Thursday, April 22, 2004

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The effect of school vouchers in Milwaukee

Given how important education is in the global economy, it's worth finding out whether school choice/vouchers/greater market competition can improve the quality of primary and secondary education in the United States.

Over at Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse links to a Caroline Minter Hoxby paper in the Swedish Economic Policy Review that examines the effect Milwaukee's voucher program had on school performance. Brighouse has some questions about the paper, but closes with the following:

[V]ouchers and choice are increasingly hard for the left in the US to dismiss. The second best objection to well-designed and targeted voucher programs is that they leave the children remaining in the public schools worse off. If that objection can be met, progressives are left only with the best objection – that they will set in train a dynamic that will undermine the principle of public schooling. But in America, where public schooling is savagely unjust in its internal workings, that objection rings a bit hollow unless coupled with a substantial and politically feasible plan for improving the public schools which the least advantaged Americans attend.

posted by Dan on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM


Public education does have a valid purpose. Newly arrived immigrants probably assimilated easier within a public school structure. Nonetheless, the monopoly of public schools has resulted in bloated and lazy officials who primarily worry about their power base and privileges. They must be forced to compete---and vouchers serve this purpose. The Democrat Party has caused enormous damage to the poor of this nation. I am convinced that this political organization is the biggest obstacle to ameliorating poverty in this country. Does it have good intentions? That’s of secondary importance. You also have to have your head on straight.

posted by: David Thomson on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

If our educational system is unsatisfactory, one has to ask, compared to what? If we are falling behind other countries, what system do they have? Most other countries have a much more centralized system than ours.

Maybe vouchers are the answer, but if we're getting beaten by countries with a national system, why aren't we at least talking about imitating them?

posted by: Carl on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

Hopefully this is the start of a longish phase that will end up with the replacement of coercive direct funded education -> school vouchers -> state competing parental loans as the basis for the funding of education.

This will even the market with home schoolers, and also not be an immoral way to fund education (I beleive the basis of immorality is imposing costs on others).

posted by: Rob Read on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

I find it amazing that the alarmingly socialist Sweeds can see whatour own left cannot.

But, not surpised.

posted by: Bithead on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

I don't say it often enough, but thanks for posting such useful (and hard to find) articles and links. This, and the "lively" discussion format, is what keep me coming back.

I don't know how many of Dan's readers have kids in public schools. I do, so here's what I have learned in the past three years that I really had no right to speak about before (though, being mouthy, I've no doubt I did, frequently and volubly).

First, middle and upper middle class folk exercise "choice" all the friggin time. We choose our neighborhoods, and then to a greater or lesser extent we choose the personnel who come in contact with our children. If they fail to please, we cause a stink, transfer our kids, move, or do all we can to have the out of favor person fired or shifted. We have power and we exercise it with a heavy hand (often, it seems to me, irresponsibly, but usually with the best of intentions).

To deny these same choices to less affluent parents is a travesty. It is beyond insulting. Whatever it takes to create a flexibility for these parents which currently does not exist in their world--that is what should be done.

That said, I think the antagonism between old-line educators and would-be revolutionaries can be softened and must be if any large scale change is to occur. The right needs to harness some of that starry-eyed idealism that propels young people into the classroom; the left needs to acknowledge that the system is broken and that protecting the status quo is no longer an option. On the whole, the position of the left/Democrats is more obscurantist, less creative, less rational than that of the right/Republicans, but neither side has all the angles covered. Stop bickering and show us a way out already.

posted by: Kelli on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]


For the record, the "centralized" education systems of Europe and Asia tend to do a good job of educating the top layer of society (hence the good test scores) and a miserable job of teaching the bottom tier (their special ed. programs can't hold a candle to ours, they do an abysmal job teaching immigrant children, etc.). They too are in crisis mode, albeit a slightly different crisis from our own. In short, move along, nothing to see here.

posted by: Kelli on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

Here in Britain the Conservative Party is putting forward it's own plans for a voucher system. It looks very similar to the plans used in parts of the US. So, right now most of the education experts in Britain for both Labour and the Conservatives are watching the US to see if vouchers are working.

From what I've heard the results for voucher schemes have been somewhat mixed. Stories about school administrators taking the voucher money and running, that kind of thing. If anybody has some good stories about voucher schemes working I'd like to hear them.

Frankly, my primary interest in this idea is, does it work? If it does then I'm all for it being tried here in Britain. Like Kelli said, we're also in crisis mode here, its just a slightly different form of crisis.

posted by: sam on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

If the left seems "dismissive" of vouchers & choice, they need to send a better message. Their strongly-stated objections show me the opposite.

While acknowledging the problems of public schools, I don't hear them argue against the success of voucher programs, but rather that vouchers are financially unfair. Hoxby's 14-29% per pupil figure gives some relevance to the old 20% off all yachts - rich or poor! analogy.

I also don't think the concern is over "well-designed and targeted" vouchers, but rather a concern over whether those goals will actually come to pass.

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

What, exactly, is the "principle of public education" which choice and vouchers would undermine? When push comes to shove, the practical definition seems to be "schools controlled by a bureaucratic administration with a unionized workforce".

I helped start a charter school several years ago and our opponents always referred to us as somehow not "public". Nevermind that we were a tuition-free tax-supported school. Nevermind that we admitted students by lottery. Nevermind that we were governed by all the non-discrimination laws as any other school.

posted by: Hunter McDaniel on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

Thanks for the link Dan. A couple of comments on the comments.
1) sam -- the UK advocates of vouchers are extremely insensitive to something that Hoxby is very careful about: that the design of the system makes all the difference. Lets suppose that the Milwaukee scheme is as successful as Hoxby supposes. What does that mean for the UK? NOTHING. Why? Because whereas private schools in the US cost about half as much per pupil as state schools, in the UK they cost about twice as much. There simply isn't a low-cost private provision in the UK to participate. Furthermore, whereas the Milwaukee scheme forces all oversubscribed participating schools to select voucher students by lottery, almost no UK private schools would give up their sacred right to select on basis of behaviour/ability, etc. I know that David Willetts knows some of this because I've heard him say it.

I agree with the people who say that the existing system in the US entrenches choice for the wealthy and denies it to the poor, and that this is unconscionable. It wouldn't be if the state chose well for the poor, but in the US the state not only chooses to make sure there's lots of poverty, it also makes lousy choices for the poor generally. If it makes you feel better about the left, polls show that left-leaning voters are much more likely to support vouchers than right-leaning voters. And, finally, here's the plug, if you want to read a left-wing defence of choice you could do worse than read my book *School Choice and Social Justice* (by Harry Brighouse).

posted by: harry on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

Several major points that commenters here are overlooking:

1)The most important issue is to first determine what our children need to learn --then we can debate how best to teach it.

My teenage son is attending one of the top prep schools in the country. Yet it's curriculum is essentially the same as our local suburban high school. In both case, the curriculum is utter crap.

I've attended curriculum review presentations at both schools -- and both schools have made similar proposals to the parents --to "update/revise" the curriculum by making it even worse --e.g., by wasting students' time with mandatory community service. Hilariously, this proposal was being advocated by people not known for their altruism -- members of Pennsylvania's teachers union in one case, an alumni of Harvard Law in the other.

2) There are several problems with US education. The most fundamental ones are (a) a belief by educators that students' time is worthless --similar to the view a warden has toward prisoners in his charge (b)failure to relate time spent on study to the value the study brings to the student--in fact, total indifference to the very question of whether the study even benefits the student
(c) lack of parental involvement ,knowledge, and interest, and (d) the fact that educators are ..well..educators and hence ignorant in many important areas. They are not soldiers, politicians, entrepreneuers, business men, or scientists.

3) For example, I think it important that students be taught to analyze the world as a system --to indentify the major forces, their agendas, their constraints, their options for action, what they're doing, and how the resulting consequences will affect the people of the US.

Such understanding/knowledge is needed for them to vote/act wisely as citizens -- or even to earn a living and to invest their savings as individuals.

4) Yet i doubt if 5% of our college students or K12 graduates could successfully answer such basic questions re the most fundamental and important aspects of our world:
a) The major military powers of the world and prospects for future war
b) The major economic powers of the world and likely evolution of the global economic system
c) The composition of US and global capital including arable land, water, and natural resources as well as wealth. The ownership of wealth and what the rich are doing to remain that way
d) The composition of US GDP, the Input Output Matrix for US industry (interindustry flows to deliver products/services to the ultimate consumers.) The flow of products/services/money among government, households, corporations.

5)I argue that our citizens need to learn the above in K12, because many of them will not attend college and even many college graduates will not learn the material our increasingly specialized college programs, especially if they major in pre-med, science, math, engineering, or business.

There are other major shortcomings in the US curriculum, which I will discuss in later comments. History, for example , is one of the most important subjects but history education is an utter disaster.

posted by: Don Williams on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

Liberal Democrats instinctively trust government more than the private sector to be “fair” to everyone. Egalitarianism underpins both their motivations and philosophical underpinnings. Also, they believe that poor people are too stupid to know what’s good for them. What is the problem with the Republican Party? It has the right ideas---but its hard core membership could care less. It’s not their problem, is how they perceive the matter. This is why they almost always chicken out when the Liberals exert any pressure. They trade this issue for one they value more highly.

posted by: David Thomson on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

"For the record, the "centralized" education systems of Europe and Asia tend to do a good job of educating the top layer of society (hence the good test scores) and a miserable job of teaching the bottom tier (their special ed. programs can't hold a candle to ours, they do an abysmal job teaching immigrant children, etc.). They too are in crisis mode, albeit a slightly different crisis from our own. In short, move along, nothing to see here."

I fully agree with the factual description, but I disagree with your conclusion. The problem with our education system is that we are too focused on the bottom tier. Every education reform movement I see seems to be about bringing our worst students up to some basic level of adequacy. I don't see the social value in that. I think the marginal benefits of improving the education of our top students are much greater than the benefits of improving the education of the bottom tier. Society gains virtually nothing from bringing fry cooks from a third-grade reading level to a sixth-grade reading level. We gain quite a lot from pushing future lawyers, engineers, and researchers to slightly higher levels of achievement. That should be the focus of education reform.

posted by: Xavier on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

It's unclear whether you are writing from an American or European perspective. Either way, however, I think you have it all wrong. Advanced western economies have almost no use for functional illiterates--we don't need too many ditchdiggers anymore, and most of those are immigrants. Illiterates are an enormous drain on society: they contribute little to the common good and are far more likely to wind up in prison or on welfare. You have a direct interest, therefore, in seeing that everyone has at least a sixth grade education.

By contrast, the state has little interest in pouring resources into elite education for the top achievers. Most of those come from families that are themselves high achieving (hey, non-parents out there--this is no accident!) and willing to fork out big bucks to either supplement or replace tax-payer financed education.

What's left over, the vast middle, is actually the worst-served in American education. But I don't see anybody out there protesting on behalf of average kids, and I don't expect to in future.


What's with the rant about the "state" screwing over the "poor"? Your dogma is fifty years out of date. Let me give you an example ripped from the headlines of my beloved Washington Post. DC's mayor has been trying to take direct control over the DC public schools, as they among the worst in the nation. Direct mayoral control is working in Chicago and NYC--why not here? Because, the answer comes back, preening city council members hate the mayor more than they hate what is happening in those schools (mayhem of all sorts, precious little learning). Why? Because the mayor is not "black enough." Not like that paragon, Marion Barry. Ostensibly, they are protecting the prerogatives of the elected school board (a group so irresponsible, they make the city council look like the Justice League).

So here's my question, Harry: which of these parties is "the state"? If voters elect school board and council members who refuse to fix the problems in their schools, whose fault is it?

Don Williams,

I agree with you that much of the curriculum in public schools today is worthless. But why are you paying good money to a school which does no better? Reading over your list of reforms I'm wondering if any of my peers in graduate school could have fulfilled your requirements.

We need to put aside our dreams of what public schools could be in some utopian dreamworld, and make them simply function. I know my kids' schools do because I and my fellow parents spend a lot of time and money making it happen. Are they perfect? No way. But they're good enough. At the end of the day, that'll have to do. It'll be a whole lot of work getting to that point. Perfection will have to wait for the next world.

posted by: Kelli on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

The result of school choice in our district was that all the "squeaky wheel" parents were concentrated at the few best schools. The schools with lower tests scores were not chosen by squeaky wheel parents, and these schools slid even further in ranking.

Choice was instituted here to give families in poor areas the option to send their kids to better schools, which were in the more affluent area. But the families that lived near the low-scoring schools continued to send their kids to those schools. Reasons included transportation problems, family attachment to a neighborhood school, distrust of rich white people at the better schools, inability to navigate the school district bureaucracy, and lack of awareness of the program.

My conclusion: ambitious pushy parents will use school choice and voucher programs. Kids with ambitious, pushy parents will do well regardless of the availability of choice. The kids who really need their schools improved will be left behind again.

posted by: Mary Coyne on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

"The result of school choice in our district was that all the "squeaky wheel" parents were concentrated at the few best schools. The schools with lower tests scores were not chosen by squeaky wheel parents, and these schools slid even further in ranking."

Yes, but did the actual students do any worse, or did they do just as bad as they did when they had better students pulling up their schools' averages?

Bad students aren't turned into good students by the presence of other good students. The only purpose the good students serve for them is that they derive some enjoyment from assaulting and taunting the good students.

The good students, however, can do better if they're separated from the thugs and losers and no longer have to put up with that nonsense.

posted by: Ken on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

Do I understand the Milwaukee voucher system correctly? (1) Only the poor are eligle to receive a voucher. (2) Every student who uses a $5,000 voucher to leave the public school system results in only a loss of roughly $2,500 to the public schools. If that is the case, then this is a welfare program that increases public education spending for the neediest. What lefty wouldn't love this program. This does not seem to be the voucher program that I hear debated by upper-middle class parents.

posted by: Novice on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

Colorado last year passed a pilot voucher program. It would have applied only to districts with a large number of schools ranked low or unsatisfactory, and to be eligible students had to be poor and either at risk of failure or already failing (about 3,000 of them the first year). The districts involved were willing.

The teachers union and their unholy allies were not. They sued, and a complaisant judge ruled the plan unconstitutional through a tortured reading of the state law on local control.

The legislature is considering a revised version of the plan intended to cure the consitutional issues, and this morning the Colorado Education Association ran a full page ad attacking supporters' motives. "It's all about the money!" screamed the huge headline, and the ad went on to say that supporters of the pilot plan cared nothing about improving education, they were only seeking "your tax money for private and religious schools."

Inadvertently, they were right: It is about the money, the money teachers pay in union dues. Disgraceful.

posted by: linsee on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

The debate about school vouchers is an important one, but Dan, I fail to understand the manner in which you've framed it. Education is important in the global economy, the U.S. needs to keep its competitive edge, so we should find out whether school choice will improve primary and secondary education in the U.S.

If lousy public K-12 schooling will be to blame for the loss of American economic competitiveness, must we not accept the inverse: namely, that it must be to K-12 schooling's credit if the U.S. possesses a competitive and innovative edge?

Strange, I can't recall anyone saying much that was positive about U.S. public education in the 10 years prior to the Silicon Valley boom, or any other recent innovation boom for that matter. So what gives?

posted by: Rob on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]


1)It is no accident that the most successful people in Hi Tech have been people who opted out of the US educational system -- who were college dropouts.

Bill Gates(Microsoft), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Michael Dell (Dell --well, not a dropout but his major focus at Austin was building Dell in his dorm room), etc. What percentage of university PhDs have been successful entrepreneurs with any significant success?

The reason is clear:
Hi Tech is based on discovering and building something that's not existed before.
College teaches you OLD knowledge -- much of it 5-10 years out of date.

Hi Tech is based on you using your creativity to the max -- College is based on the idea that you need to spend 7 years of your life, $175,000 of your wealth before your are even entitled to venture an opinion or an idea . Prior to that, your role is to sit at a desk in a room with 20 other people and listen to a High Priest drone on endlessly about a subject that might --but usually does not -- have relevance to your interest. Of course, you have no time to identify what might be of value because the professor is too lazy to give you handouts of his lecture --out of the valid fear that if you looked at the text of those notes, you would realize that you could dispense with is services by going to the library.

HiTech is tightly focused on you developing your unique product --college is based on you spending enormous effort learning "broad fundamentals". At the end of the college process, you have a scrap of paper and no time to innovate because you have to find scute work to pay off that huge $100,000 loan you have incurred. All that knowledge of "broad fundamentals" is of little value in giving you a competitive advantage in the world --especially since it has also been delivered to low wage China and India --since 25%-%50 of your fellow students were from those countries.

At the end of college, you discover that (a) that piece of paper is worthless (b) that you don't know what the state of the art is (c) that building your own company is no longer an option because you have to go to work as a corporate drone in order to pay off that $100,000 loan you incurred. WHich is an education of a sort.

College is a con-game --designed to seduce, divert, corral and trap the strong energies and intelligence of our best and brightest --so that it will not be a threat to established wealth.

posted by: Don Williams on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

Really, Don?
THen why is it that thsoe who go to through such institutions are invariably financially better off? The evdience suggests the poor would be the least threat, and education would raise the threat level.

posted by: Bithead on 04.22.04 at 12:55 AM [permalink]

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