Monday, October 15, 2007

Re: Vouchers

I received a fascinating reply from Ben Iverson (a High school buddy of mine, visit his blog here) to my earlier post about school vouchers. His response was very well-thought out and insightful - and he doesn't even live in Utah anymore. He felt that his reply was too long to be added to the comments, so I hope that he doesn't mind me posting it here.

"So, all of this talk about how a market for schools is better gets me thinking about a class I had at BYU called "The Economics of Education" where we basically applied economic principles to the problem of optimal education. In essence, you view the school as a business whose product is the students, and you study which inputs into the school make the most difference. In most of the papers that I read, an improvement of the "product" was one of the following three things: 1) higher standardized test score, 2) Smaller dropout rates, or 3) higher salary once the kids left school (and college, if they go to college). To cut to the chase, the ONLY thing that can be shown to improve these student outcomes is teacher quality. Smaller class sizes don't statistically improve any of those 3 outcomes. Better technology in a school doesn't do that either. But if you put a high quality teacher in the classroom, those students will do better than the same students who had a worse teacher. So, in my opinion, the biggest need is higher quality teachers. Think about good old LHS--we had a few good teachers, but then we also had Mr. Spencer. That's the real problem, I think.

"So, when you're thinking about how to vote on this voucher system, the question I would ask is: Where is this extra money going to go? If it's going to Fios internet in all schools or something like that, I wouldn't vote for it. But, what if we took all of that money and put it straight into teacher salaries? It wouldn't be long until there were more people who wanted to become teachers, and more competition for teaching spots will result in higher quality teachers. Used that way, vouchers can be great, I think. Also, increased competition among schools (for students) should result in better teachers as well. But if the money is used in a dumb way, I would be cautious.

"I have one other reservation about voucher systems. Do you want to hear it? I thought so. :) Again, relating a school to a business, the best businesses are specialists in certain products. If a pure market system were used in the school system, I think the same thing would happen with schools. You'd get certain schools that are really good at physics, but poor at theatre, etc. So if a parent and child are trying to decide which school to go to, they might have to start choosing career paths in 8th or 9th grade! In my opinion, that's a shame because no kid knows at that age what they really want to be. In the same way, with a voucher system you're going to end up with the same kinds of kids going to the same schools because people naturally stick to what they're familiar with. If you take an extreme case, 15 years down the road there might be a nice school for rich kids that want to be doctors, and a poor school for Hispanic kids that is a lot more like a vocational school. I kind of like the heterogeneity in the public school system where they just take in a big geographic area and everyone gets thrown together for a while. And they all get essentially the same education as well.

"Anyway, those are just some things I was thinking of. You probably didn't want a response this long, but too bad! Overall, I think that vouchers can be a good thing, but they need to be set up in a way that (a) improves teacher quality and (b) forces all schools to maintain a high standard in all subjects. If they work out that way, then they're definitely better than the current system."

My only response is that I believe that vouchers will allow parents to search out the best teachers. Therefore, if the parents believe that higher quality teachers can be found in a private or charter school, they might actually be financially able to act upon those beliefs. Does anybody else have any thoughts?


Sabrina said...

Oh Tyler. I was going to go to bed early last night, but Brett and I ended up staying up until 1 because we had a discussion that was started from your blog post. We have actually discussed vouchers before and I think we're a house divided on the issue, but it is an issue in which I have particular interest. My mom is a teacher, so I have been raised to be concerned about politics regarding education.

In any case, my opinion is that most likely my children would probably benefit from a voucher program. Based on our projected income once Brett graduates and the approximate number of children we plan to have, we would have enough to provide for our children, but should we find it important to send our children to private schools in order to get them a quality education, it would probably be too much. Given some extra money from the government, we would probably be able to make some sacrifices to give our children that option. I think a lot of people are in that boat, even some on the lower end of the economic scale.

That being said, I don't support vouchers because I am too concerned about those kids whose parents don't care enough to seek out opportunities for their children, or are maybe to ignorant (possibly don't speak English well, etc) to take advantage of these programs. I could see a lot of parents pulling their children out of public school and those that are left are those with learning and behavior disorders, and the kids whose parents don't care. Can you imagine being a child with normal or above-average abilities being in a class full of ADD and Autistic children, and children who were raised by ignorant parents that haven't taught them to behave? These are the kids that the private schools wouldn't accept into their schools and they are left in the public school system. It's not fair to those kids whose parents don't care enough to do something to help them excel. The schools would get polarized, maybe not to complete extremes, but the public schools would become a place where all the kids who couldn't get accepted into private schools and whose parents don't care or still can't afford private schools, even with the vouchers would be.

It really does happen. I saw that first hand in Puerto Rico. They don't have vouchers, but all the middle and upper class put their children in private schools because the public schools are rampant with behavior problems, drugs, etc. Way worse than here. Parents who care make whatever sacrifice they can to keep their kids out of public schools.

Anyway, I can supplement my children's education at home if they aren't getting enough at school and I can sleep well at night knowing that those kids whose parents aren't helping them on the side are at least in schools where there is some hope they can rise above their current situation, where there are children from many demographic backgrounds, where the education isn't stellar, but it's adequate.

Sorry for the novel. I feel strongly about this and could go on, but I'll spare you. It's funny that I even care. We will more likely than not not even raise our children in Utah ;)

tysqui said...

Sabrina, thanks for your input. I think that you really pointed out the voucher system's greatest weakness. I don't foresee ourselves ever using the vouchers, because, like you said, we will gladly supplement our children's education with teaching from home. There are certainly valid and strong arguments on both sides of this issue.

Rummage said...

What's wrong with Mr. Spencer?

Trever & Heather said...

I'm literally in the middle of this debate. I'm a graphic designer for the company that has been designing most of the materials for PCE (Parents for Choice in Education) who is trying to pass Referendum 1 (or FOR vouchers), so I've heard both sides of everything and I honestly cannot see anything bad coming out of this bill.

It's been very suprising to see the passionate reaction from people concerning this issue. I could go on for pages about why I think vouchers are a good thing for Utah but I'll just sum it up in a couple of points.

- I'm planning on sending Ava to a public school when she gets that age- but, I like the idea of having the option to send her to a private school if that will be in her best interest. Trever and I will likely never be wealthy, the vouchers will give us the option.

- Representatives from my company have attended a few rallies for PCE when the bill was being passed. I would say that 80% of the people at those rallies were from minority groups or had children with disabilities, not the "rich" white families. I'm all for helping these kids whenever possible.

- The materials for the "Vote Against" campaign don't attempt to educate about why vouchers are bad and really don't say anything other than the bill is "full of flaws", "it's an experiment", or "it will hurt Utah families." Sorry, but I need to know WHY it's bad and I want to be educated so I know which side to support. The bill is an experiment- but I like that because it's set up to be adjusted if it doesn't work well. WHY will it hurt my family? WHERE is it full of flaws? I just don't like propoganda that attempts to scare people into voting one way or another, it makes me suspicious that there aren't good reasons to not pass vouchers.

I didn't intend to make this this long, so anyway, here's a video that was put out a bit ago educating about why vouchers can be good. Watch it if you want...

Clark said...

I find that as time goes on, I'm leaning more and more in favor of the vouchers. I personally don't think that students will be leaving public schools in droves. It's not like private schools could handle an influx of thousands of students anyway. So changes will be slow and small, which is a good thing. Effects will be minimal, and that will limit some possible consequences that concern Sabrina. (Do autistic children attend classes with normal students?)

A quick Google finds that Mount Vernon Academy with it's 136 students is the 7th largest private school in SL County which teaches grades 9-12. These schools account for somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 high school students. Jordan School district serves over 80,000 students. Assuming 1/3 of these to be high school students, gives 25,000 high school students in the south end of the SL Valley. If Jordan District covers 1/2 of the valley, that makes about 50,000 public high school students. It is quite impossible for more than about 1 or 2% of these students to head off to private schools any time in the near future. Unless all private schools are waiting to unveil huge expansions they've built banking on this voucher system and an influx of students. The way I see it, any detriment from mass vacation of the public system would be decades down the road, certainly far enough out to do something about it, if it becomes a problem.

tysqui said...

Clark, you make a great point - looking at this issue from a more analytical point of view.

Sabrina said...

Many autistic kids do attend public schools. My mom has taught a few and says it's hard to give them the attention they need and keep up the rest of the class on a different pace.

That being said, I agree that the change will be gradual, but if that change eventually leads to more private schools possibly springing up because there is a larger market (again, happened in PR), the gradual change could be for the worst.

I guess I am just a liberal on this one. I'd rather the majority get at least something rather than those falling through the cracks whose parents don't bother doing anything to help them out. It may be an unreasonable fear, but I can't get passed it.

Funny thing you'd mention Mount Vernon Academy, Clark. That's where my brother went to high school his senior year. It was the best thing that could have happened to him. He needed more personal attention than a public school could offer to him and it gave him the self confidence he needed to feel successful. He's now kicking butt at BYU in pretty much every class he takes and it's looking like dental school is a real possibility for him. That being said, I still don't believe in vouchers. My mom already had a choice and made sacrifices to send my brother to private school. The government needs to stop giving so much money to private enterprise (my other beef with the bill, although less of one).

Sabrina said...

P.S. I do know how to spell past ;)