Friday, May 08, 2009

Why not vouch for them?

Megan McArdle is "very, very upset" that the Obama administration has decided not to fund the DC school voucher program. The Economist considers the few concessions made to supporters of the program to be a "cop-out".

I've known several people who have taught at DC public schools, and they've all confirmed that the system there is a mess. Studies have shown it to be one of the worst school systems in the country. The voucher program is intended to give lower-income parents of students in these decaying schools money to put their kids in private school. It is, in my opinion, eminently reasonable.

The ongoing decline of public schools is bizarre and dismaying. It's also inexplicable. I live in one of the "lowest income" cities in Canada; and yet, all of our schools seem to be well-maintained and well-funded. Yet, when you visit schools in places like DC or East Saint Louis, the buildings are falling apart, the bathrooms don't work, they haven't updated the textbooks in years, they don't have any computers, and so on and so forth, ad nauseam . I don't understand why the United States can't operate decent public schools in all parts of the country, and (like always) I suspect that the pat explanations of the political left and right: "endemic racism" and "the teacher's unions", respectively: are both seriously lacking. The simple fact though is that American public school graduates were ranked highest in the world as recently as the mid 1960s, and now they rank nearly at the bottom of all the industrialized countries.

My suspicion is that the decline of the public school system is something akin to the decline of the French aristocratic court in the 1700s: everyone can tell that things are going astray, but there are entirely too many groups with special privileges that they are not willing to give up. Of course this includes teacher's unions, but I suspect that that's not the half of it- administrators, investors, local politicians, school councilors and therapists, and even parents and students all have something to lose if schools are really to be reformed.* I suspect that nobody is willing to give up their privileges and there's a log-jam making any real reform impossible at this time.

So, why in the world would anyone be opposed to letting the bright students who are stuck in this situation have the same exit pass that rich kids have? The first argument seems to be that an exodus of bright kids will make the public schools worse. But why should children be saddled with the task of improving their schools? How is that fair? This is like requiring patients to stay in a run-down hospital in order to encourage the staff to fix things!

A secondary argument is that many private schools are religious schools, so tax money could feasibly go to a religious institution. I'm not sure how this is any different than a college kid spending their Pell Grant at Saint John's. In other words, I''m not sure how this violates the separation of church and state- provided that the state doesn't specify which schools are to receive the money or not- any more than it would if I tithed my tax refund. The voucher exchange, after all, is between the state and the parent, and not between the state and the private school. That seems, to me, to be the key distinction.

I feel for these kids. The students I see who have recently been paroled from public secondary schools are woefully uneducated, as I've noted before. But they're also... somehow spiritually exhausted. They remind me of the company man who has been working at the place for twenty years and has clocked out mentally. Many of them are sick and tired of everything to do with education, and I suspect that spending years in a public school factory system actually does very few of them any good at all. When I compare them to the private school kids I went to college with, who were bright,diligent, and enthusiastic, I have to wonder what advantages the rich receive that working class children do not.

I'm actually skeptical about the strengths of the voucher system. And, given the experiences of the private school kids who Claire treats in her practice, I don't see private education as a panacea either. It seems to me that there's no one magic bullet that will fix the public school system. Instead, we should let a thousand flowers bloom. And that will require watering.

* It might sound cruel to lump students in there. However, every public school I've ever seen has an inevitable handful of unruly, disruptive, and bullying students that the school just can't seem to get rid of. A Canadian teaching friend recounted the story of visiting an American high school where the teacher simply tried to pretend that those students weren't yelling and carrying on right in front of her during class. I'm guessing that the problem has something to do with parents and their lawyers.


Brian Dunbar said...

Labels: dunbar-baitHaw. Later, probably. I'm home, but working and the cat left a dead mouse somewhere in my bedroom. Or perhaps it died inside the walls. Whatever my bedroom does not smell very nice.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I was ribbing you a little bit because the post is complaining about the administration. Lola once killed a mouse and hid it under the rug for a week. It is not a good smell- sort of a natural gas smell. But, once you get rid of the body, it does go away.

Holly said...

This strikes me more as a problem of awareness, than a distribution of resources issue. Just like the thing with the world being quantitatively more at peace currently, but we are so much more aware of the strife, so it seems out of control. Education has never been fair, balanced, or egalitarian in practice (only in theory), but it's only when you can precisely compare relevant data that the problem comes into clear focus.

Rufus said...

I see what you mean, and I'd say our increased awareness is definitely beneficial. I posted a link here a while back to a website that actually detailed the physical collapse of DC schools, with tons of digital photos, and applied pressure directly to the school board to fix specific things. This wouldn't have been possible when I was a kid, although we had some idea that the district schools were in much worse shape than our own. So, it's true that the problem is coming into clearer focus. And this should make it less sufferable, in the same way that things like war and tyranny are much less sufferable in the age of the internet.

What I really need to point out is that US schools have only slipped on average- the mean is lower. So there are several areas of the country where the schools are as good, if not better, than they've ever been. It's just that certain areas- especially inner-cities- have gotten much, much worse, or at least failed to keep up in a very significant way.

This slippage might be due to racism, although I've seen schools in appalachia that are just as bad as those in DC. More likely though, it's due to a lack of will and even indifference, just like with most untreated social problems. We all know things are bad; we'd just rather someone else deal with them.

The result though, for as long as it's been this way, is still unacceptable- we live in a class system disguised as a meritocracy. To say that everyone has an equal chance to succeed is laughable when you compare a kid who is taught on state-of-the-art equiptment with one whose school doesn't even have new books. To my mind, a liberal is someone who believes that all individuals have the innate ability to develop ourselves and that the state should do what it can to remove unnatural barriers to that development. Therefore, the liberal opposition to school vouchers makes no real sense to me. I mean, I hear the arguments. I just think they suck.

So, I think it's a good thing that the problem is in clearer focus. I think we should panic a bit.

Holly said...

(You don't even want to know about reservation schools. You'd cry.)

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