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School Vouchers and Why I Want Them - Elizabeth Unexplained
Lots of data but no answers
School Vouchers and Why I Want Them
I finally had some time to finish a post I've been working on for three weeks or so on school vouchers.

The preparation phase of Kindergarten Quest really solidified my position on school vouchers, that position being that I would really, really like to have the option.

Our school district's per child expenditure is $15,972. That's more that $3k above the state average, and there is no school bus service in our district, so compared to most districts where they do pay for school busses there must be even more spent per pupil on education. Even so, when I look at the test scores my brain seizes because they are that bad, and well below state average in nearly every school.

If money were no object I'd want to send my kids to a private Montessori school. Cambridge Montessori is the closest and costs $20.6k for Kindergarten and a bit more for the higher grades. We can't afford that, even when we go back to being a two income family. We could afford to pay the difference between the cost of private school and what our district spends per child if we were to make budgetary sacrifices elsewhere, which we would gladly do. If school vouchers were available we'd take them in a heartbeat and find a few thousand dollars more per child in our budget and give our kids an education that we think would work for them. I expect that other parents in the district would do the same, creating a greater demand for private primary education and hopefully more private schools. It might even eventually lower the cost of private schools if there were more competition, but I wouldn't count on that.

Opponents of school vouchers & charter schools argue that such measures would take money away from the public schools, which they would, but they would also be taking students away. People who oppose vouchers also say that the public schools would then only have the worst, most needy pupils in them, and the ones with the least motivated parents. I'm not sure this is a bad thing either, perhaps the public schools could do a better job just focusing on the most disadvantaged kids. As things are now they seem to be spending most of their energy there and are failing the bright kids and the average kids. You know something is wrong when multiple people have suggested to me that in order to get Margaret the attention she needs as a gifted child that I get her diagnosed with some disability so the district is forced to come up with a special plan on how to educate her.

What the opponents of vouchers & similar proposals lack is an actual plan that works right now. I haven't heard any plan from that side other than variants of 'throw more money at education and eventually it will get better'. Firstly I am dubious about that, my district already spends way more per pupil than the state average and their results look terrible. Secondly, I need a solution that works for me by next September, not a decade in the future. I think a lot of people discussing education policy just don't get that sense of urgency. Even one year in a terrible school can put a kid at a serious disadvantage, and when that kid is your kid it makes your blood boil with anger and frustration.

Another thing that the anti-voucher crowd seem to not get is that parents will do what they are able to do to act in what they perceive to be their best interest. As a parent I care a lot more about the education of my own children than I do about education in general. What am I going to do if I can't get Margaret into the best elementary school in the district? I already know of a few couples who were living in the Cambridge/Somerville area but fled to the suburbs primarily because the schools here were failing their children, and the topic of us moving to a better school district has come up in more than casual conversation. Any proposed solution to the education problem has to take into account that parents justifiably have very limited patience and will flee a failing school district if they have the means to.

Opposition to school vouchers is often led by teacher's unions. Their arguments are based on the interests of disadvantaged kids, but I'm pretty sure their actual motives are far less pure. Most teachers in private and charter schools are non-union. Obviously a teacher's union does not want more non-union competition. I also have a strong bias as a parent and former public school pupil that the teacher's unions are probably a big part of the problem. I had some really good teachers in school, especially in the upper grades where the best teachers tended to be rewarded with the honors classes, but then again, there were some truly bad teachers too. I'm thinking that the French teacher who routinely showed up 10 minutes late to her own class would not have a job in a non-union environment.

Ultimately I think we may be OK in our district's pubic schools for next year and possibly a little longer if we get one of our top two choices but unless the landscape changes we need a solution that we can implement by the middle school years at the very latest, and if we don't get something like vouchers that solution is probably going to be "flee to the burbs".
17 comments or Leave a comment
psychohist From: psychohist Date: February 6th, 2013 07:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Or, possibly, "flee to a Utah".
jaedian From: jaedian Date: February 6th, 2013 11:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
MA isn't big on gifted education. Which is a shame given that a good portion of our adult population is well educated and wants their kids to be well educated.

Most of that per pupil amount won't be spent on your kid. Saying they spend $x per pupil is really inaccurate. There is probably a much lower (by much more than $3K) that they actually spend on the average student, a very significant portion of the budget goes to special Ed. First the kids with IEP's that get special, often one on one help, and or tutoring. And even more on kids that require out of district placements due to severe learning disabilities or autism, to the tune of $30 to $50k a year. So if you got a voucher, it would only be for a small amount of the theoretical per pupil spending. 

The worst districts spend the most per pupil. But this is also because they have the most difficult kids to educate.  The playing field is not level because kids are not mass produced commodities and everyone is different, and some school districts have the worst students to educate and some have all the easiest. So it can be really hard to evaluate performance.

NCLB has made things worse in that respect, as the schools are now required to do all they can on the bottom students. This pulls money away from regular students and leaves nothing for things like gifted education, which is not mandated in anyway in MA. I am not saying that we shouldn't try to educate these kids, but at some point there are diminishing returns and it might be better to put resources elsewhere at that point. Kids aren't equal in so many ways, but we act as if we can spend enough money to make everyone the same.

I don't know what the solution is, although I am not sure vouchers will solve the problem either. Like health insurance, people don't need the same levels of resources, so how do you distribute things fairly?
psychohist From: psychohist Date: February 7th, 2013 06:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wait, how are we figuring out who "needs" more resources? Is it really societally most productive to spend so much extra money on the kids with severe learning disabilities who will never be able to be normally productive adults no matter how much is spent on their schooling? Or is it the bright kids who, with the right schooling, will become the next generation of innovators driving economic growth that will benefit the whole society, that "need" the resources the most?

Voucher systems are generally written based on average per pupil spending, not on incremental per pupil spending. Yes, that means vouchers squeeze special ed students as long as they all stay in the public school system and the system insists on spending extra money on them. However, with a voucher system, private schools will pop up specializing in special ed students for the voucher amount, which will likely ultimately help them more than the present system, despite lower spending.

Edited at 2013-02-07 06:08 pm (UTC)
jaedian From: jaedian Date: February 8th, 2013 04:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree. Right now we have this assumption (which is clearly incorrect) that we can make all the kids equal. and therefore give them equal opportunity. But this is clearly not the case. And at some point we are expending huge amounts of resources for small gains. And the reality is not everyone is created equal. There are some people who truly have the potential to be great scientists. Some will be highly successful entrepreneurs (and they may even be the ones that DIDN'T do well in school) But there are many other people who will be successful at less academic pursuits. Lovely singers, gifted artists, and even tradesmen. Believe me, if we got everyone "equal" we will be sad when no-one wants to be a plumber or an electrician.

I went to a showing in Andover of Race to Nowhere. (which is worth seeing, plus Wes Carroll was in it) And it became clear to me that none of the parents in the room wanted their kids to be an electrician, a plumber or a mechanic! In fact I believe a mom said that in our discussion afterwards. So they push their kids to try and compete and some of the kids are stressed and really struggling at that level. And really trying to be something you aren't isn't going to be a positive thing in the long run. I think they should try to be their best, not THE best. And honestly, there are many highly educated careers that end up paying less than an electrician or a mechanic!

So I think we are going to struggle until we realize that we are not mass producing a single homogeneous product. Each kid is different, and has different requirements. And I think a law that requires everyone to attain the same level of achievement is going to be fraught with peril. We definitely should try to help everyone, and give extra effort wisely where it is needed. For instance, many highly intelligent kids have dyslexia or ADHD and with some help overcoming this can perform at a high level. But there are other kids that are never going to get there. I don't know how to tell the difference, but if it is an extra but reasonable investment it is worth it. But if it take 10 or 20 times the average per pupil cost to educate someone, maybe our resources are better spent elsewhere? I see similar issues in health care. And I think trying to untangle those two cases and spend appropriately is tricky.

And I can certainly see a voucher system with an average per pupil spending that isn't incorporating the special education budget into the average. That can be set aside for kids who need it - since that obviously costs more. Certainly those budgets can be separated and often are in fact. There is state money that goes to towns just to defray special ed costs, and you have to have those costs to get the money. And honestly, if you really want to send your kid to a private school you will have to foot some of the bill - but getting some money from the school would help.

The bigger problem I see is that some of the "per pupil" spending are fixed overhead. If a large number of people flock to the private schools, you can layoff teachers, but dealing with the cost of extra capacity on the school blds themselves is very tricky. Paying off construction loans, cost of operating etc. In fact a lot of the more restrictive zoning laws in towns are designed to limit growth, particularly in the school sector, because adding physical space is so hard to do - it is expensive ad slow. But I also think at least some of that money is not in the school's budget.

But I do think a voucher system could work, but it would not be at the current level of "per pupil spending" which is maybe a useful number for comparing towns, but not as helpful as a guide to what is actually spent an an average pupil. And most of the time it seems backwards, the school systems that are the worst with the hardest kids to educate are usually spending the most.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: February 8th, 2013 04:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
You can shut down buildings - Somerville has been gradually closing schools as the child population declines. In fact, if vouchers were law, I think private schools would buy a lot of the excess public school buildings.
jaedian From: jaedian Date: February 10th, 2013 01:04 am (UTC) (Link)
You can shut down buildings, although it is a bit more complicated than that. We are currently building another new school in Andover. I think we started the project 4-5 years ago, we had a 2 year delay due to abutters and litigation and a 2 year construction schedule. And we are servicing that with a 10 year debt exemption. So we could conceivably still be paying off the school when we would need to close it. And at least for HS, most towns have just the one, so if enrollment dropped significantly, there isn't much to be done there as you can't close it entirely.

But there is some ability to reduce costs here.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: February 8th, 2013 04:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
I also really agree with most of the rest of your comment. Honestly, I wouldn't mind if some of my kids became plumbers or electricians. They make good money, many get to run their own businesses, and the truth is there is currently a shortage of skilled crafts in Massachusetts.

Edited at 2013-02-08 04:58 pm (UTC)
jaedian From: jaedian Date: February 10th, 2013 01:08 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes. I was really appalled when someone said that there still had to be plumbers and mechanics and she was shot down by several members of the crowd that didn't want that for "their" kids.

I think this has caused a whole other set of problems. Namely college. Now everyone HAS to go to college. Enrollment is super competitive as everyone us trying to get in, and get in to the best schools they can. And tuition is through the roof. People are taking on way too much debt for this and I don't think the jobs are there to support it. (not for everyone) I can not believe how much more it is than when I went - because I can't imagine how they could be spending all that money on the students! With three kids, that worries me even more than the issues with public schools!
psychohist From: psychohist Date: February 10th, 2013 02:15 am (UTC) (Link)
Plus, a college degree from a run of the mill state school is no longer worth anything.

Incidentally, they are spending that money on several times as many administrative employees, with no increase in faculty.
jaedian From: jaedian Date: February 10th, 2013 06:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think they are also spending it on nicer facilities and buildings. Which is ridiculous, my kid can have an awesome dorm room, but when they graduate and are in massive debt, THEN they can love in the roach infested hell hole!
izmirian From: izmirian Date: February 7th, 2013 01:32 am (UTC) (Link)
I really like your post. I have traditionally been somewhat anti-voucher but I'm slowly changing my opinion. There's an interesting article in the most recent Economist which talks about how Sweden, one of the classic examples of large state-run institutions, has a school voucher system now. I don't like the fact that school vouchers could easily end up making the public schools even worse, but like you say, it's not clear that the current system is making forward progress very quickly.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: February 7th, 2013 04:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
School vouchers ought to make public schools nonexistent.
From: jayhowen Date: February 8th, 2013 12:05 am (UTC) (Link)


Hard to believe: The state/county/city ect takes $ from us to pay for education, then whine when they have to give us a voucher (our $ back) and claim we are hurting the system.
jaedian From: jaedian Date: February 8th, 2013 04:29 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Vouchers

Well the state/county/city take $ from EVERYONE. Including people who will never have kids. So I think just asking for your money back isn't really the issue. Why can't the people without kids gets some back too, they aren't even using the system. So clearly there is an assumption that it is either beneficial to society or society's responsibility to educate children. At that point you need to decide what that obligation is. Are you just required to make an adequate education available for each child? If that is the case, as long as you have access to it, they are fulfilling their obligation, they aren't required to give you exactly the education you desire.
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 8th, 2013 04:51 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Vouchers

Jaedian - I'm public school educated. My brain is not trained to thing beyond the superficial.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: February 8th, 2013 04:56 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Vouchers

I would say that the public schools are not generally providing an adequate education. They might be in your town; they aren't in ours.

I think the societal justification for universal education is that without those kids, the current people who don't have kids would be in trouble when they get old.
jaedian From: jaedian Date: February 10th, 2013 12:08 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Vouchers

I agree. The theory is that if you don't educate the kids that do exist, society will have lots more problems. Kids getting into trouble, and failing to provide necessary services when they grow up. But then you have to figure out how many resources to devote to that and where to spend those resources. And that seems to be the issue. I don't really know what the answer is. I think we have such opportunities to improve things with technology now and that isn't happening.

I think the consensus is that my town provides an adequate education for most students. (the average ones) We do a terrible job with the gifted, and even worse with the gifted kids with learning disabilities. (this is true for MA as a whole I think) And I have seen some issues for special ed kids - lots of not providing the things we are supposed to - which I assume is to save cost - due to all the regulations, the town has minimal control on that part of its budget. Several elementary schools here failed to meet MCAS progress for certain populations, despite most kids performing well.

I definitely agree Somerville's schools are not as good - that is why we moved. I am not entirely happy with the public schools here either, but for much more specific issues now. Vouchers could be the right idea, but I am doubtful the government could implement it in a workable way - cause it doesn't seem like something that would get passed in a reasonable form. I would love to see choices for education, since it is clear ot me that there are many groups of learning styles and abilities, And having a choice of lots of smaller specific schools would be neat, so you could choose something that is a good fit. (most critically at the middle school and high school levels) Right now our model is more about making the child fit the environment not the other way around, so I think we need a change in our thinking!
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