Saturday, November 19, 2005

Charter Schools, Vouchers and Privatization

I'm a big fan of the theory behind charter schools and vouchers because they give a choice to consumers (parents, kids, and even teachers) and cause money to flow to the schools that are getting results. This is exactly how our college system works in the US, and there's no reason why it can't work for elementary and secondary schools as well.

Would I be even happier if all schools were private? Maybe, but we need to ensure that everyone has access to a good education regardless of their ability to pay. There's no way to do that except to figure out a way to get money from the wealthy to subsidize the education of the poor.

The typical way of achieving this is to collect taxes and then let government entities make the decisions how to redistribute the money to public schools. The problem is that the people who make the decisions about how to distribute and use the money are politicians and bureaucrats who rarely demonstrate the ability to perform this function well. The charter school fiasco is an example. Once the vultures of our society learned that money was being handed out without adequate controls, all kinds of unqualified folks opened up charter schools to make a fast buck. The money was wasted and the kids got nothing.

Again, the college system provides a model. My eldest attended a private school here in Ohio. It was expensive, and our financial condition was such that we could not qualify for any financial aid. But this school is also known for giving generous scholarships to promising kids, which no doubt contributes to the excellence of the school. I’ve always joked that when you paid full tuition to a good private college, you are paying for both your own kid and one on scholarship. But I think it’s the truth, and it’s also okay with me.

The youngest considered Northwestern before choosing the Honors Program at Ohio State. One of things that really impressed me about Northwestern was that they said they select the students they want first (which is based on much more than academics), then figured out the funding. The student who gave us the campus tour said she came from the ghettos of Chicago, but was attending Northwestern for free. That’s the way it should be done.

For K-12, it would be a daunting task to go through same kind of admissions process used by colleges. That’s where vouchers come in. Every kid gets a voucher that’s worth say $10,000 per year, and can spend it at any accredited school. Each school can decide how to allocate that money to buildings, equipment, staff, books, extracurricular activities, and so on. Some may choose not to have sports, and put all the money into PhD level teachers in math and science. Others may focus on what we today call ‘vocational education.’ Others may have an athletic orientation, but not as a taxpayer-funded all-day playground. The athletics would have to be tied to a rigorous academic program.

A voucher could not just automatically be redeemed for cash. I propose that the number of vouchers which get redeemed is tied to performance on standardized tests. For example, if you have 500 kids in a school, but only 450 pass the tests, the school can only redeem 450 vouchers. You have trust that the test are valid measures of academic achievement, but we have already crossed that bridge. With this approach, bad schools are rapidly starved out, even if the parents don’t care, as is sometimes the case.

For parents who are really concerned about their kids’ education, the voucher system allows them to select schools which provide the education and environment they want for their kids, regardless of the family’s financial status. For the parents who don’t care, the tie of the voucher reimbursement to test scores keeps the parents’ ambivalence from letting bad schools carry on anyway.

Okay, so here’s the more radical component of vouchers: I believe that the public school system should be disbanded and converted to a 100% private system. A school corporation must be accredited and chartered by the state to be able to redeem vouchers, but the management of such a school is selected by a Board of Directors, and the Board of Directors is elected by those who turn in vouchers to attend the school. Each school corporation determines it own compensation program for staff, including the school calendar, salaries and benefits. Teachers are free to form unions, and school corporations are free to decide whether they will be union shops.

Some school corporations will specialize in K-6 perhaps, running just one building or hundreds of buildings across the state. Other school corporations will do K-12, but only in one community. There might even be school corporations that run only 9-12 schools that specialize in music and the arts. The combinations are endless. Larger school corporations might use their economies of scale to enable academic programs which smaller corporations just cannot afford. As an example of what I mean, as a computer science major I attended Ohio State in the 1970s because they had one of the largest academic computer complexes in the country, something a little school like my eldest’s private college could never afford. However, she studied music education, which doesn’t require a big capital budget. It was much more important for her to have access to well-respected faculty and to get to go on performance tours.

It could work. But it means wrestling power away from the politicians. And that takes an involved and informed public (whoops, slipped into another rant).


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