Obama, Vouchers, and Inter-District Public School Choice

July 12, 2007

John Kirtley (a leader of the private school choice movement in Florida) and I started discussing whether vouchers should be part of Obama’s education plan. The conversation has now expanded to include the question of choice across school districts. John’s original post and my response are here, and John’s response back to me can be found here on Whitney Tilson’s blog. John’s main point is worth quoting:

My comments amount to a single claim, but a different one: unless a candidate supports parental choice for low income parents, reform oriented Democrats should be pissed off. More importantly, low income parents who are being asked to support such candidates should be pissed off.

Your friend I think is getting caught up in a word. The real question to ask him (or her) is: why don’t you, or the Education Trust, support the idea of using taxpayer dollars to help a low income parent send their child to a particular school, perhaps even on their block, that works for that child? Don’t just say that it should be OK for you or the Education Trust not to support that — say why it’s OK to deny that parent that chance.

Remember the example of Miami Union Academy. It graduates 99% of its kids, and 95% go to college. Tuition is $4,000. All its kids are poor and minority. Per pupil spending in Dade County Public Schools are more than double that, and they graduate less than half of minority children.

That low income parent deserves to know why she can’t send her child to that school. She won’t accept an answer that “it should be OK that we deny her that opportunity.”

Your friend says, “To suggest that reform-oriented Democrats have to support vouchers (or even charters for that matter) is to incorrectly impose an ideological straight-jacket on people.” This statement gets to the heart of the problem most Democrats (and many Republicans) face on education. I believe that giving parental choice to low income parents will help drive improvement in the public schools that serve low income children. I believe that it will make every other reform method work better, because it will be an external catalyst for those reforms to be adopted.

To which I offer this . . . .

Whitney: One of the things I love most about your e-mail list is the quality of your comments and the responses they engender. Too often the blogosphere is full of rantings and accusations. So thanks for sending out John’s response to my comments, and your own questions.

Let’s remember how this all started. John criticized Obama’s speech to the NEA. Basically his critique was that Obama should support vouchers and tax credits, or private school choice if you prefer. I responded by saying, more or less, that lots of smart reform-oriented people don’t support vouchers, and we should not attack Obama for not making this part of his education agenda.

John’s response focused on the mom who wants to send her kid to the private school down the street, and what do we say to her. I will address that in a minute, but first Obama. Obama is running for president, and as a candidate he has to decide what his agenda is going to be. As I have written previously (which might surprise John, as he seems to believe I am a voucher opponent), I support vouchers because I’m in the camp of “let’s try anything that might work,” and I support vouchers as an experiment until we do enough research to see whether they work. On this issue, as in education policy generally, I have my gut instincts and core beliefs like everyone else, but I try to be driven by what we can learn from the research.

However, I think reasonable people can disagree on whether vouchers are worth pursuing. This might be where John and I disagree; he may view the case for vouchers as a slam-dunk. I think reasonable minds can differ because I’ve read many (but not all) of the studies, and I think the research findings so far have been mixed. Similarly, I think it is reasonable for people to be worried about a host of other issues–church/state, hurting the public system, etc.

I also believe Obama, like any candidate, has to pick his priorities, and if he wants to endorse improving teacher quality but not vouchers, I think that is ok, and certainly not a reason to back away from him. Indeed, my reference to your slides was meant to show that you and a lot of other people think that if we have to pick one reform, teacher quality is likely to have a bigger pay-off than vouchers. So for all these reasons, I am a reform-oriented Democratic who is not “pissed off” that Obama does not support vouchers.

Now, to the mom you discussed. I agree, 100%, that she has a powerful moral case. It is the main reason I support the voucher experiment, because I want to find out what happens–to the kids who go and those who stay behind–when we let kids like her child go to private schools using public money.

But here’s another mom I want to ask you about, a mom that I have hardly ever heard voucher supporters talking about, and a mom largely absent from the discussion of choice in NCLB (even my friends at Ed Trust don’t talk about her). This mom is African American and lives in a big city, near the border of a boundary with a suburban district. Her neighborhood school is full of kids that, like her child, qualify for free lunch. And the school is lousy, no place any of us would want to send our child to. A long walk or short bus ride away is another school, really good, high test scores, good climate. The main reason she wants to send her child there is because she thinks he will learn more math and english, but she also likes the fact that this school has a good number of Asian and white kids (along with a few blacks and Latinos). She believes in integration–she herself grew up in a mixed community, and she believes her son is being denied the chance she had. She is fearful that as an adult not only won’t he be well-educated in the 3 R’s, but he won’t have friends of different races and backgrounds.

She can’t go to that other school, though, because a line on a map that she can’t even see says that it is a different school district. And she can’t afford to move there. She has heard about NCLB and even received a letter offering her a transfer, but it was to other schools in her own district, which are as racially isolated as hers, with lower test scores and further away than this nearby school she wants to attend.

Whitney, to re-state your question and John’s question, in all my life, as I have read and talked about choice, charters, vouchers, etc., I have never heard a good answer to what do we say to that particular mother. But whenever I bring the question up in the choice community–the place where I would assume everyone would be on board–people change the subject, talk about political difficulties, money, etc.

Why do I bring her up? Mainly it is because I really want an answer. What do we say to her? And why is the choice movement not working on this issue?

Secondarily, I want to point out that Obama did not talk about her either, and I want to know if John thinks we should be pissed-off about this? I’m disappointed personally, as I always hope that my favored reforms will get pressed, but I’m not pissed off. Per my comments above, I understand that Obama and other candidates have to pick an issue or two, and I get why he might pick teacher quality over inter-district school choice.

Thanks again Whitney for keeping this conversation going.

Update: Jonathan Kozol discusses NCLB and choice across school district lines in today’s New York Times. I know Kozol tends not to be popular with the voucher/private school choice community, but this is well worth reading if you care about the mom we’ve been discussing.


2 Responses to “Obama, Vouchers, and Inter-District Public School Choice”

  1. Jay Eshelman Says:

    School Choice is not just a public vs. private school issue. School Choice is just that, Choice. To consider our education system as merely a private vs. public competition is mind-bogglingly short-sighted. It is the funding of education that should be public, not the provision of education services.

    School Choice (aka vouchers) affects every aspect of the American way of life. While we respect a woman’s right to choose the fate of her unborn children, we don’t respect her right to choose the school her child attends. Go figure. Perhaps if we respected the desires of parents maybe, just maybe, there would be less call for that other choice.

    The data supporting School Choice is extensive, demonstrating lower costs and higher academic achievement. While School Choice reflects all of the libertarian free market precepts that make America great, how in the world can we expect our education system to produce competitive players in a world economy when the majority of our students are held hostage to the largest monopoly (the primary and secondary public education system) in American history. Answer: we shouldn’t.

    School Choice will turn our society’s dysfunctional perspective on its ear. Instead of telling our children and their parents that low academic prowess is the result of some obscure disability, alternative providers will accentuate the positive. No longer will the lowest common denominator rule the roost – every child will have their own Personal Education Plan designed to accommodate their own personal circumstances. Without School Choice there is no incentive for anyone to accommodate anything but the dysfunctional status quo – such is the nature of virtually every centrally planned economy in history. And why it’s so hard to learn from that history is anyone’s guess.

    P.S. I know something of what I speak. My children attended our public schools; we’ve spent 12 of the last 15 years serving on school boards, public and private; our Vermont school district affords some semblance of School Choice for us to compare; I’m a former Workforce Investment Board member (a liaison between our schools and businesses) and as such, the end user of the goods and services our school system provides. Perhaps needless-to-say, I’m not pleased with the current state of our quid pro quo relationship. School Choice will remedy the situation.

  2. doazic Says:

    It may be a function of my boy-crush on Obama, but I fear vouchers are just a religious right-wing Trojan horse. Just look at what Jay writes:

    “Perhaps if we respected the desires of parents maybe, just maybe, there would be less call for that other choice.”

    Is this not the same line of reasoning offered by those who want us to ‘respect’ the views of parents who don’t want us to teach evolution in our public schools?

    The voucher problem completely misdiagnoses the problems of disparate achievement rates on a state by state basis. We currently lack Federal Education standards, meaning that states are free to pick and choose how and what to teach to their children. The end result is what we currently see with red states trailing in science and math achievement.

    Let’s not ignore the historical arguments against vouchers. Protestants used to oppose the idea of vouchers since it would amount to a subsidy of the Catholic school system (itself a response to the perceived threats of a public school system). Now that Protestants themselves have established High Schools and Colleges they are pushing for the same subsidies they opposed decades ago?

    Arguing about the quality of public vs. private schools has always been a red herring.

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