Post 17: The End of Public School

Thursday, March, 28, 13 § 2 Comments

Nearly two hundred years later, it appears the US is letting go of one of its most enduring dreams: the dream that the government should educate our nation’s children. According to this recent article in the New York Times, more and more state governments are admitting they’re unable to provide quality schools for their young citizens, and are passing the responsibility off to…. Well. That part’s not exactly clear.

The new dream of education in America, popular in the 1990’s and making another surge now, is of a system of vouchers. In this new dream, the government bows out of the business of providing education, and instead provides money to parents, and tells them to go out, and–like good Americans–shop around. Find the best school for your kid, and sign him up. And if it doesn’t work, pull him out and shop some more.

This new dream grows directly out of our love of free markets and innovation, of unimpeded efficiency and cutthroat competition. The new dream vanishes the cumbersome teacher unions and the coffee-sipping retirees-to-be in administrative offices, and offers a vision of a nation of sleek, independent schools, hawking the latest and greatest in pedagogy–or getting shut down for lack of clientele. The new dream posits that the more we expand the vouchered demand, the more the education supply will grow and diversify. Imagine a national boom of “start-up” schools, like so many start-up tech businesses in Silicon Valley, from which parents and students can pick and choose.

Maybe this will happen. There’s certainly no shortage of highly-motivated educators, and I imagine many of them would dare to start up small schools if they were assured income. I could imagine home school collectives forming in living rooms, pooling their voucher money to buy a few computers and a little van for field trips. Or a nature preserve deciding to get into the business, and opening an ecological school on their grounds. A local carpenter could start a “school” for three interested high school kids, and use the voucher money to hire a tutor to help out with academic stuff in the afternoon.

Come to think of it, if there was a voucher law in New Mexico, offering say $8000 per kid per year, I’d start a school tomorrow. I’d find twenty kids, and use the 160K to pay myself and my co-blogger Christian Casillas 60K a year, take out a 10K insurance policy and with the remaining 30K run a great school on the organic farm of my brother and sister-in-law. It’d meet four days a week, for maybe 150 days out of the year, and include backpacking trips and food harvesting and sustainability studies, with tons of reading, tons of inventing, and a smattering of academics when it rains.

I wonder how voucher fans would respond to my school. Many of the same people who are so interested in vouchers are also the people who are clamoring about accountability and results, and how our students’ tests scores aren’t as high as Finland’s. My organic farm school wouldn’t show much of a bump in standardized test scores, though. Mostly because after we analyzed the standardized tests for their cultural biases and absurdity, we’d toss them into the compost pile and get back to learning. But if parents were interested, couldn’t I run my school anyway–tests or not?

The answer is no. Voucher laws come with strings attached. Most of them require schools that receive the vouchers to test their students and to hire certified teachers (and of course to comply with civil rights laws–but all citizens and organizations must do that). Which means that the government is not really opening the market to true innovation. It’s saying, Here, Free Market. Take our same old tests, and take teachers who’ve been trained in our same old teacher training programs, and do what what we couldn’t. In other words, take the same inputs and provide different results.

It’s not going to happen. The voucher program is a set up. It will benefit kids like mine, kids with savvy, college-educated parents who know how to “shop around,” and have a few bucks to chip in if the voucher doesn’t cover the tuition at the school they want. And it will do nothing for the poor kids, at least for the great majority of them, whose parents are too busy or uninformed to do the proper school shopping.

What’s even more troubling, however, is the fact that vouchers are a way for the government–and for all of us–to duck our responsibility to sit down and do the unpleasant work of reaching some sort of consensus on how and why we want to educate our children–all our children. Education is not an economic endeavor to provide a product in the most efficient way. It is a political endeavor to define the values of a community. It is a pedagogical endeavor to generate innovative and relevant ways to transmit those values to the next generation. The free market, even if released from all restrictions, simply does not have the tools, or the “ethical compass” (to borrow the term from Aaron Stern), to lead the way.

So as much as I’d love to start up my voucher-funded organic farm school, and as much as I know it would be successful, I don’t think I should be allowed to do it, at least not in this way. My school should not be a maverick success story. It should be part of a larger community commitment to reach children in different, more relevant ways.

This doesn’t mean we have to stick with the status quo. I can imagine a new dream for public education, one in which the government turns over responsibility of schools not to the valueless free market, but to the passionate citizens who have decided to become teachers. Released for academic years at a time, teacher-leaders would be charged with holding forums with parents and business leader and students to better understand what types of schools we need, and to create them. They would be charged with educating the new generation of teachers–not in distant university classrooms, but right there in their classrooms and schools.

Some of you may be rolling your eyes, recalling the disastrous community-run schools in NYC from the 1960’s, which generated more turf wars and law suits than good education. Or the site-based management buzz of the early 1990’s, which was abandoned after teachers and principals realized all the endless planning meetings came with little real power to make changes. But the vision I’m holding is different, and has proven to work in Finland, where teachers truly are running the educational system.

I don’t think vouchers signify the end of the public school dream. The idea will expand for a few years and then fail. Perhaps it may even prove to be the necessary though painful step that ends up leading us, through our government, towards re-assuming responsibility for public education. And this time, let’s hope we let teachers lead the way.


§ 2 Responses to Post 17: The End of Public School

  • Dipti says:

    Your analyses are excellent — thorough and tangible. Questions as I read the post: Is there not a way to send this message to decision makers in a huge way through passionate teachers? At the very least, how can we get this blog post to reach even 1 key decision maker that’s willing to listen?

  • Dipti, I did some more research after speaking with my colleague, Greg Goles.

    Despite the alarmist tone of the title of this post, the voucher movement is still only impacting a small percentage of American students, though it is growing, as the Times article reports. According to the American Federation for Children, public funds are used to educate around 250,000 children in non-public (including religious) school in 17 states and DC. In Milwaukee, where the voucher law first appeared in 1990, vouchers are being used by 20,000 of that city’s 80,000 public school students–one in four. But considering that around 50 million children attend public schools in the US, we’re still talking about 0.5% of the backpack-toting population.

    I also was wrong when I wrote that “voucher laws come with strings attached.” As Greg pointed out, and I have since verified by looking at a comparison of the laws on the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures ( most of the laws in fact do NOT require their students to take standardized tests. Or if they do, it’s not necessarily the same tests the public school kids take. The private schools that receive the vouchers often don’t need to hire certified teachers either.

    This surprised me. I’d assumed the people who are decrying that public schools are failing–and pointing to low test scores to prove it–would be proud to show higher test scores in private schools to make their point. But it turns out there’s no evidence students who participate in voucher programs perform better academically. (I need to do more research, but I have to say I’m not quite sure how they measure academic gain if the voucher kids aren’t taking the same standardized tests as the public school kids…. all of which points to the absurdity of trying to standardize measurements of human learning.) It’s worth noting, by the way, that research does show that graduation rates and parental satisfaction are higher among students who participate in voucher programs.

    Some of the anti-voucher articles I read explain that the real goal of school choice is to dismantle the public education system. People who believe in vouchers feel strongly that parents should be able to choose where their children attend school, and that those choices should not be determined by the government (a “monopoly”) but by the free market. I can understand the appeal of their free market rhetoric, and their dislike of state-controlled bureaucracy–both grow directly from deep American values, as I wrote in my post.

    But it does seem that the voucher fans are applying a double standard. That is, they want to impose standardized testing in public schools (so that they can show the public schools are failing) but then do not require the private schools to administer the same tests. The logic, I guess, is that parents, not tests, will determine if a school’s doing its job or not. Interesting: Are vouchers a path to a test-free educational system?

    I was also wrong, in my post, about vouchers helping out middle class kids more than poor kids–or maybe I wasn’t wrong, but I was jumping the gun. At the moment, most voucher programs are only open to kids whose household incomes are around the poverty level–though this is changing as programs expand to include the lower middle class.

    Though my research has deepened my understanding of the voucher laws, it has not addressed my primary concern, which is philosophical: Do we turn over education to the free market? Are we, as communities, as a nation, willing to give up on the idea that schools should be run by the government to transmit values and skills that we decide, through dialogue and democracy, are in the best interest of our children and society?

    I’m pretty cynical about the government in general, but not that cynical. I want to see schools change because I want to see our society take a stand for a new type of learning, a new way of being in the world. Our public schools do more than just prepare kids for the workplace. They carry our identify, our beliefs in what is true and right and relevant. They are a political institution, and they convey an ideology, and a projection toward the future.

    I believe we must reform that ideology and projection (it is too focused on individual competition and material gain) and to do so, I believe we must reinvent the way we do school (to focus on collaboration and sustainability). And I’m very clear that this is the work of the government, not the free market.

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