How Not to Be a Hypocrite

by Harry on October 31, 2007

A long strand about the hypocrisy of parents who use school-quality considerations when buying a house opposing vouchers has annoyed Megan McArdle. (Laura replies here). I don’t entirely understand why. In the thread Megan is so incensed by, both voucher opponents and voucher supporters seemed to be arguing in good faith and with good humor. Laura is a bit mischievous, to be sure, but her readers expect that, and there’s nothing on the thread that justifies Megan’s tone.

Before elaborating, here’s a plug for my friend Adam Swift’s excellent book How Not to be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed which treats this topic in great detail and should be much more widely read (Swift is interested in the parents who use private schools while believing that private schools should be prohibited, but the structure of thinking of voucher opponent who uses school quality considerations in house buying is very much the same, I think).

Are people who buy houses on school-quality grounds necessarily hypocritical if they also oppose vouchers?

I don’t think so. Here’s a combination of views that seems plausible, for example:

Parents have a duty to ensure that their own children receive a good enough education, so I, as a parent, should ensure that for my own child if I can. Voucher schemes really make very little difference to how well the least advantaged children are educated, and the hoo-hah about vouchers obscures the real problems in the school system, which include schools which are too big, neighbourhood schools with high concentrations of poverty, and screwed up systems of management. So I oppose vouchers, even though I want, and am willing to put considerable efforts into getting, better schools for disadvantaged children.

I don’t see anything hypocritical in the above line of reasoning, and in fact all the claims made there are true. Megan, I think, believes that the empirical premise about the effectiveness of voucher schemes is false. But that suggests that either she hasn’t been reading the literature or that she has a kind of “well, vouchers as they are don’t make much difference but vouchers as they might be would” view, which isn’t unreasonable, but cannot ground outrage at people who, reasonably enough, hold the view that the current social science supports.

Of course, you might think that someone making the above argument is rationalizing; they really are hypocrites, but they have the sense not to sound like hypocrites. That’s as maybe, and this phenomenon might be widespread, but can’t we make the same assumptions about people with good salaries who oppose tax-transfer schemes on leaky bucket grounds? Maybe they’re arguing in bad faith, but I see no good reason just to assume so, which is what Megan seems to be doing.

For the record, although I believe all the claims in the above passage, I do not oppose targeted voucher schemes for poor children, because even though I think they will not do much good, they might do some, and I doubt that they do much harm. (I think there is a case that they fall foul of Megan’s 8th objection, that they benefit the more advantaged among the less advantaged, perhaps to the detriment of the less advantaged, but the same may well be true of affirmative action, which is not usually thought to be wrong on those grounds). I suspect the best chance for improving urban schools comes from adopting a pot pourri of reforms, some of which are touted onthe right and others on the left, and that vouchers are a bit of a side issue. But if I thought there was some really promising reform on the table that would make a big difference, and that vouchers prevented us from getting it off the ground then I would oppose vouchers, and without hypocrisy.

{ 111 comments }

1

Megan McArdle 10.31.07 at 7:55 pm

I don’t think that works. The idea that vouchers won’t work rests on an empirical claim–the school doesn’t make a difference–that you are falsifying your belief in by pulling your kids out of it.

You can say that vouchers won’t save all kids, and I agree. But if the school matters, there empirically are better-performing parochial and private schools in urban areas that have spare capacity. Those schools absolutely will save some kids under a voucher system. As you yourself (I speak not directly to Harry, but to a metaphorical “you”) are indicating by pulling your kid out of school, you think some > none.

Ah ha! You may say. But pulling those kids out makes the system worse for those who remain. But if this is true, it is doubly true of pulling out your own, more privileged and high performing children, and taking away your own, more privileged and high performing, contribution as a parent to keeping the school performing at a high level.

From the way they argue, many of my interlocutors actually seem to have some kind of weird subconscious belief that school quality matters to their kids, but not poor kids, who are so screwed up that school quality doesn’t matter. This strikes me as nonsense on stilts.

2

duus 10.31.07 at 8:12 pm

“I don’t think that works. The idea that vouchers won’t work rests on an empirical claim—the school doesn’t make a difference—that you are falsifying your belief in by pulling your kids out of it.”

I was persuaded by the original argument of this post. However, this is a really good point. Hmm.

3

Jamie 10.31.07 at 8:29 pm

Hm, actually, that is is a good point.

But what about this. I believe vouchers could do some good. The problem with the schemes I’ve seen so far is that the vouchers are worth so little that they simply cannot enable poor parents to send their children to very good private schools. At best they can get the poor children into private schools that aren’t any better than ordinary public schools (though they may still be better than awful inner city ones). So almost all the benefit will go to parents who were probably going to send their children to the private schools anyway.
Money is getting sucked out of the public school system and, by inefficient transfer, pumped into the private schools and the pockets of the upper middle class. That’s not a good effect.

4

Cranky Observer 10.31.07 at 8:30 pm

> I do not oppose targeted voucher schemes for poor
> children, because even though I think they will
> not do much good, they might do some, and I doubt
> that they do much harm.

Look at the Kansas City and St. Louis county-wide desegregation plans, which essentially gave parents in those two school districts free choice to send their children to any one of the 30 or so suburban districts. There was no physical voucher but the overall effect was the same as a voucher.

In both cases the final result was the same: the top 25% students in the city district transferred to the best suburban districts, and the city districts which had been on a downhill slide then utterly imploded destroying any hope for the remaining 75%.

Cranky

5

Ben 10.31.07 at 8:30 pm

To be honest I don’t think that you can really separate the effect of “good” schools from the selection biases of the people who move or pay to get into them.
One good reason to change public school districts, that is closely related to but separate from them having “good” schools, is that one district might have a sufficiently high tax base that schools can be funded well without high property taxes while another would have to charge much higher rates to fund sufficiently.
Also about vouchers, the debate that won’t go away in my opinion, are we still talking about school coupons? Are there serious proposals to give families “admit one child free” tickets or are we talking about giving families 10 grand for a school that costs 20 grand? Because in the second case all you are doing is subsidizing the people who already use private schools and some marginal private school users, which would mean a richer subset of people if you ask me.
Until vouchers cover the whole cost it is just a handout to a core conservative demographic, those who send their kids to religious schools, and I see no reason for that.

6

harry b 10.31.07 at 8:32 pm

Good. Here’s the thought (not mine, but the one in the block quote): vouchers make very little difference to how well the least advantaged kids are educated (not, note, no difference at all). This is because the voucher schools are hardly any better than the schools that the kids are being drawn away from (for those kids — I add this because the questions is never “is the school good” but “is the school good for this kid”). There could be a number of reasons for this, including that schools with very high concentrations of relatively poor kids are almost always not very good because we really don’t know how to run such schools). If I were moving my kid out of the urban school into the voucher school then I might be indicating that I don’t really believe that claim, but I’m not even sure of that: I could think that it makes a big enough difference to be worth it as long as only a few people do it. But, anyway, that’s not usually what is happening — your beef is really with people who are pulling their kids out of inner city schools into non-voucher schools (usually suburban public schools). I could quite well believe that things would improve dramatically with a voucher program that drew low-income inner city kids into suburban public schools (there are, in fact, a number of such choice programs, but I don’t know the research on their outcomes).

(I should add that where I live (and, in fact, in general) the situation is not one of people pulling their kids from inner city schools into other schools, but of people choosing (though the housing market) among suburban schools most of which are ‘better’ than inner city schools, and still objecting to vouchers which allow poor parents to choose among schools none of which are as ‘god’ as those we get to choose among).

7

harry b 10.31.07 at 8:34 pm

I wrote 5 before 3 and 4 showed up, honest, but I agree with both points (as should be obvious).

8

lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 8:34 pm

On the larger point, I don’t see the hypocrisy. As a parent, one has a particular duty to one’s own children. As a citizen, one has a duty to children in general.

And it’s silly to say that the claim “voucher schemes don’t work” is equivalent to “schools don’t make a difference.” It might be that the parents whose children would most benefit from switching schools, are least likely to take advantage of a voucher system. It might be that practical barriers will prevent poor parents from using vouchers in to access schools in wealthier areas. It might be that removing children with the most active and engaged parents from poor schools will harm the remaining children more than it helps the children moving. It might be that the politics of vouchers will result in reduced resources for public schools in poor areas. In fact, I suspect all of the above are true.

9

harry b 10.31.07 at 8:37 pm

I should be clearer — I agree with the observation that it might be the small size of the voucher that is the problemn (but then you have to think about the political feasibility of large sized vouchers) and that there is no fundamental difference between inter-district choice schemes and vouchers (even though effects will be different).

10

Bloix 10.31.07 at 8:41 pm

McArdle argues that if I were to spend my own money on my own children to send them to private school – I don’t, by the way, my boys attend an ethnically and economically diverse public school – but if I chose to spend my own money on my own children, I would be hypocritical if I did not advocate distributing tax dollars so that other parents could spend public money on their children.

It doesn’t work that way. I have a personal loyalty to my own children and I can spend my own money to advance their individual interests. McArdle agrees with that, surely.

But I have no interest in advancing the interests of any particular poor child. I do have a very strong interest in society’s provision of an education to all children, but I have no interest in any particular child.

I do believe that leaving only the poorest of the poor in public schools would degrade the quality of those schools and would result a large numbers of children receiving virtually no education at all. I do not want public funds spent in a way that would lead to that result.

So there is no hypocrisy in my doing all I can to advance my own child’s interest by sending him to private school, while at the same time opposing the use of public funds to advance the interests of some individual poor children over the interests of other poor children.

Surely a libertarian can understand that, assuming the libertarian is acting in good faith. Private funds may be spent for private purposes; public funds must be spent for public purposes. What is hypocritical about that?

On the other hand, if the libertarian’s true goal is to direct public funds to support the Catholic Church while weakening public employees’ unions, perhaps she can’t understand it. And perhaps, in the usual right wing way, she will attack the good faith of those who do.

11

Megan McArdle 10.31.07 at 8:42 pm

But Harry, this is empirically just not true. The parochial schools in these areas perform better than the public schools, even with similar income and racial mixes. Moreover, this is not a secret; any of these parents, if they had to stay in the city for some weird reason, would know to find a parochial school to send their kids to. Cardinal O’Connor offered to take 100,000 of the worst off kids out of New York City public schools, and voucher opponents went ape.

12

kid bitzer 10.31.07 at 8:43 pm

“The idea that vouchers won’t work rests on an empirical claim—the school doesn’t make a difference—that you are falsifying your belief in by pulling your kids out of it.”

not at all what the original post argued. not even close.

it said: “Voucher schemes really make very little difference to how well the least advantaged children are educated”

that’s a claim about whether a large-scale social program makes a population-level difference. across school districts, across cities, all around the country.

and it’s a claim about whether voucher-schemes can make a difference to the kind of schools that *will* exist if the scheme is put into practice.

my decision about my own kids is a reflection of local knowledge about *these* kids, *these* schools, that already exist *right now*. the two issues are on completely different levels of aggregation, and differ as the actual (schools available to me now) differs from the possible (schools that might be available under a voucher scheme).

of course, given the schools that are available to my kids, these kids in this situation, i believe that it makes a difference that they go to this school rather than that. my opting-out proves i believe that.

but the voucher scheme is claiming something very different–that it will create new schools (or make old schools qualitatively different), and new schooling-options.

there’s really just nothing to the claim in #1–it’s apples and oranges.

13

lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 8:44 pm

I’m assuming voucher is shorthand for various school choice programs. If it’s specifically vouchers for use at private schools, then it’s just horrible policy all round. As jamie says, they would go overwhelmingly to parents who are already sending their kids to private schools. The benefit at the margin to kids currently enrolled in public schools will be trivial by comparison. It’s pretty much a pure transfer from public schools (serving a lower-income population) to private schools (serving a richer one). And in the name of helping poor kids! — did someone mention hypocrisy?

At the very least, you have to have a rule — as in any system of public third-party payment, e.g. Medicaid and Medicare — of no supplemental charges. The voucher has to be accepted as full payment.

14

lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 8:46 pm

any of these parents, if they had to stay in the city for some weird reason, would know to find a parochial school to send their kids to.

This is one of those trademark McArdle “facts” with no basis in reality. I live in New York; I know lots of educated, middle-class parents of school-age children; and without exception they send them to public schools.

15

Megan McArdle 10.31.07 at 8:47 pm

So parents using “local knowledge about these kids, these schools, that already exist right now” can make better decisions for their kids than I can at some abstract policy level. I totally agree! That’s why vouchers are such a good idea.

There is excess capacity in parochial and other private schools in urban areas right now; schools that demonstrably outperform public schools. Even if we can’t save all of them, why not save some?

Cranky, we’re back to the fact that I believe that if you think it is moral to lock that top 25% into the system to save the rest, that you have a moral obligation to put your own kids into that system as well.

16

LizardBreath 10.31.07 at 8:47 pm

And it’s silly to say that the claim “voucher schemes don’t work” is equivalent to “schools don’t make a difference.”

Yeah, this is begging the question. Leaving a ‘failing’ inner city school for a nice suburban school district is a different thing than leaving a ‘failing’ inner city school for the private school some bright spark founded to take advantage of voucher money next door. You can say that it’s unjust to provide opportunities for your own children that aren’t available to all, and I’d agree with you. But it’s not hypocritical to say “Nice suburban schools are superior to ‘failing’ inner city schools, so I, having the choice, will send my children to the former rather than the latter. Unstable for-profit low-cost private schools in high-poverty areas are unlikely to be superior to the ‘failing’ schools in those areas, so I do not support voucher programs that will make it more likely that students will end up attending such schools.”

17

harry b 10.31.07 at 8:50 pm

But Megan, it is empirically true that when we have tried vouchers, they have had very limited benefits for the kids using them. Maybe the data is corrupt, because the schemes allowing parochial schools haven’t required the level of reporting that would get us really good studies. Maybe a voucher scheme that only utilised existing parochial schools would have big benefits — but such a scheme would almost certainly not pass judicial review (too bad for the Constitution, you might say, and I wouldn’t argue on that, but the Constitution is a pretty strong feasibility constraint). Anyway, such a scheme would have very limited effects because the numbers would necessarily be small (Cardinal O Connor was exaggerating the capacity of his system, I would guess). And even whether it would have benefits, we can’t know for sure without trying. Parochial schools are the most socio-economically diverse schools we have. But they have a power that public schools don’t — the power to exclude the absolutely most difficult-to-teach kids. We really don’t know for sure what effect high concentrations of those kids have on the ability of a school to function, but you can bet your life its not a positive effect.

18

lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 8:51 pm

Even if we can’t save all of them, why not save some?

Yes, this is the best argument for vouchers. If you start from the premise that most poor kids in America are going to get horribly inadequate educations and there’s nothing we can do about that, then it become sensible to talk about how we rescue the talented (or lucky) few.

But if you think our goal should be to provide a decent education for all kids, vouchers have no place in the discussion.

19

Adam Kotsko 10.31.07 at 8:52 pm

If you believe that the current system is unjust, not allowing yourself to be screwed by it doesn’t make you a hypocrite. Putting your child in the shitty school or in the good school both equally leave the system unchanged. Calling the parents in question hypocrites is like calling me a hypocrite because I believe in a strong welfare state to come closer to eliminating poverty and homelessness, yet don’t empty my pockets to every homeless person who solicits me.

Of course, libertarians don’t believe that social systems exist, making this kind of extremely obvious point difficult to understand for them.

20

Megan McArdle 10.31.07 at 8:52 pm

Lemuel, means test them. I support that. Rich parents don’t need help from the government. Problem solved. All the major voucher programs currently operating work this way.

New York is slightly anomalous . . . there are ways to get your kid through the system. (I went to public school through 5th grade.) But that’s not really true in DC; affluent parents here feel it’s leave, or private school. But they require an enormous amount of effort from the parents. Moreover, the dirty secret of New York public schools is the way that connected parents, particularly in Manhattan, manage to divert vastly disproportionate amounts of money, district resources, and good teachers to their schools. The parents who aren’t connected get left in the disaster schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Manhattan is increasingly turning into a wealthy public school district tucked inside a failing urban system.

21

Megan McArdle 10.31.07 at 8:54 pm

Meanwhile, I find your denial odd. What do half the people arguing with me say? “But the only decent schools around are parochial schools! I don’t want my money going to the Church!” I don’t think this is something I need to prove.

22

mpowell 10.31.07 at 8:55 pm


At the very least, you have to have a rule—as in any system of public third-party payment, e.g. Medicaid and Medicare—of no supplemental charges. The voucher has to be accepted as full payment.

Is this just a claim that you are making about voucher systems, or is it intended to be a more general claim?

I’m just curious b/c I think it might be true for vouchers, but I wouldn’t like it if it were the rule for a universal government provided health insurance program.

23

Cranky Observer 10.31.07 at 8:55 pm

> Cranky, we’re back to the fact that I believe that
> if you think it is moral to lock that top 25%
> into the system to save the rest, that you have a
> moral obligation to put your own kids into that
> system as well.

As a matter of fact I do. And I am one of the only people I ever heard of who voluntarily transferred into an inner-city Chicago Public School (other than Disney, Lane Tech, or Washburn which were selective) in the 1970s. Where do your children go to school?

Cranky

24

luci 10.31.07 at 8:58 pm

“As a parent, one has a particular duty to one’s own children. As a citizen, one has a duty to children in general.”

I see it similarly. Kind of a collective action problem: you’re asking a parent to pay a very high individual/family price, for a very diffuse and far-off benefit to “society” in general.

Collective action problems of coordination famously require a governmental solution. I wouldn’t call it hypocritical to, say, continue fishing the commons to your individual benefit while supporting the governmental regulation of the fishing grounds.

Say one lived in a super-high crime area, and felt he needed a gun for protection. But at the same time, he wished there was gun control so no one had guns. It would be asking a person to pay a high individual price to forgo the gun for consistency of political beliefs and personal actions.

25

Megan McArdle 10.31.07 at 8:59 pm

Lizardbreath, c’mon. You of all people know that there is an excellent low-cost private system running right next to the NYC public school system. If your local school lost its principle and fell apart, as mine did, there’s a good chance you’d be considering sending your kids there.

Harry, that’s an exaggeration. The data is mixed; the best evidence is out of the DC program, but it only provides results for one year of schooling. Data from other countries on longer time frames and bigger scales is pretty compelling.

26

Cranky Observer 10.31.07 at 9:03 pm

> ardinal O’Connor offered to take 100,000 of the
> worst off kids out of New York City public
> schools, and voucher opponents went ape.

Maybe they were around Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s. Those programs always start out with great fanfare. They finish pretty well too: after the parochial schools weed out the incorrigible and unteachable and send them back to the public schools. Which is something they did for their own flock as well: the threat of being “sent down to public school” was there and was used – even after levels of administrative and parental psychological and physical coercion were applied that would never be allowed in charter schools today much less public schools.

Fortunately for my motivated classmates and me it turned out that the religious schools were good preparation for admission to Notre Dame but not necessary any better preparation for life.

Cranky

27

LizardBreath 10.31.07 at 9:06 pm

Lizardbreath, c’mon. You of all people know that there is an excellent low-cost private system running right next to the NYC public school system.

Why ‘me of all people’? Of the Catholic schools in my neighborhood, they’re not obviously superior to the public schools, and I don’t know anything about tuition costs offhand. And the capacity argument is the real problem. While there may be some spare capacity, there can’t possibly be enough to absorb all the children in the public schools. A voucher program large enough to make the sort of difference you’re talking about, is going to mean putting kids in brand-new schools, not putting an extra chair in Sister Mary Arthur’s class room.

28

lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 9:12 pm

I wouldn’t like it if it were the rule for a universal government provided health insurance program.

You don’t have to like it, but that’s the way Medicaid, Medicare and similar programs work. A hospital cannot legally demand additional payments from a patient who is covered by one of those programs.

29

harry b 10.31.07 at 9:13 pm

Megan — which other countries? Sweden? (a country with close to zero children in relative poverty); New Zealand? (a country the size of the UK with a population the size of Wisconsin, none of whom are the descendants of slaves or have lived through Jim Crow). You want to know a hell of a lot about the school systems and other features of both the country you are studying and the one you want to borrow to before you make any policy conclusions. I know a lot about two countries, and am pretty hesitant about conclusions I draw from one to another.

I’m very interested in the DC program, and hope that after 5 years or so we can draw some conclusions from it. One year tells you basically nothing.

30

Adam Kotsko 10.31.07 at 9:18 pm

23 — It’s not inconsistent! Saying, “I believe that the situation should be such that no one has guns,” entails actions to bring such a state of affairs about — and in most cases, people have no significant actions that they can take, on their own, to bring about such major changes. Acting like this person can help bring this particular change about simply by forgoing having a gun is still caught in the model of social systems as nothing but the aggregate of individual choices. Voluntarily renouncing a gun doesn’t contribute to a situation where the government coersively deprives people of guns! At all!

31

lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 9:33 pm

Kieran,

Did you just remove your post on McArdle and IRA funding? Your right, I guess, but the generally preferred approach would be to add an update saying you’d changed your mind or whatever.

It’s not a big deal in this case, but trying to make it look like embarrassing or ill-considered posts never happened it can cause no end of trouble if you make a habit of it.

32

Megan McArdle 10.31.07 at 9:39 pm

I don’t understand why “we can’t save every single kid” is supposed to be a devastating rebuttal. Would it be okay if we just saved 15%?

33

Kieran Healy 10.31.07 at 9:40 pm

30: No mystery, lemuel. A draft post of mine was accidentally published and I removed it a couple of minutes later.

34

mpowell 10.31.07 at 9:41 pm


You don’t have to like it, but that’s the way Medicaid, Medicare and similar programs work. A hospital cannot legally demand additional payments from a patient who is covered by one of those programs.

I can see reasons why Medicare might want to do this, but its not clear to me why this should always be the rule for such programs. Is this a kind of means-testing? Would it not apply anymore if we were not concerned with means-testing? What if everyone was provided health care, but if you wanted to spend some of your own money, you could get slightly better care. Why would you require forfeiture of the government provided stipend in that case?

35

harry b 10.31.07 at 9:43 pm

Megan — against whom is that comment directed? I only ask because I agree with it. There’s a wrinkle or two (if we save 15% of poor kids at a huge cost to another 15% of poor kids, that might really be a good reason not to do it, but I really don’t think that’s what’s happening). The rule is — you get to reject a scheme that saves only 15% if you have an alternative, and incompatible, scheme that really would save 16%.

36

LizardBreath 10.31.07 at 9:47 pm

If you make a small number better off, and a large number worse off, then you’re not doing good. As I said on your blog, I’m not opposed to anything calling itself a voucher program in principle, I just haven’t seen one convincingly described that sounds as if it would do more good than harm on a large scale.

(Also, if you’re setting up a program that “can’t save every single kid”, because there aren’t enough decent schools to exit to, aren’t the parents of the kids who exit through vouchers, leaving other kids suffering behind in the ‘failing’ schools, just as loathsome as the hypocrites at 11D who made you angry?)

37

LizardBreath 10.31.07 at 9:49 pm

35: I understood 32 as a response to my 27, which noted that there was a capacity problem in presently existing private schools, such that a large voucher system would require new private schools. I may have misunderstood.

38

baa 10.31.07 at 9:50 pm

I don’t think Megan needs to fight the battle on the grounds of dreadful hypocrisy. There are, doubtless, some constellation of beliefs that will avoid contradiction here.

That said it seems that if you believe that:

1)the government should pay for education
2) that your own children benefit from you, their parent, being able to choose what school they attend,

you should also support
3) policies that give greater choice in schooling to poorer families.

Vouchers are surely such a policy. One could believe, however, that vouchers are an inferior policy for providing choice in education, and oppose them for that reason. It would be interesting to know more about what superior mechanisms of choice are proposed by voucher opponents. Do the voucher opponents on this thread support the aggressive expansion of charter schools?

39

lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 9:52 pm

Mpowell–

Means-testing is irrelevant. Medicare has no means tests.

It’s absolutely necessary if you want your program to guarantee access to the service in question. It’s also necessary if you want to control costs. And, as I say, it’s a universal feature of public systems of third-party payments, and of private systems too for that matter — your copayments and deductibles are fixed by your health insurance plan, your doctor cannot demand additional payments.

40

lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 9:55 pm

baa-

I think you will find very few people on this thread who oppose allowing school choice across district lines, altho the details (particularly the effect on school funding) do matter. Certainly choice between public school districts is a strictly superior option to vouchers.

41

Watson Aname 10.31.07 at 9:56 pm

A few times I’ve wondered (but not researched at all) about the feasibility of moving resources & teachers around instead of kids. I really don’t know anything about this area in general though, has it been played with?

42

lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 9:58 pm

baa-

Also, your condition (2), on the benefits of school choice for one’s own children, may well be based on a starting point that local schools are inadequate. Which one may well take as given from the personal standpoint but not from the policy standpoint. Personally, in my ideal world everyone would go to their local public school, all of which would provide a similar quality of education.

43

harry b 10.31.07 at 10:01 pm

I don’t think I agree, baa. Why should choice be so central to one’s thinking? Why not think of it this way?:

1) The government should pay for and regulate to ensure a pretty good education for all children

2) The government does exactly that for my child

Therefore

3) I should support whatever mechanisms and reforms will result in it providing the same for children whose parents are less advantaged than I am.

If I believe (as I do) that choice is in fact marginal to the issue of what refomrs would actually produce the outcome desired in 3). I don’t see why anyone should focus on choice.

(In fact, whereas I rather reluctantly support vouchers for the reasons suggested in my post, I used to be pretty oposed to charters — my position has softened considerably in recent years, but because I see them as voucher-lite, rather because I see them as a way to experiment and to build up a pool of competent managers; choice is rather peripheral to that).

44

LizardBreath 10.31.07 at 10:02 pm

38: I’d argue that ‘more choice’ isn’t the most meaningful of concepts in this context. Geographical limitations on the length of commute are going to mean that any household’s school options are quite limited, particularly for a family without the economic resources to move frequently. So no one’s possibly going to have a choice between all the schools in the state — they’re limited to maybe a dozen or so they could practically get their kids to.

The issue is making sure that those choices are acceptable, not that there are more of them — a choice between two decent schools is distinctly preferable to a choice between a dozen bad ones.

45

harry b 10.31.07 at 10:03 pm

watson aname — great question. No time to answer (and not much to say anyway) but I’ll try to (maybe much) later.

46

lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 10:07 pm

The short answer to watson aname’s question is that we do move resources between schools — in a completely perverse way. Because of local funding, and now through NCLB and other “accountability” measures, we give the least money and least-qualified teachers to the highest-need schools. Vouchers, of course, typically move resources as well as students, and in the same perverse direction.

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lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 10:09 pm

The issue is making sure that those choices are acceptable, not that there are more of them—a choice between two decent schools is distinctly preferable to a choice between a dozen bad ones.

Exactly. One decent school is preferable to a choice between any number of bad ones. Education is like health care that way — we want a guaranteed minimum level of quality. Choice and variety are not ends in themselves.

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Watson Aname 10.31.07 at 10:14 pm

46: Sure, but I meant has anyone attempted seriously to do this in the non-perverse direction.

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Thomas 10.31.07 at 10:17 pm

I think that the “mechanism” that most people, based on their actions, believe to be essential to quality education for their own children is economic segregation, which obviously isn’t something that can be successful all the way down.

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baa 10.31.07 at 10:22 pm

Certainly choice between public school districts is a strictly superior option to vouchers.

Why do you say this? My general thought would be that more options = better. There is a real and legitimate concern that certain school systems are broken. Poor management, a working environment that cannot attract good teachers, etc. The goal of expanding the scope of choice is to enable students to exit these systems. If the concern about vouchers is a) parents will be fooled by poor quality schools or b) parents will chose schools which indoctrinate children in some bad way, it seems like one could try to fix these problems via regulation.

‘more choice’ isn’t the most meaningful of concepts in this context. Geographical limitations on the length of commute are going to mean that any household’s school options are quite limited

All the more so if you can’t start charter schools or voucher schools in easily commutable areas! I quite agree that 2 good choices beats 12 bad ones. I am less sure that 2 bad choices beats 12 bad choices. I certainly have a background assumption, however, that more choice and competition can lead to better outcomes. Generically, when faced with a monopoly that’s providing poor service, my inclination is to break the monopoly, not try to improve it. If you don’t have that predisposition, then I can see how you would come to another conclusion on education.

If I believe (as I do) that choice is in fact marginal to the issue of what reforms would actually produce the outcome desired in 3). I don’t see why anyone should focus on choice.

Sure. If you think choice doesn’t matter, then you won’t focus on it. But then you should be basically fine with a system that randomizes your kid into any public school district — because parental choice of school system doesn’t matter. I think this position is held by very few Americans. Certainly, it isn’t the position of many Americans who spend a lot of time shopping school districts when they choose what house to buy.

Also, if you have a moment, I’d be interested to hear the reason for your opposition to charters…

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lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 10:25 pm

48: Sure. If you look here in New York, there was this huge complicated formula for allocating state school aid that notionally accounted for need but in practice favored wealthy districts. Gov. Spitzer in his first budget replaced it with a much simpler formula that basically just uses school-age population and proportion in poverty or with other special needs, which will have the result of shifting substantial resources to the big urban districts that serve most of the state’s poor kids. Hopefully there will be some impact on performance, but we’ll see — building good schools in poor districts is just really, really hard.

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Adam Kotsko 10.31.07 at 10:25 pm

The “choice” rhetoric presupposes that certain schools will always be abyssmal. In principle, at least, it does not seem a priori impossible to improve the worst schools. Taking funding away from them as “punishment” does not seem to be a very good way of achieving that. But my general sense is that voucher advocates don’t really care about people in poor schools in aggregate — at most, they would commit to the notion that people who might do well meritocratically should be rescued from bad schools. By definition, that’s always going to be a small minority, leaving the rest to suffer in the school they have “chosen.”

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lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 10:32 pm

Generically, when faced with a monopoly that’s providing poor service, my inclination is to break the monopoly, not try to improve it.

This is just moronic. Public schools have just as much a monopoly in affluent suburbs as in poor cities. Competition has nothing to do with the difference in quality.

Besides, somebody who thinks about education as just one more generic service, like cable TV, really doesn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation. If GM goes under, people will just buy their next car from somewhere else. If an urban school district goes under, it will ruin the lives of an awful lot of poor kids.

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joeo 10.31.07 at 10:40 pm

It would be interesting to know more about what superior mechanisms of choice are proposed by voucher opponents.

Here is a description of the school choice in the sf school system:

http://www.reason.com/news/show/33293.html

Things are not as rosy as the article makes them out to be, but it is a good faith effort to allow for school choice.

As a practical matter, poor kids do get preferences, but this is opposed by middle class parents’ better ability to game the system.

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lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 10:48 pm

54-

Note that this is a program allowing choice between public schools. This is much more defensible than a program allowing vouchers to be used at private schools. Of course, San Francisco, like New York, has a large number of middle class and even wealthy families. For a poorer city, you’d have to allow choice between districts, which is much harder.

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baa 10.31.07 at 11:14 pm

Lemuel,

Do you agree that in general choice and competition leads to better outcomes? If so, then you’ll want, all things being equal, to replace a system of limited choice with more choice. And I’m certainly not committed to the view that the main reason suburban schools in wealthy districts are better than schools in urban districts is because the former are more subject to customer exit. I do believe. however, that most institutions provide better service when the customer can exit. Again, I am struggling for the reasons you think allowing choice between publics is better than allowing choice between publics and privates.

JoeO,

Thanks for the link.

Adam,

The rationale for increasing choice does not require that some schools are irredeemably broken. One could support more choice simply because a) you believer that fear of losing “customers” will improve performance or b) because you believe different children will thrive under different educational structures and that parents are, on average better placed to know this than anyone else. Of course, if it *is* true that some schools are irredeemably broken, that would provide another good argument for choice.

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lemuel pitkin 10.31.07 at 11:24 pm

56-

I think that framing the discussion by forgetting everything we know about schools and talking about “choice” and “competition” in the abstract is pretty much the worst possible way to think about this stuff.

The question of why choice between public schools is different from choice between public and private schools is legitimate, tho. Will try to post a response later, if someone else doesn’t do it first.

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Adam Kotsko 10.31.07 at 11:35 pm

baa, I totally reject the logic of (a) — we need to get past this idolatry of a “business” model for every aspect of society. In this particular case, as with NCLB, it leads to the perverse result of punishing school districts that have more resource-intensive populations.

It seems to me that (b) can be achieved just fine by a normal “monopoly” school district with individual magnet schools.

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harry b 10.31.07 at 11:52 pm

baa — actually, I think a system with no choice would be worth a try. But, yes, I’m in a tiny minority in that! (eg in the US no-one supports prohibiting private schools, which is one of the issues in Swift’s book; but I’ll admit that even I would oppose prohibition in the US).

Charters — very briefly (I’m looking after the toddler while being interupted by Halloweeners) — I never exactly opposed them but I was even less enthusiastic about them than about vouchers, because whereas vouchers (actual vouchers) target the poor and can be relatively well monitored, neither of those things is true of charters. My warming up to them is for the reasons I give above. They don;t provide escape for poor kids, but they do develop alernative models of school management systems, and that is needed. I don;t think they’re an answer to any crisis, but that we might learn some parts of the answer from them.

On choice and markets in general — there are huge problems with applying it to school. The relevant knowledge is incredibly hard to access (for parents and administrators), there are huge costs (to the kids) of exiting schools, realistically only a very few providers can play in most markets, etc (I’ll link to my paper about this later, if I can find it). This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t deploy markets mechanisms, but it does mean that we shouldn’t conclude from some general optimism about markets that they’ll do well with schools.

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harry b 11.01.07 at 12:02 am

baa (and others),
here’s the earlier thread with a link to my paper, and some rather good comments and criticisms:

http://crookedtimber.org/2006/11/15/educational-equality-and-the-varieties-of-school-choice/

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baa 11.01.07 at 12:04 am

Adam, I guess if you are on board with “b”, the question then becomes how best to achieve it. In this regard, describing a system with choice and competition as a ‘business model’ just seems to me thinking small. Sometimes people will perform wonderfully absent any incentive. Other times they will perform better if they are rewarded for better performance. If you believe that, then there will be times when competition improves behavior. No doubt one can structure competition in stupid and counter-productive ways. But it seems that if a school gets smaller because many parents prefer another school, that’s a pretty good form of competition. If some businesses also work this way, that’s OK.

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baa 11.01.07 at 12:18 am

Thanks Harry. I suspect that this is one of these questions about what’s likely to fail more frequently: the market or government. When both look like imperfect solutions, I am inclined to empower people to try both. The mix of private and public colleges + government student loans works OK in the US, but of course that’s an inexact analogy to primary education.

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Timothy Burke 11.01.07 at 2:29 am

Here’s an odd thing about Megan’s claim that parents in many districts would prefer to send their children to parochial schools over bad public schools.

Isn’t that one of the things that vouchers are intended to demonstrate, e.g., something that we do not for certain know at the present time about parental views? That parents in districts with poor public schools have strong information about their bad quality, strong information about preferable alternatives, are strongly motivated to seek those preferable alternatives, and merely lack the resources to do so?

Why is Megan so certain that these things are true in advance of the test that a voucher system would represent? I guess that’s what frustrates me a bit about this whole discussion: strong assertions about what is factually true are being made, but they’re ultimately based on a deeply-held philosophy about choice and markets.

When I think about the state of my information about public schools in my district, I begin to wonder just how much parents in any context really know about quality. I feel very confident about the general quality of the schools in my district and the specific quality of my daughter’s elementary school. But the most tangible measure of quality that affects her experience is the specific teacher that she has in any given year. About the only way I can find out in advance about what a specific classroom might be like is to have the good luck to have friends who have a child who is older than my daughter but only a few years older so that their experience is reasonably comparable. Otherwise, I just have to wait and see how the year shakes out. And then do that again and again. If I had a second child, I’d know a bit more the next time, obviously.

That’s the kind of terrain on which I’d have to make a “choice” if one were offered to me. It’s all pretty hazy when you get down to the concrete details. I doubt that parents in inner-city districts have a clearly superior store of specific information about all the public and parochial and private schools within a 10 mile radius of their residence.

I get wary any time that someone starts overselling any public policy, or acting as if we know in advance how it will work. I’m fine with experimenting with various implementations of school choice and seeing if that helps with school reform or satisfies families more, etcetera. But I don’t see why the certainty about what families know and don’t know, want and don’t want, will do and won’t do.

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Megan McArdle 11.01.07 at 4:03 am

Timothy, education is hard to measure, but it’s not so hard to measure that if your kid were in a grammar school in East New York, you wouldn’t be able to clearly tell the difference between that and the school she’s currently in. Differences between affluent public school districts may be subtle, but the differences between parochial schools in New York, and its imploding schools, are not.

Harry, that was directed at LizardBreath, who seems to be telling me that I’m only allowed to have vouchers if they make every single student better off, which is silly; there is no policy that makes every single person better off, or we wouldn’t have to fight about it.

More broadly, you’re flipping arguments here. If those kids shouldn’t be allowed to leave, yours shouldn’t either; if yours should be, they should be. One or the other. There is no moral calculus I can come up with that ratifies the ability of affluent parents to exit, but not less affluent parents–that gives the worse off students the greatest responsibility for helping the worst off.

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Timothy Burke 11.01.07 at 4:30 am

I accept that you see a difference, Megan, but surely the question mark with school choice is how many of the actual families in actual school districts would actively use any program of choice, and what kinds of expectations they would have about the results. That goes to the heart of the question about how much of the failure of some public schools lies in the economic and social conditions that surround them. I think at least you should allow for the question of “What would most people actually do if school choice (in several possible forms) became broadly available to them?” to be an open question. Video aficionados were certain that the Betamax was a better technology than VHS but that didn’t turn out to be a good prediction about the market outcomes–thereby launching a research program to keep puzzled economists busy. It might be that school choice would be a better way to reveal preferences than your (or mine or anyone else’s) readings of what we think other people must be thinking about education in the districts which seem most in crisis. But it makes sense therefore to be a bit more reserved about what exactly might be revealed.

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Matt Austern 11.01.07 at 4:34 am

Seems to me that I should support vouchers if I have reason to believe that they will do more good than harm. You have given me no reason to believe that. I’m not sure what the correct word is for failing to accept an unsupported assertion, but I’m pretty sure that “hypocrite” is not it.

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Bruce Baugh 11.01.07 at 9:21 am

Megan writes: There is no moral calculus I can come up with that ratifies the ability of affluent parents to exit, but not less affluent parents—that gives the worse off students the greatest responsibility for helping the worst off. As written, I find that more or less impossible to believe. Either she means that there’s no justification she will accept for the situation, or she’s got a really weird blind spot.

In fact, poor families have precisely the same opportunity to withdraw from public schooling that rich families do: if they can afford an alternative. I have major disabilities, and have often been told by libertarians that I should be out asking for charity for all the bills that my family and I can’t cover ourselves. Well, the poor parents can do the same, right now. Rich people who object to public schooling on principle could easily set up a charitable foundation to cover tuition and other costs on a national basis, and there are actually are scholarship funds and the like on all scales now. If other people who could underwrite poor families’ schooling outside the public school system choose not to, well, what affair is that of Megan’s?

Megan wrote not so long ago, “I don’t. Care. About. The. Teachers.” That’s fine – that’s her prerogative. It’s equally the prerogative of others not to feel like underwriting her scheme to save kids from public schooling.

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Tracy W 11.01.07 at 9:23 am

New Zealand? … none of whom are the descendants of slaves or have lived through Jim Crow

Harry B – slavery was common amongst pre-European Maori. So there are people in NZ who are the descendants of slaves.

The institutions were of course very different – Maori slaves were not being shipped distances anything like black slaves were. There wasn’t the same racial aspect either. But there was slavery.

On Jim Crow laws, clearly NZ did not have laws like the Jim Crow laws, though Maori were originally denied state welfare benefits and one can argue about the democratic levels of the Maori roll pre-reform. We also had repression of culture by government schools, land grabs, etc. NZ has its own social problems.

Note, I am part Maori.

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reason 11.01.07 at 11:23 am

I don’t have strong feelings about educations vouchers – in fact I think they are probably a good idea if well implemented and are part of a co-ordinated effort to improve all schoools, but I am very wary of the social impact of encouraging self-selection. Having all schools of a quality where people are happy to send there kids there is what we should have in mind as an ideal. (My kids go to a public school with a good reputation and economically very diverse clientelle.) Self-selection seems to me a good way to work towards disintegrating your society. There needs to be some point at which integration is a policy. School seems like a pretty good place to do it as far as I’m concerned.

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Cranky Observer 11.01.07 at 11:58 am

> Also, your condition (2), on the benefits of
> school choice for one’s own children, may well
> be based on a starting point that local schools
> are inadequate.

Ezra Klein uses the number 90. That being the percentage of US children who attend public schools.

And I will add to that that the vast majority of people in the US do not live in inner cities: they live in suburbs. And the vast majority of them are happy with their own school district (although always a bit worried about that “other” district across the highway…)

Cranky

Still curious to know what type of school Ms. McArdle’s children attend. Or that she attended.

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Cranky Observer 11.01.07 at 11:59 am

> I don’t have strong feelings about educations
> vouchers – in fact I think they are probably a
> good idea if well implemented and are part of a
> co-ordinated effort to improve all schoools,

I don’t like ponies myself, so could I have a BMW instead of a pony under that plan?

Cranky

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harry b 11.01.07 at 1:04 pm

Thanks tracy w, and I apologise, because of course I know about the way the Maori have been treated. I shouldn’t have written that.

Megan — What you are assuming is that people with that choice available to them think that it should be available to them (they have a right to it). Now, baa has gently reminded me that my views about these things are not entirely in the mainstream in the US, so maybe it is, in fact, fair enough for you to make that assumption. Its not something I think — that is, I think that the schooling system as a whole should be designed to ensure roughly equal quality of education for all children (under a constraint that family life be allowed to thrive), and it seems to me compatible with this that no-one has much choice over where to send their kids. IN practice, of course, I realise that the wealthy will always have choice, and I think the right response to this is acombination of levelling the wealth and improving the quality of schooling for poor kids (in fact by doing what watson aname suggests — I’ll post on this in a coulpe of weeks…perhaps) so that the wealthy are indifferent where their kids go to school. But the point is this — I don;t think choice should be available to me. It is, and given that it is I think that my special obligation to ensure that my kid gets an ok education entitles me to use it. But its completely consistent with that to think that extending choice more broadly would either make things worse or would get in the way of making things much better.

BUT, I concede, that my quite radical views about equality are not widely shared, even among voucher opponents, and it might be more fair of you than I thought (before baa called me on it) to impute views quite unlike mine to your opponents. Not fair to the people in Laura’s thread, mark you, who seemed to me to be arguing in good faith and with a real willingness to be persuaded.

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Redcoat 11.01.07 at 1:05 pm

Over 70 comments about vouchers and school choice. I find it interesting that a discussion on the accountability of the private school recipients had not reared its head. Megan and other voucher supporters continue to talk about empowerment of parents, etc. Yet virtually every voucher system that I have seen – including provisions for private schools within NCLB – is silent on accountability.

Invariably voucher plans redirect public funds to private schools without the public responsibilities going with those funds. Specifically, a requirement that the school accept (and keep) any kind that applies, provides for Special Education needs and costs, and participates in the state-wide accountability testing. Once private schools start stepping up to the plate for these requirements, putting private and public schools on the same playing field, THEN I’ll start to seriously consider voucher proposals. Until then, I can’t consider vouchers and serious proposal to address the deficiencies of our public schools.

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LizardBreath 11.01.07 at 1:52 pm

Harry, that was directed at LizardBreath, who seems to be telling me that I’m only allowed to have vouchers if they make every single student better off, which is silly; there is no policy that makes every single person better off, or we wouldn’t have to fight about it.

No. I was telling you that you could only have vouchers if you had a convincing argument that they would make more people better off than they made worse off, and I haven’t seen that argument — you would have to make it with regard to the details of a specific voucher program.

Generally, I’m with Harry. I’d like an education of meaningfully equal quality available to everyone. “More choice” only gets us there if the “choices” available to poor people are literally the same choices availably to rich people, including St. Grottlesex. If you’re giving poor people “more choice”, but not the same choices that affluent people get, that’s not going to get us to equality — I think a much more productive route is increasing quality across the public education system, and decreasing economic segregation within that system.

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X. Trapnel 11.01.07 at 2:18 pm

I’m still rather baffled by McArdle’s insistence that she can’t see Kotsko’s quite obvious point: that there’s a difference between supporting systemic change versus individual action within a system. It’s entirely consistent to say, “we should have a system where the incentives are such that nobody does X” and yet also maintain “given the situation I am in, and my particular attachments and duties to my children, X is permissible and even appropriate.” And I say this as a (left) libertarian!

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baa 11.01.07 at 2:25 pm

Lizardbreath,

Two points

1) one question here is how vouchers are alleged to be making people worse off. If the mechanism is that vouchers make bad schools worse because good students with active parents select out, then it seems this is exactly the argument that irritated McArdle. Right now we have a system where virtually every middle-class parent already selects out. There are failing schools in the system — and these are not schools where many (in some cases, any) middle-class parents send their kids. The question then would be: why have a publicly-funded system designed to provide less choice to poor parents? Why should poor parents bear all of the burden of ‘improving’ the least advantaged schools? Is there another mechanism by which vouchers are alleged to do damage? (defunding, I suppose, but this could be covered by guaranteeing support of fixed-costs to publics for some long (10 year?) period post voucher introduction)

2. I’d like an education of meaningfully equal quality available to everyone. “More choice” only gets us there if the “choices” available to poor people are literally the same choices availably to rich people, including St. Grottlesex. If you’re giving poor people “more choice”, but not the same choices that affluent people get, that’s not going to get us to equality

This seems like too high a bar. I can imagine some policy X which massively improves education of the bottom quartile of students, but still doesn’t make that education as good as Groton. Surely you wouldn’t oppose reducing class sizes in public schools just because Groton had even smaller classes, right? So complete equality seems like a red herring. The question is whether increasing a poor parent’s choice is beneficial. Here, I don’t think we have great data. But I get the sense that even if we did, you’d still oppose vouchers. So, thought experiment. Let us imagine that we get lots of confirmation of Caroline Hoxby’s studies, and even run experiments showing that voucher systems usually out-perform public provision systems in our preferred metrics. (test scores, parent satisfaction, college attendence, whatever) Would you then support a voucher system?

77

LizardBreath 11.01.07 at 2:36 pm

76: People keep on telling you, but you don’t seem to be hearing, that ‘more choice’ is not a useful metric for improvement. If I have no choice in which school to send my children to, but the one available school is good, then I am better off than someone with a dozen choices all of which are poor. If all participants in a system have access to all the choices, that’s equality. Short of that, measuring the number of options someone has does not tell you how well off they are, whether absolutely or relatively.

You could argue that providing parents with more choices will make schools better, but you have to make that argument — it’s not a priori true. Given the high barriers to entry for someone founding a school; the difficulty for a parent of judging educational quality; and the substantial disincentives for moving your children frequently from school to school, I believe there are many circumstances under which it’s going to be false.

The question is whether increasing a poor parent’s choice is beneficial. Here, I don’t think we have great data. But I get the sense that even if we did, you’d still oppose vouchers.

Excellent reading of my statement above: I was telling you that you could only have vouchers if you had a convincing argument that they would make more people better off than they made worse off, and I haven’t seen that argument.

Show me some convincing data that a voucher program will make more people better off than it makes worse off (in a manner not increasing inequality generally), and I’ll be fascinated.

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Cranky Observer 11.01.07 at 2:40 pm

> If the mechanism is that vouchers make bad
> schools worse because good students with active
> parents select out, then it seems this is exactly
> the argument that irritated McArdle.

If that were the only mechanism, but it is one of about five that have been discussed in this thread, at Ezra Klein’s site, Matthew Ygleisas’, Washington Monthly (Drum), etc. It is a strawman that Ms. McArdle likes to flamethrower though.

Cranky

79

Cranky Observer 11.01.07 at 2:43 pm

> Right now we have a system where virtually
> every middle-class parent already selects out.

I will agree with you that this did happen in 1965-1975 as a very deliberate reaction to desegregation. But the 90% of US children who attend public schools today are almost entirely the 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th generation in their family to live in the suburbs and attend suburban *public* schools. I have a hard time seeing how a 2nd-generation suburbanite choosing to send her 3rd-generation suburbanite child to her local school is “opting out” from the inner city. I love cities myself, I think they offer a lot of advantages, I live in them when I can. But I am aware I am in the minority in all those respects in the US today.

Cranky

80

baa 11.01.07 at 2:57 pm

LB,

First, sorry for missing that sentence. My bad. I guess I am reading you as hostile to *experimenting* with vouchers. Right now, we really don’t have conclusive data. I think I am correctly summarizing the limited US experience as a) no major effects on test scores, b) improved parent satisfaction. To me, that’s enough to embark on more extensive voucher experiments. Again, that’s because I have a strong background assumption that diversity of models and competition between them is helpful.

People keep on telling you, but you don’t seem to be hearing, that ‘more choice’ is not a useful metric for improvement.

Different people are saying different things. There are two questions here. 1) is “more choice” valuable in itself, 2) is “more choice” valuable instrumentally. I tend to believe both are true. More choices are good because kids are different and it’s not one-model-fits all. More choices are also good because competition between models will improve quality. You (I think) hold at most that the second could be true, and are worried that adding options could have negative results. I get that this is your position. But many people who aren’t you act as if they believe both 1 and 2 — they shop schools for their kids, they select neighborhoods based on schooling, they believe that even within their own family, two siblings may have different needs, and select different schools for them, they talk about wanting schools which are more responsive to parents. I suppose there’s some way to interpret these facts so that it doesn’t amount to an endorsement of having more options, but it seems that this will be a strained interpretation. Right now in the US we have a publicly-funded system where school choice exists: some people have more choices, some people have fewer, or none. Right now this choice is managed through the real estate market. I would prefer to handle school choice through the school system.

81

baa 11.01.07 at 3:00 pm

Cranky: help me out and just list (or link) those five mechanisms if you will.

Are you on board that Megan is right about the “skimming the cream” argument being a problematic one for people who are currently opting out to make?

82

LizardBreath 11.01.07 at 3:16 pm

80: I’m not, in fact, hostile to experimentation with vouchers, and I’d like to see school quality delinked from the real estate market as much as possible. Handling ‘school choice through the school system’, in allowing students to attend whichever public schools they wish to the extent the logistics can be worked out, sounds like a fine idea to me.

I’ve got a lot of worries about a system that heavily relies on vouchers. It seems to have a real potential for directing poor kids into for-profit low-cost private schools, and those don’t have a great record compared to public schools, as far as I know; school quality, for a school without a long history or a trusted organization in charge, is very difficult to judge before you’ve actually enrolled your children there, and then moving them is quite difficult. On that basis, I’m likely to be hard to convince, but that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to experimentation.

83

baa 11.01.07 at 3:38 pm

82: Cool. I’m really don’t know anything about how the track record of for-profit schools vs. publics for low-income kids, beyond accounts of the limited Milwaukee experience. My guess is that the sample is too small to feel great confidence either way.

I agree that information barriers and switching costs are problems, but they seem like ones that are surmountable. Certainly, parents satisfied with their current school are unlikely to switch to a charter or voucher start-up.

84

engels 11.01.07 at 3:54 pm

Without passing judgement on the charge of hypocrisy in this instance–I don’t know enough about the US situation to really understand the foregoing discussion so apologies if the following isn’t relevant–I think the basic problem with Megan’s argument is that shouting “hypocrite!” is not a knockdown argument. It shows that someone’s principles are inconsistent with his actions. If justified it could mean that his principles are wrong, or his actions are, or both.

Now I do think this diminishes any credibility which he might have in attacking the actions of others. If someone pulls his kids out of the system, and at the same time fumes at others for doing so (as a violation of principle), then I think it is difficult to take him seriously. But the case we are talking about is different and while the inconsistency does not speak well of the person stating the principle, I don’t think it tells us much about the validity of the principle being appealed to.

I have to disagree a little with some of the arguments put in response to it, though, for example with Adam when he says–

Calling the parents in question hypocrites is like calling me a hypocrite because I believe in a strong welfare state to come closer to eliminating poverty and homelessness, yet don’t empty my pockets to every homeless person who solicits me.

because it does seem to me that hypocrisy could be in this example, or at least in similar examples. If I really think that severe poverty is a terrible thing and I am in a personal position to easily do something about it, then why don’t I? Probably, “empt[ing] my pockets to every homeless person who solicits me” would be taking things too far, but it seems to me that nearly all of us should be doing a lot more than we do, if we believe what we say we believe.

Likewise I think something has been missed in the discussion above about the person who wishes for a world with no guns but who still carries a gun. If carrying a gun is really necessary to ensure his personal safety then he has a right to carry it. But supposing it’s not (Cian only says that he “feels” it is necessary) then it seems reasonable to ask him why he doesn’t take steps which are open to him personally to improve the situation–in however small a way–by his lights, and not carrying a gun himself looks like one of them.

Adam’s response, that not carrying a gun yourself is not a “significant action” doesn’t cut it with me. The gun-owner has two avenues to him: campaigning for collective action and taking unilateral action and it’s a toss up between one voice in a large debate, or one person acting in a crowd. In neither case is his personal contribution going to be “significant” in Adam’s sense, it appears.

85

Francis 11.01.07 at 3:56 pm

Let’s see if I have this right.

1 Some parochial schools in NYC perform better than some public schools with similar student bodies.

2 Some of these parochial schools have space available.

Therefore 3 we should radically redesign the NYC public school system.

This is nuts. If Megan feels so strongly about space going to waste at parochial schools, she should set up scholarships funded by her libertarian allies (people at Q and O, for example, are always talking about the importance of private charity as a substitute for public funding) to fund the transfer of students from the public school to the private school.

A broad voucher approach, by contrast, has the following problems:

educating high-cost kids, whether special ed or ESL or hungry or whatever;
placing kids expelled from the private schools;
establishing adequate state oversight;
funding the construction of all the new campuses;
dealing with the teachers’ and principals’ unions;
among others.

86

Cranky Observer 11.01.07 at 3:58 pm

> I agree that information barriers and
> switching costs are problems, but they
> seem like ones that are surmountable.

For all the talk of “abandoning” children in universal public schools and the immorality of such alleged action, what percentage/how many generations of children are voucher proponents willing to sacrifice to get private voucher schools up and running? The legend is that 80% of small businesses fail – do you have any reason to believe that it woudl be different for an 800% expansion of private schools? If not why not? If so, what happens to the kids in 5th grade when it is found that their K-4 education was a failure?

Cranky

87

engels 11.01.07 at 4:12 pm

Bracketed clause in 3rd para of #84 above s/b (Luci only says that she “feels” it is necessary)

88

SamChevre 11.01.07 at 4:17 pm

1) The government should pay for and regulate to ensure a pretty good education for all children

2) The government does exactly that for my child

Therefore

3) I should support whatever mechanisms and reforms will result in it providing the same for children whose parents are less advantaged than I am.

Harry,

I would add another argument (one I hold, but you may not hold)

1b. The government’s regulation of schooling should be to the extent possible neutral among various concepts of what good schooling includes and excludes. (In the areas of discipline, curriculum, socialization, etc.)

Add this argument, and I think something fairly voucher-like is required.

89

baa 11.01.07 at 4:27 pm

Cranky,

There is no doubt that any system — public provision assigned by geography, public provision assigned by parent choice, public and private provision, assigned by parent choice — will have failing schools, and children who do poorly. So to this:

what happens to the kids in 5th grade when it is found that their K-4 education was a failure?

I would ask: what happens now? What mechanisms to we use now to prevent this from happening? In a charter or voucher system, we can use such methods as are useful in public schools, but add the additional mechanism that if parents are worried up front about the risk of education failure, or become worried in the course of education about failure, they have the option of selecting a different school. It could be that charter schools and vouchers schools are more likely to fail to educate than are the current publics. And it could also be that parents are unlikely to be able to rapidly determine if a school is failing their kid. But neither of these things seem to me a priori likely. The (very limited) voucher experience in Milwaukee does not suggest that voucher schools are globally worse than publics. Nor have I heard an evidence-based argument to that effect made about charters. If there are schools today in the public system that are failing, why not allow parents to escape them? Why not at least try to increase choice within the public system?

On the point of scale-up, I agree. I wouldn’t expect any radical change to be a good idea. And even if we were to move to a voucher system today, you simply wouldn’t be able to get radical change: there aren’t the schools to move kids into. I don’t think any of the charter and voucher proposal to date have suggested shifting 40% of students into new charters, a shuttering of current publics, or anything like that. Would you be on board with a approach of adding options onto the current system (more charters or vouchers), while maintaining fixed cost funding in the current system? (so a school that loses 50% of it’s students doesn’t lose 50% of it’s funding and get killed on fixed costs).

90

Cranky Observer 11.01.07 at 5:01 pm

> In a charter or voucher system, we can use such
> methods as are useful in public schools, but add
> the additional mechanism that if parents are
> worried up front about the risk of education
> failure, or become worried in the course of
> education about failure, they have the option of
> selecting a different school. It could be that
> charter schools and vouchers schools are more
>likely to fail to educate than are the current
> publics.

Then there is a solution readily available: the Kansas City/St. Louis program. After 10 years of kicking and screaming most of the school districts, administrators, and teachers (of the receiving schools) admitted they liked the program and the taxpayers (for the most part) admitted they didn’t care. No vouchers, no tax increases, no changes to the existing (very successful) public school systems. A little more equity in state educational funding wouldn’t hurt (my sister’s district had to make up the difference between the state-formula payments and their standard expenditure, but it turned out to be not that bad in reality) but isn’t strictly necessary.

Those children from the failing districts who could be saved, were, and by Megan’s Logic those who were left behind weren’t any worse off. But such programs require busing children of a funny different color into suburbs dominated by the Radical Right…

Cranky

91

LizardBreath 11.01.07 at 5:03 pm

Once we’re talking about a program that provides benefits to a small group of people only, you really have to start thinking about evaluating the costs. If a voucher program could get some few kids currently in bad public schools into empty spaces in good private schools, great for them. But it’s only sensible policy if the money spent that way helps more children than spending it in the current schools. It might, but again, you have to analyse the specific policy.

92

SamChevre 11.01.07 at 5:14 pm

Cranky–I’m not familiar with the Kansas City/St Louis program–could you give us just a bit more info. (A link would be fine.)

93

Cranky Observer 11.01.07 at 5:33 pm

> I’m not familiar with the Kansas City/St Louis
> program—could you give us just a bit more info.
> (A link would be fine.)

Most of it happened in the Days Before Internet, so unless you have Lexis/Nexis there won’t be any links . My short form based on very imperfect knowledge, memory, and 3rd party reports:

1) Late 60s/early 70s desegregation lawsuits filed in STL and KC
2) Early 70s: desegregation proponents win; public districts ordered to desegregate next September
3) Next September: all white children in public schools previous year have transferred to Catholic schools (by “all” I mean more than 80%)
4) Five Septembers later: all white families with children have moved out of cities to county (this boom-bust wasn’t good for the Catholic schools or their parishes either of course)
5) Early 80s – very brave parents file 2nd round of desegregation lawsuits against county – unusual and unfashionable in that climate (City of Chicago parents were strongly advised not to do the same)
6) Mid/late 80s – after years of fighting, suburban districts agree to consent decree where urban children can transfer to any district within x miles as long as (1) all state funding goes with child (2) athletes have immediate eligibility at the new school (3) state pays for transportation (mostly bus, but paratransit and cabs are used too).
7) Some percentage (around 25 I think) of students transfer to suburban schools. Effects as previously discussed, plus wimpy white suburban schools suddenly become football powerhouses.
8) 2005 – consent decree expires and Radical Right starts agitating for termaination of program. Some very exclusive districts withdraw, but most of the middle-middle class communities decide to continue as long as no one rocks the boat (NCLB is of course a huge boat-rocker, plus everyone expects an Eagle Foundation lawsuit sooner or later). A few districts even vote modest tax increases to continue program – a staggering development. Special needs, reading recovery, and other specialized teachers are fully utilized for the first time in history.

But of course, with the best 25% of the students gone along with all the parents with enough gumption to get their kids into the program and on the bus and their state allocation too – the STL and KC public schools implode.

Cranky

You can draw whatever lessons you want from that sequence but the fact that the voucher libertarians don’t think that the Law of Unintended Consequences applies to them should give everyone else pause. Just as one bizarre example who would have expected that a 300% increase in students at Catholic schools would _accelerate_ the disappearance of the inner-city parish culture?

94

baa 11.01.07 at 5:39 pm

Cranky, it sounds like you believe the top 25% have an obligation to stay within the public system, and in particular, to stay within bad schools within the public system, because that increases overall educational quality. Have I got you right?

95

SamChevre 11.01.07 at 5:45 pm

Cranky,

Here’s the question I have. (That looks, basically, like a pretty standard public school choice program OUGHT to look).

What proportion of in-district children were attending public schools in the suburbs before step 7? Immediately after step 7? In 1995? Also, did it just drive flight further? (Was growth after step 7 only in other counties, for example.)

96

Sebastian Holsclaw 11.01.07 at 5:48 pm

“But Megan, it is empirically true that when we have tried vouchers, they have had very limited benefits for the kids using them.”

Very little benefit isn’t ‘no benefit’, and as the voucher systems studied had very little marginal cost, there you go.

Furthermore, the “very limited benefit” was in contrast to the schools they left on a year to year basis, BUT the old school improved too. There may be other things that did that, but it may also be that (as with almost every area where you allow competition) competition spurred improvement in the former monopoly. That is a good thing even if the voucher schools don’t end up being better than the then-improved public schools.

“Yes, this is the best argument for vouchers. If you start from the premise that most poor kids in America are going to get horribly inadequate educations and there’s nothing we can do about that, then it become sensible to talk about how we rescue the talented (or lucky) few.

But if you think our goal should be to provide a decent education for all kids, vouchers have no place in the discussion.”

This would make more sense if we hadn’t already had 30 years of the teacher’s unions and voucher opponents with nearly total control of the schools. Their methods have been tried. This isn’t 1960, where expenditures were below the industrialized average. This is 2007 where we have some of the most expensive per-pupil teaching in the world, under almost complete government control, and it isn’t very good.

Lizardbreath: “If you make a small number better off, and a large number worse off, then you’re not doing good. As I said on your blog, I’m not opposed to anything calling itself a voucher program in principle, I just haven’t seen one convincingly described that sounds as if it would do more good than harm on a large scale.”

I don’t think people can use the studies which say that vouchers don’t make students better off AND also argue that they are going to ‘ruin’ public schools. I’m not totally sure that is what you are doing, so I’m springing off your comment rather than making an accusation.

97

Cranky Observer 11.01.07 at 5:52 pm

> What proportion of in-district children were
> attending public schools in the suburbs before
> step 7? Immediately after step 7? In 1995? Also,
> did it just drive flight further? (Was growth
> after step 7 only in other counties, for example.)

Good questions but you are way beyond my level of knowledge there. I am not really familiar with academic education literature but one thing I have found odd is that there doesn’t seem to have been any detailed research on this topic. Seems to me it would make a good Ph.D thesis, article for The Atlantic, and popular book in one package.

Cranky

98

Cranky Observer 11.01.07 at 5:53 pm

> This would make more sense if we hadn’t
> already had 30 years of the teacher’s unions
> and voucher opponents with nearly total control
> of the schools.

And the vast majority of US parents **are satisfied with their local public schools**. The majority of Americans DO NOT live in central-city Detroit or any central city.

Cranky

99

Cranky Observer 11.01.07 at 5:59 pm

> Cranky, it sounds like you believe the top 25%
> have an obligation to stay within the public
> system, and in particular, to stay within bad
> schools within the public system, because that
> increases overall educational quality. Have I got
> you right?

Well, that is the choice I personally made at the age of 17. But 17 year olds are notoriously idealistic, short-sighted, and unaware of long-term consequences. It worked very well for me (dedicated teachers, good classmates, and luckily the one bullet wasn’t really aimed in my direction and I hit the ground fast) but as a much older and wiser parent all I can say is that this is a vastly more complex social, political, and moral topic than the glibertarians would have you believe. I would hesitate to make any strong statement either way and certainly not under the limitations of a blog discussion.

Cranky

Its been fun but I guess I have to sign off now. My personal assessment of this thread would be voucher proponents C+ (maybe B-); everyone else A-.

100

Sebastian Holsclaw 11.01.07 at 6:04 pm

“If Megan feels so strongly about space going to waste at parochial schools, she should set up scholarships funded by her libertarian allies (people at Q and O, for example, are always talking about the importance of private charity as a substitute for public funding) to fund the transfer of students from the public school to the private school.”

Great point. Except they do.

Some of the biggest tries with voucher systems have been through private-donation funding. (Strongly resisted by the teachers unions naturally).

101

LizardBreath 11.01.07 at 6:06 pm

Strongly resisted by the teachers unions naturally

Good heavens. What on earth have teachers unions been doing to oppose children using private scholarships?

102

Sebastian Holsclaw 11.01.07 at 6:08 pm

“And the vast majority of US parents are satisfied with their local public schools. The majority of Americans DO NOT live in central-city Detroit or any central city.”

So they wouldn’t use vouchers right? So we wouldn’t be causing ‘problems’ in THOSE students or THOSE schools because they are already fine, right?

That isn’t an argument against vouchers. That is just saying that vouchers won’t be successful because most people won’t bother using them. It is directly contradictory to most of the other forms of argument going on in this thread. This may be a problem with arguing with multiple people on a thread, but isn’t it interesting the Megan is being asked to defend vouchers both because so many people will use them that they will ruin everything, and because no one will use them?

103

Sebastian Holsclaw 11.01.07 at 6:21 pm

“What on earth have teachers unions been doing to oppose children using private scholarships?”

For example, The National Education Association has asked its members and has attempted to organize a more general boycott of Wal-Mart for the anti-public education activities of John Walton in founding the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which is in fact the organization which raises money to privately fund such voucher programs.

I also vaguely remember the school district in LA taking various legal actions against charities providing vouchers in the 1980s, but those were the pre-google years so I don’t see anything directly referencing it. (Nexis access anyone?)

104

LizardBreath 11.01.07 at 6:36 pm

The National Education Association has asked its members and has attempted to organize a more general boycott of Wal-Mart for the anti-public education activities of John Walton in founding the Children’s Scholarship Fund

Got a link? I did some googling, and all I could find was a couple of articles quoting someone saying that some members of the NEA had called for such a boycott.

105

baa 11.01.07 at 7:21 pm

Here’s an NEA statement on Wal-Mart.

Is NEA opposition to vouchers (and in many cases, charters) a big surprise? The NEA’s job is to protect their members. An increase in students going to schools that employ non-union teachers at below the union rate is going to be a concern, no matter what the source of funding. That’s just the union doing their job.

106

LizardBreath 11.01.07 at 8:01 pm

105: Yeah, but it’s about opposition to Wal-Mart’s political support for vouchers (there’s something that may be a reference to the provision of privately funded vouchers, but the objection stated is that they were part of an effort to create political pressure for publicly funded vouchers). Opposition to publicly funded vouchers, and to those who advocate for them by whatever tactics, is a political position, isn’t the same thing as a blanket opposition to scholarships.

(Also, the bulk of the information there is about Wal-Mart’s anti-union activities against it’s own employees. That page is one union supporting workers in their attempts to organize a non-union workplace, rather than something primarily addressing voucher issues.)

107

Doug K 11.01.07 at 10:37 pm

Speaking of tone: as comprehensively argued above, there isn’t much about non-poor parents opposing vouchers, to deserve the epithet of ‘vilest hypocrisy’: which is the courtesy with which Jane opened this dialogue. Jane’s response to the thread at Laura’s place merely preserves the tone of her original post, a self-righteous harangue that assumes away all the problems with vouchers. As Cranky already observed – as long as we can assume that vouchers will produce better outcomes, can we also please assume a pony for my sons ? They’d really appreciate it.

Until Jane can produce some convincing evidence or analysis showing vouchers will in fact improve the state of public education, there isn’t an argument to be had. So far all the evidence, and all the analysis that doesn’t rely on the Free Market Faery performing magic, is rather against vouchers.

This whole kerfuffle is another piece of evidence for the hypothesis that Jane Galt, even in her ‘Megan McArdle’ persona, is fundamentally not serious.

108

Sebastian Holsclaw 11.02.07 at 6:58 am

I haven’t been able to find primary sources with the NEA, only lots of newspaper editorial references to it. I don’t know what that is worth.

109

Z 11.02.07 at 11:33 am

Watson Aname, if you are still reading, France is offering quite generous pay raise to teachers working in under privileged areas and schools operating in these areas get significantly better resources. This is not yet moving teachers in the non-perverse direction, but it is at least trying to mitigate the perverse flow. Considering the actual flow of techers (easily monitored because the Frech system of hiring is perfectly market-based so prices, in points not money of course, are publicly known), this measure is an order of magnitude below what would be necessary. Still, it exists.

As for vouchers, it seems to me that there exists demonstrably superior alternatives, so though I would not say I oppose them (for the education systems I know, I suspect my judgment cannot be transferred to other countries), I support other directions of reform.

110

Amy P 11.02.07 at 12:53 pm

France provides public aide to private schools, if I’m not mistaken.

111

Z 11.02.07 at 1:21 pm

#110 To some private schools. Yes, this is true.

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