognize standard that they can use to evaluate different schools. “Which school does the best job of getting its graduates into the best universities.” It is the same standard already in use at the college level. “Which university does the best job of getting its graduates into the best jobs.”

The Rich/Poor Problem Revisited

This provides a partial answer to the quality of education problem. However, it does not answer the rich/poor divide. As a matter of fact, rich people will bid the best education services away from poor people, giving their children an advantage that the children of poor people do not have.

Scholarships and other forms of special assistance will help to some degree.

However, please note that this is not an objection to the voucher system. Vouchers will not eliminate this problem, but it will make it better. It will give some parents a chance increase the quality of the schools to which they can send their children. Rich peoples’ kids will find themselves competing with a few more students from the middle class. Students from middle-class parents will find more competition from the children of poorer families. Eliminate vouchers, and one simply eliminates parents’ ability to afford a higher quality option, which results in generally lower quality education all around.

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