I have always found the United Negro College Fund’s famous slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”, intriguing for several reasons, not the least of which is that on the surface, it appears to state an axiom. But the UNCF has it right on a deeper level too because what indeed is happening throughout American society is a waste of mental capacity on a scale that defies the use of ordinary adjectives. “Tragic” just does not do the subject justice.
It is tempting to use this space to document the tragic magnitude of our growing stupidity, but today that is not my purpose. Experts of every political persuasion have weighed in to help quantify the situation and their conclusions as to the state of things are not pretty no matter what agenda they might ultimately espouse. I will let you dig those details out if it interests you. The more important question is to ask what then shall we do?
There are a lot of proposed answers to this fundamental query, but a few ideas stand out to me as worthy of consideration. In all seriousness I must add, however, that just about anything different than what we are doing now could (and perhaps should) be tried as it is hard to imagine what it could possibly hurt. In future blog entries, assuming there is continuing reader interest in the subject of education, I may delve into any of a number of school reforms that I would like to consider, but for today I would like to discuss one of my old favorites, school vouchers.
A great deal of discussion in recent years has focused on vouchers though there has actually been very little actual implementation of voucher programs. A not too old Brookings Institution Forum on this subject can be read here if you want some decent objective background on vouchers.
I have supported vouchers since my Junior year in High School when I read Milton Friedman’s popular book, “Free to Choose”. Friedman’s work was sufficiently inspiring to me that I wrote my Senior Thesis on the subject and was lucky enough to escape my English teacher’s wrath with a decent grade. The Free Market seemed to me then to be just the fix for what was broken in public education.
I have changed a bit since then.
I still support vouchers but my rationale has shifted. In my concept of an ideal world, education would be universal, free and of the highest quality. Sadly, I have given up hope that the current scheme can be expected to attain even a mediocre quality, much less something better. I understand clearly that vouchers are not likely to be comprehensive solutions to the problems that confront education and which reach far beyond the schools to society as a whole. What remains of my idealistic notions, however, is the realization that vouchers do offer near-term hope for the most needy among us.
I have listened to the idealists tell me how disastrous an idea vouchers are for a quarter century. In those twenty-five years of glorious rhetoric and fine speeches education has changed little yet still the politicians still tell us that we must patiently fix what we have. From the “Education President” (Reagan) down to Shrub’s “No Child Left Behind” program, every Presidential candidate and administration has touted its educational agenda often and loudly. Clinton was especially eloquent on the subject.
That great sucking sound is the rushing of political hot air into children’s minds displacing the intellectual promise that once dwelled there.
At this time of my life I no longer trust the free market with the reckless abandon of my youth. I would prefer certain things, such as education, were not dictated by the market, though perhaps at times this is the best we can do. While vouchers may be a less than ideal solution, they are not in any way a choice of a lesser evil-they are a good choice. Proof of their desirability can be found in the overwhelming support shown for vouchers and charter schools among the poorest Americans. Parents are crying out for help.
Even if you are philosophically opposed to vouchers and market forces as a permanent solution, you need to examine the long term consequences of inaction and immediate benefits of giving it a try as an interim solution. Clearly, the current public system is not going to reform any time soon.
Every year that passes condemns more minds to terrible waste. It is time to quit deluding ourselves.
In order to be clear on what I am advocating, I would like to briefly describe what a voucher is and how they benefit students in both public and private schools. Vouchers are certificates issued by the government to allow parents to pay for their children to go to a school of their choice using money that would ordinarily be used to educate their child in the public school. In most voucher proposals, the voucher amount is a fraction of the annual per student expenditure for public school.
I’ll use some rough round numbers to illustrate how this would work. The national average expenditure per student per year is in the area of $8,000. The government would issue a voucher at a statutory percentage in the area of 75% resulting in a voucher amount of around $6,000. The parent would then be able to use that $6,000 for tuition payment to accredited schools. Studies have show that high percentage vouchers (60 to 80 percent) would be large enough in most areas to cover tuition at existing private schools.
There are two benefits to the voucher scheme that are not immediately obvious. The first is that new educational opportunities would emerge that target parents and students that have now have $6,000 to spend as an education consumer. The second, and perhaps most important benefit is that the public schools end up relatively better off in terms of the financial resources available per student because for every student that leaves, they leave behind $2,000 give or take depending on the exact implementation.
Typical of our dumbed down society, we never hear of these benefits because they are harder to understand than the critical sounds bites of “only the difficult students will remain” and “poor kids won’t be able to benefit”. The truth is that poor parents are the ones clamoring for the hope of vouchers and parents of low performers should be, though often their parents are part of the stupid cycle themselves.
This is not to say that the voucher criticisms are without merit. These criticisms should be fully aired in our public discourse.
Indeed, I share the same concerns. It will be difficult for poor kids to get transportation to the school of their parents choice and there probably will be a greater exodus of high performing students than low performing ones. But there are ways of addressing transportation issues if we can get it out on the table. And frankly, given the extensive tracking that is already going on in the classroom, the best students do not mix much with the low performers in any school as it is now. Unlike the status quo there is hope for those “left behind”: additional financial resources available due to vouchers can be used to increase the teacher-to-student ratio finally giving the low performing students the extra attention they need and deserve.
If you can not tell from my passionate tone, I could discuss this forever and produce a blog entry that would make for an even more effective insomnia solution than my typical offerings, so I will restrain myself. But let me return to where I started and suggest that regardless of the merits of the arguments and where we might determine to head as a long-term solution, vouchers have sufficient merit to compel their implementation NOW.
Vouchers may be flawed and imperfect, but the critics have been empty handed for the last four decades. Further patience will breed more stupidity; more dysfunctional youth; more decay in our weakened social fabric. It is time to act decisively.
Philosophical debates are wonderful. In general, I’m a chief instigator when it comes to this kind of careful deliberation, but America is drowning in stupidity before our eyes. Let us deliberate long and vigorously on this most crucial of subjects yet not forget to throw a few life preservers to the drowning.
Maybe this will buy us some time to figure out how to build a seaworthy boat.