From loyal reader Susan: Have y’all heard of this?
Starting this fall, thousands of poor and middle-class kids will get vouchers covering the full cost of tuition at more than 120 private schools across Louisiana, including small, Bible-based church schools…
Households qualify with annual income up to 250 percent of the poverty line, or $57,625 for a family of four. Statewide, 380,000 kids, more than half the total student population of 700,000, are eligible for vouchers. There are only about 5,000 slots open in private schools for the coming year, but state officials expect that to ramp up quickly.
(Click below for more)
Tyler: I hadn’t heard about that but I have a mixed reaction. I think it’s important to note this is for kids at bad schools. The article didn’t describe the schools kids may leave at all, which is probably unfair. Also just because a bad school could get state funds doesn’t mean anyone will choose to go there. On the flip side, the state needs to do more due diligence. Also I suspect their thoughts on fiscal savings aren’t going to pan out like they described.
Jake: This isn’t just about “bad schools,” Tyler. It’s open to students who are at schools where 25% of students score below grade level. Assuming a normal distribution of test scores, that would exclude only the very best schools. Notice the article says that 380,000 of 700,000 (54%) students statewide would be eligible — that is only slightly less than the number who qualify based on income alone. Median household income in LA is $43,445. Doing a little back-of-the-napkin stats (taking a very rough estimation of income variance), I found that between 60-65% of households would be eligible under the $57,625 threshold. That means only 10% of students would meet the income requirements but be excluded due to their school’s performance. My math skills have seriously deteriorated since high school, so I may have computed all that incorrectly. Intuitively, though, it seems to hold.
Regardless, that’s not my biggest problem with this law. When money follows the students, the average fixed costs go up for public schools. They have less money to spend on instruction. It’s even more frustrating when that money goes to video-taught Bible schools that have teachers who say things like this [from the article]:
“We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children,” Carrier said.
At their best, vouchers can give poor children an opportunity to escape bad public schools. More commonly, though, they are 1) a backdoor way to subsidize religious schools with tax dollars and 2) a way to circumvent and cripple teachers’ unions. You can see why conservatives love them and liberals hate them.
An empiricist like Tyler should also recognize the fact that vouchers have never been proven to work. Here’s a report done by the Department of Education on the DC voucher system. This is the most comprehensive study that has been done. I know this because I went to a Congressional hearing last year and listened to a guy from Heritage cite it repeatedly, only to admit under questioning that it found no statistically significant improvement in student performance or satisfaction.
I expressed (albeit in a shorter statement) some of your reservations as well:
On the flip side, the state needs to do more due diligence. Also I suspect their thoughts on fiscal savings aren’t going to pan out like they described.
This probably isn’t the best way of accomplishing school choice, but introducing some choice to the equation is not a bad idea. Like we discussed yesterday, Jake, a system of large school districts with movement among the schools of the district is a great first step, and using a Romney-esque plan to expand that beyond the district is another good option, especially in rural states like Louisiana. Private education or even charter schools probably do not hold the long term solution for education in America, but I suspect if you ask children and parents at bad public schools if they care about the long term solution for education in America the answer will be no. They want to be in a better school today.
Jake: I believe in school choice, but within a public system. When the state per-student allocation is given to a private school, it detracts from the quality of education for the students left behind. If I were to accept vouchers in any form, their funding would have to be supplemental to the public outlay and tied to the same quality, assessment, and extracurricular standards as public schools.
Tyler: I agree about the standards and that public schools have to be the final basis for education, I just think we have to be wary (because none of us have skin in the game in the short term) of overly discounting the immediacy of improved education for people currently in the system. I say that because my own tendency is to discount the present in favor of long term solutions.
Jake: Look at the Dept of Ed report. There is no strong evidence that students do better as a result of vouchers. Same with charter schools. The presumption that private schools are better because they are private simply isn’t true.
Tyler: My point is that parents and students don’t care because they don’t think staying in the same failing school is going to magically fix the problem.
Jake: But if switching to a private school won’t improve individual educational outcomes, and it is known to hurt aggregate educational outcomes, then shouldn’t parental/student agency be constrained by policy?
Tyler: I haven’t read the study, but I suspect there are some different dynamics in DC compared to Louisiana. So I don’t know that we can definitely say that there is not a short term gain, and at the very least (in the minds of parents) there is opportunity for improvement. Either way we agree on the long term goal of improving public options. My biggest concern with this proposal is the quality of the alternatives; I do think the state should have higher standards on schools that can receive vouchers to help ensure that people will be going to a better option.
Jake: If anything, the DC public schools are worse and the private schools are better than in Louisiana. And parent satisfaction is the least important finding in that study — it seems like a placebo effect to me. The student experience is what matters.
Plus, the higher the standards, the lower the supply of private school slots. Public money would mainly be going to rich private schools. I’d rather just give Isidore Newman a tax break for scholarships they offer to low-income kids than reducing the money available for public schools.
Tyler: Again, I agree that the answer is in public schools from a normative perspective. Putting resources and creativity into public schools is ultimately the most efficient way to provide a strong education. But from a positive viewpoint there is some benefit, if the options are definitely better than the schools children would leave, to giving children the opportunity to leave failing schools. While some schools will lose resources and possibly close, there may be some consolidation opportunities or other benefits. I don’t know that costs will go down in this model, but I don’t think anyone has an alternative that guarantees reduced costs and improved quality. I think in this case Louisiana may not be adopting an optimal policy but political reality and urgency have at least forced the issue to the forefront and the status quo is being reexamined.
Jake: There are plenty of alternatives with increased costs and improved quality, though. Louisiana should be looking for ways to spend more on education, not less. And even though I’ve enjoyed this discussion, I hardly give Louisiana’s Republicans credit for a good-faith reexamination of the educational status quo. With no evidence that vouchers improve educational outcomes and no system of accountability for public funds, this reeks of a political plot to send middle class students and taxpayer dollars to private — often parochial — schools. Somewhere, Huey Long’s corpse is spinning!