Spend any time exploring the world of ed reform, and the concept that gets sold to you again and again is choice. “School choice” is the term of art, within the ed reform movement, for private school vouchers.
Choice has to do a lot of work, because the evidence doesn’t. More study is absolutely necessary to evaluate the value of private school vouchers, just as more study is necessary when it comes to charter schools. But the extant evidence is not good. In fact, if you’re a champion of vouchers, it’s downright bad. Here’s recent bad news from Ohio. Here’s bad news from Milwaukee. The news from DC is, thus far, howlingly controversial; here’s some data (PDF). When it comes to DC, I personally am disturbed by the lack of quantifiable gains that aren’t educator dependent– that is, the fact that graduation rates are significantly higher but testable knowledge is not at least raises fair questions about the pressures for schools receiving vouchers to graduate students even if they have underperformed. (One of the consistent problems with school vouchers is the fact that they directly incentivize schools putting their fingers on the scale, and often with no accountability beyond the honor system.) These are just recent cases, but you can survey the available data and say with little doubt that a compelling empirical case for school vouchers doesn’t exist.
(A bit out of date but good overview on the flagging voucher movement from the Washington Monthly is here.)
Voucher proponents, in the face of this failure, have to sell hard on the idea of choice. Ross Douthat, in a typically goofy response to the repeated and public failure of school vouchers to produce better results,
changed his mind doubled down, echoing Charles Murray in saying that producing results was never the point. (Hey, who says that advocating something is the same as claiming it’s effective public policy?) It’s all about freedom, giving people choices and making them happier, even if those choices don’t actually accomplish anything. But is choice in this individualistic sense even a virtue in this case? I would submit that it’s not, and in fact that it’s directly opposed to the essential social compact that modern governance relies on.
Consider another public good: public transportation. Here you’ve got a service provided at low cost to all people that is paid for in part by tax dollars. Think about applying the school voucher model to public transportation. If people could take “their share” of the tax dollars that go towards the bus and subway and similar and apply it instead to buying their own car, would that entail choice? Sure. Would it make some people happy? Sure. And it would be a disaster in terms of good governance. It would drastically degrade the service for those who continue to use it, if the service could continue to exist at all. That individuals would have choices and be happy that they have choices is irrelevant if providing those choices hurts a public service that has been enacted through democratic process.
No one would entertain the idea of public transport vouchers. Just like no one would entertain the idea of me being able to take “my share” of defense spending and say that I’ll take care of defending myself, thanks. Government expenditure, in schools as well as in transportation and defense, is based on pooled cost and shared spending. Part of the basic logic of vouchers is founded on a phony premise: that if you subtract one student and the portion of a school’s budget that would be devoted to that student, you’re having a net zero effect on the school. That simply isn’t in keeping with the reality of how school budgets operate.
As is typical in American political discourse, voucher proponents love to focus on rights. They often talk about parent’s right to send their kids to whatever school. But of course, parents do have the right to send their children to whatever schools will have them. They just don’t have the right to use public money to do so, any more than I have the right to take public money to buy a new car. (Not that my 1998 Nissan Sentra is anything less than I dreamed it would be.) We apply voucher logic to literally no other service provided by government, and for good reason. Public services are dependent on shared access, shared costs, and shared accountability. If the public pays for a service, it has the right to run the service and the responsibility to provide oversight for it. If you don’t like that dynamic, you are essentially objecting to the very idea of taxation and democratic government.
You’ve got to understand all of this as a part of the larger conservative project: undermining all governmental and public ventures, and doing so in large part by degrading the potential for pluralism. Public education is a straightforwardly redistributive program; it’s a massive government venture; and it has been, recent concern trolling to the contrary, one of the most successful human endeavors of the last several hundred years. The rise of universal public education for all, though still not fully realized, represents one of the greatest improvements in human welfare in history. It’s no wonder that this is threatening to conservatives, particularly because teachers are heavily unionized and reliably Democratic.
Why is Michelle Rhee a rising star for conservatives? Because she’s working to undermine what has been on balance a very successful and righteous public program. I recognize that there are a lot of principle people on the left who badly want to reform schools and improve educational outcomes. But I am consistently mystified by how credulous they are about claims made by people who hate a)government programs like public education b)unions and c)Democratic constituencies. Whenever I debate a libertarian about public school reform, I always ask: in your ideal world, would public education exists at all? If they say that they would prefer a pure voucher system where public money finances nothing but private schools, I stop listening. I don’t take opinions about reforming institutions seriously when the person expressing the opinion actually wants to destroy the institution. I’m crazy like that.
I said before that I think part of the point is not merely to hurt public education in order to move towards a privatized system, but also to erode the foundations of pluralistic society. I think that’s a big part of this. Public education is, at its heart, a radical and beautiful idea. It’s not merely that everyone should have access to education, and that we should all pay for it. It’s the idea that children from across class, racial, ethnic, and other boundaries can come together and work and learn together. They don’t merely learn the knowledge and skills that school teaches them, but how to operate in a democracy where everyone is not alike. Seeing that a multicultural, pluralistic society can work– not perfectly, not without angst, not without effort– is an essential part of a civic education. And that knowledge contributes to the understanding that society is a supporter of individual flourishing, not a threat to it, and that what ultimately benefits the individual is what benefits all of us. Urban people tend to be more liberal in part because they see every day the necessity of people working together to provide for the common welfare, which often means effective government. That in part is what vouchers threaten, as they contribute to the division of children into smaller and smaller subsections where they lack the ability to meaningfully interact with others from across the broad American range of difference, and to see the necessity of shared sacrifice.
“We’re all in this together” is a fundamental liberal insight. It’s everyone’s right to send their children off to private school for whatever reason they see fit, and many do so for exclusively enlightened motives. But to say that the public is obligated to pay for it, without real accountability and absent any meaningful evidence of superior outcomes, is nuts.