Anti-School Choice Goblins Haunt the Land

Anti-School Choice Goblins Haunt the Land

It’s October and the voucher-bashing ghouls are doing their best to fog the issues and trick us.

While there are some education traditionalists who may embrace charter schools, they frequently draw a strict line in the sand when it comes to vouchers. For the uninitiated, a voucher enables a parent to take education funding issued by the government and apply that money toward tuition at a private school.

Those who rail against any sort of privatizing have either an obsessive and romanticized notion of the “neighborhood public school,” or they belong to a group that benefits financially from the status quo. The undisputed ringleaders of the latter are the teachers unions. For them, privatization means fewer dues-paying public school teachers – and nothing drives Big Union crazier than losing market share. Last week, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten wrote a piece in Huffington Post that typifies the union mentality, trashing school choice, before donning the good-witch mask to end with “We are at a pivotal moment – a moment when we must reclaim the promise of public education without further detours, distractions and delays.”

The promise of public education? I learned early in life that promises should not to be taken seriously after they are shown to be lies.

The AFT website moves into Bizarro territory when it concludes its mini anti-choice rant by informing us that public money used to subsidize private school tuition means “less accountability for taxpayers’ dollars, a false hope for a handful of kids, and fewer resources for school reforms that actually work.”

The “less accountability” crack is especially hypocritical given the fact that the unions are forever railing against teacher accountability, and do their level best to keep every teacher – no matter how incompetent or criminal – in the classroom.

Perhaps the most ridiculous attempt to bash privatization this month came from Jon Overton, writing for The Daily Iowan. He starts sensibly writing that, “People learn in different ways, speeds, and are from backgrounds that place varying levels of importance on academics.” One might think that this statement would lead him to be pro-choice. But, no, he maintains that choice hurts failing schools. So I guess his answer is to ignore successful private institutions and force kids to stay in failing public schools … because, well, they’re public. He attempts to bolster his argument using a report from the Economic Policy Institute which claims that the results of the Milwaukee voucher program have been unimpressive. (Yes, the same EPI where Weingarten is on the board and the chairman is none other than AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka. Only tricks, no treats from that crowd.)  But independent researcher Patrick Wolf finds that,

Students enrolled in the Milwaukee voucher program are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college than their public school counterparts, boast significantly improved reading scores, represent a more diverse cross-section of the city, and are improving the results of traditional public school students….

Among the new findings are that students enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP)—the nation’s oldest private school choice program currently in operation—not only graduate from high school on time by seven percentage points more than students enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), but they are also more likely to enroll in a four-year college and persist in college.

In a close second to Overton’s article, Politico’s Stephanie Simon writes“Vouchers don’t do much for students.” Her entire argument can essentially be summed up in one sentence: “Taxpayers across the U.S. will soon be spending $1 billion a year to help families pay private school tuition – and there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.”

Adam Emerson of the Fordham Institute quickly lays the “little evidence” argument to waste.

Consider, for instance, the work of Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, who has examined the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and found that it led to improved reading achievement among participants while also increasing a student’s chance of graduating high school by 21 percentage points. Consider, too, that random-assignment studies of privately funded voucher programs in New York, Dayton, and Charlotte found higher achievement levels on standardized tests or higher college-going rates, or both, particularly for black students. Other empirical studies led to findings that range from the positive competitive effects vouchers have on public schools to the heightened level of achievement that comes from greater accountability (this last comes from Milwaukee, where Simon noted that snapshot test scores of voucher students look poorly but where a longitudinal analysis of the voucher program reports more positive results). But a single literature review from Greg Forster at the Friedman Foundation is perhaps most revealing: eleven of twelve random-assignment studies have showed improved academic outcomes of students who participated in voucher programs. The one study that didn’t found no visible impact on students one way or the other. (Emphasis added.)

Then there is the sound-good-but-dead-wrong traditionalist argument used by Simon that vouchers “siphon money from public schools.” Citing Harvard econometrician Carolyn Hoxby, Arnold Ahlert addresses that issue:

The hand-wringers are further incensed that public funds are being “siphoned” from public schools to pay for vouchers, insisting–as they invariably do–that more money will lead to better public schools. This argument was completely debunked by Caroline M. Hoxby, an Associate Professor of Economics at Harvard, during an interview with PBS’s Frontline. At the time she noted that the average spending per pupil in the U.S. was $7500 per year, while voucher costs averaged $2000. “Even if the vouchers came completely out of the local public school district’s budget, every time they lost a student, they’d be losing $2000, but they’d lose a whole student and $5,500 remains behind,” she explained.

As biased and wrong-headed as the Overton and Simon pieces are, they can’t hold a candle to a piece written by Allison Benedikt for Slate a couple of months ago. In the second sentence of “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person,” the author writes, “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.”

Yes, Ms. Benedikt, I should send my kid to a rotten pubic school just because you have some misguided notion that I if I don’t, it would ruin one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions.” Sacrificing your kid’s future to prop up a failing government-run operation is collectivism at its scariest.

There is another facet to the public-private discussion that the traditionalists and the teachers unions have never quite got around to addressing, which is that many rank-and-file teachers eschew their local public school and go the private route themselves. As Larry Elder writes,

About 11 percent of all parents — nationwide, rural and urban — send their children to private schools. The numbers are much higher in urban areas. One study found that in Philadelphia a staggering 44 percent of public school teachers send their own kids to private schools. In Cincinnati and Chicago, 41 and 39 percent of public school teachers, respectively, pay for a private school education for their children. In Rochester, New York, it’s 38 percent. In Baltimore it’s 35 percent, San Francisco is 34 percent and New York-Northeastern New Jersey is 33 percent. In Los Angeles nearly 25 percent of public school teachers send their kids to private school versus 16 percent of Angelenos who do so.

Seems as if these public school teachers might know something that their unions are loath to acknowledge: that many public schools just aren’t getting the job done, and that choosing the best education option for their children is not only their right – it’s their responsibility.

In fact, all parents should have a right to sidestep the tricks of the traditionalists and teachers unions, knock down doors and demand the best education treat possible – a choice of a public or private school for their children – and let the edu-dollars follow the student.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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