obama and dc school vouchers

While I really like the spirit of what Megan McArdle has to say here:

I'm willing to countenance the possibility that Barack Obama genuinely believes that the DC voucher program is not helping the students who participate...[but] how come the Obama girls benefit from leaving the DC public school system?


What is it about the Obama girls that enables them, nearly uniquely, to benefit from school choice?

...I just can't get on board with the argument that Mr. Obama's (possibly wrongheaded) opposition to vouchers somehow obligates him to put his children in public school. Vouchers make it possible for people to send their children to private school that otherwise wouldn't be able to afford it. The Obamas can afford it.

You can argue that vouchers constitute a sort of tax refund rather than a simple entitlement, I suppose, but since they are targeted towards people who probably are getting more back than they "paid in" (and a great many more people pay in and get nothing), it looks a lot more like an entitlement to me.

Now, I don't think for a minute that Mr. Obama's opposition to it is rooted in a desire to cut entitlements--he's keeping the teachers' unions sweet. But I also don't understand why Megan and so many other conservatives and libertarians don't see vouchers as the wealth transferring entitlements that they certainly look like to me.

(Full disclosure: I am a product of public education, from kindergarten through a PhD.)


Gino said...

i cant see how a usually consistent libertarian mind such as yourself doesn't recognise public education as just as much an entitlement, and usually more in terms of dollars, than a voucher.

libertarian sensitive thinkers, such as myself, view vouchers as a liberty solution to deal with an entitlement/mandate that far too often does more harm than good.

Brian said...

I think a pretty compelling public goods argument can be made for public education. I have a stake in an educated populace. In subsidizing private/parochial education, not so much.

This does not constitute a defense of the particulars of public education in its current form, mind you...

Gino said...

if there is a stake in an educated populace, paid for by govt, then a better educated populace, through the use of vouchers,and more cost effective, would be even more benefit,no?

or is it the religion aspects that concern you?

Brian said...

That's a fair point. I guess I'm not so much anti-voucher here as mystified as to why so many on the right are so gung-ho for them (and Ms. McArdle's case in particular, gung-ho to the point that she abandons her usual sharp analysis in favor of an emotional argument that frankly doesn't make any sense.)

Vouchers seem to me a grafting of one redistributive program onto another rather than a meaningful incremental move towards the ideal, which (to my mind) would involve a lot less public financing (if any--I'm thinking somewhere between a self-funding "post office model" and a donor-financed "NPR model"), no compulsory attendance, and a great deal more flexibility in terms of how school is actually done.

The IDEAL ideal, of course, would be for all of it to be private, but I'm willing to entertain a role for some public education, for the reasons I've already mentioned.

My concerns about the religious nature of some schools is only in the more general sense that anything on the public dole becomes fair game for political debate. I have no probelm with religious education per se...just particular brands of it.

In fact, if I had children, I'd send them to a Jesuit or Quaker school long before I'd put them in public school. But I'd drown them in the bathtub before I let the Liberty University crowd get their hands on them.

Gino said...

as some one who comes mostly from the right, it's about holding govt accountable and providing liberty to choose how best to school one's kids.
its a smaller govt solution to a big govt problem.

my ideal would be same as yours: its all private. but that aint gonna happen. ever. so, gotta try to fight for half a loaf,instead.

in CA, a minimum 40% of all tax reciepts go for k-12.
now, if i had that 40% back in my own pocket, i could have afforded a private school for my own kids. seems as hard as i tried, i just couldnt make the #s add up.

so, i'm guessing you and i are not really that far apart. its just a matter of degrees.

chris said...

I agree that an educated citizenry is probably in our best interests. I'm all for the old adage of "if it ain't broke don't fix it" but I think that it would be hard to argue that the saying applies to what we currently have.

Cobb County has in excess of 100 schools that they run. To make this easier to explain, let's just think about that are 16 high schools.

There are high schools that perform well. There are high schools that don't perform well. As a matter of fact, the county is a good case study because it literally has both ends of the spectrum. In the areas that perform well, the average home price is in excess of $300 large. In the underperforming school zones? Let's just say there are lots of good deals going on right now and have been since before the housing slump. Put simply, it's de facto segregation based on socioeconomic status. Is it indeed acceptable that achieving students of low socioeconomic status are not entitled to the same superior services that are found less than 15 miles away at a school within the same system simply because their parents are poor?

The problem is lack of competition from the view of the schools. The true competition is not in the classroom but rather competition within the real estate market. So, how do we create competition between the schools? Instead of basing attendance on geography, let the schools compete for enrollments. How do you do that? Let the money follow the kid, not the kid following the money. Let the schools fill their roster from application pools, not from who lives closest. (if not at least within the districts that are gerrymandered for greater gains from development)

I guess that geography will still play a factor as long as the county is the one collecting and distributing the tax dollars. I'll be honest that I don't know when transportation to/from school became as much of an entitlement as it has become. One of two solutions for kids that trek across the county (assuming it's still a county system and not even more localized to the level of individual schools) is to either not provide it for out of district students or preferably to reorganize the existing service to work somehow. Just a month or so ago, I was behind a bus that was dropping kids off at their driveways on a road that has sidewalks. It made two stops within 50 feet. I could have almost forgiven them if it hadn't been a clear, warm day. So now, you may have to be picked up/dropped off at a shopping center, or a major intersection instead of door-to-door delivery. I'd even be opposed to entering subdivisions that were less than a mile deep or did not have a main thruway.

To provide some evidence that competition does increase services you can use the math and science magnet program that I worked with as an example. Students from all over the district are invited to apply and then selected based solely on academic merit. Once we started taking some of the talent from the formerly privileged schools, they found it necessary to start offering programs to compete with us in an attempt to retain some of them. The number of advanced offerings at other schools, especially the ones closer to us, started to increase. If you ask me, more students than the hundred or so that we admitted each year were able to benefit from a relatively small investment in competition. Unfortunately, it's small enough of a dent that it also empowers some of the low performing schools to be that much worse when they lose the more vocal parents of the kids that attended our school instead.

I'm even okay with the money going to a private school, as long as they can produce students that do at least as well on standardized exams as the public school products. As a matter of fact, I'd prefer that the government lease it's schools to people that can do the job better for cheaper.

I also have to admit that I cheated in high school. Not actual cheating in the classroom, but cheating by going to a different school from where I was districted. It was just me and my mom and we couldn't afford much but we finally found a shithole we could afford to rent with another family in Ellenwood. We used my grandparent's address in Jonesboro so that I could go to Lovejoy instead of Morrow because they offered AP and other advanced classes that they didn't have at Morrow. It helped that my mom worked in Jonesboro because she dropped me off at school and I rode the bus to my grandparent's place where I'd spend the afternoon cutting grass or doing homework. Eventually (middle of sophomore year), my mom got a slightly better job and we found a place we could afford in the area and were "legal" but I can't accept that we had to do that in the first place just because I wanted to go to a better school.

Our citizens deserve a better return on investment than they are getting and we aren't going to get it with "more of the same." I thought it was supposed to be "change we can believe in." It's convenient how it can become a throwaway phrase depending on which special interest group is being appeased.

Brian said...

Chris--great points all around. Obviously, no one-size-fits-all plan for school choice is practical...all the more reason for education to administered as locally as possible. Practicality of school choice is going to be a function of population density; in my <2 mile commute in Tucson, I passed within 1/4 mile of two public elementary schools, two private schools, and at least one charter school. In Durham, there's an elementary school two blocks from my house, and I have no idea where the next nearest one is. I think the high school for which we are districted is nearly 5 miles away.

Clearly the president shouldn't be weighing in on such local matters anyway (not that that has stopped any of them before), though it is worth pointing out that DC is a weird and unique case due to its mishmosh of home rule and federal oversight.