The child, not the school

The Indiana vouchers program I posted about earlier, significant on its own, also partakes of a trend. The New York Times gets it:

A growing number of lawmakers across the country are taking steps to redefine public education, shifting the debate from the classroom to the pocketbook. Instead of simply financing a traditional system of neighborhood schools, legislators and some governors are headed toward funneling public money directly to families, who would be free to choose the kind of schooling they believe is best for their children, be it public, charter, private, religious, online or at home.

In particular, the Times is right that what is sought here is redefinition. Once states established and supported institutions – public schools – that parents could take or leave, so long as they educated their children somehow. The new paradigm has states instead provide a quantum of funding earmarked for each child, that parents can deploy at any educational institution of their choosing. The fact that the aid attaches to the child and follows her to her family’s chosen school is much more important than the various labels ascribed to the funding and/or the institutional provider – public, private, charter, voucher.

As people learn to function within, and get used to, this new paradigm, they will stop thinking of educational politics as the way to create good public schools, and start thinking of it in terms of how big the aid pie is and how it gets divided up. Whether a school is public or private, online or bricks-and-mortar, religious or not – these stop being political questions and start being questions that markets will resolve through supply and demand.

Advocates for traditional public schools are fighting this shift hard. They have won some tactical battles. For instance, they have convinced charter school advocates to adopt a self-understanding of their schools as public schools rather than private ones, notwithstanding that the charter idea and the voucher idea are at root very similar:  schools started by private parties, subject to (relatively) minimal regulations, and dependent for survival on public monies that they receive if and only to the extent that they can convince parents to elect to enroll their children.  But such concessions will not, and need not, last. Once parents understand that they, and not any given school system, are the recipients of aid, whether a school is publicly or privately run becomes just one more element in the vector of characteristics that schools competing in the marketplace present to consumers for their consideration.

Particularly interesting is the Times’ inclusion of  “online or at home” among the contingent features of schools about which state aid to families might be indifferent. Online schooling can be a pastiche. It need not be a single school but can be a collage of courses and activities culled from various sources. Once this method of assembling an education takes root – it is easiest to see how this might happen at the secondary level – then the idea of aiding schools and not schoolchildren stops making any sense at all. That will be the point where the paradigm shift becomes irreversible.

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8 Responses

  1. PrometheeFeu says:

    This is very exciting. As someone who benefited enormously from being able to select the school I went to, I am excited for those who may get the same benefit I got.

  2. Joe says:

    “Being able to select” here means having the fiscal ability to do so with the help of public money. Public education has various benefits that warrant specific public funding.

    This should not mean (see Meyer and Pierce) parents lack the power to educate their children in other ways. But, the right to send you child to Catholic school, e.g, is not the same thing as public money being applied to it. Madison, e.g., thought this a basic violation of conscience. At the very least, all schools are not created equal. The republican values promoted at public schools warrant special protection.

    If money comes from the public, yes, they are not purely “private,” and it is not just some sort of nifty wordplay that public school advocates have “convinced” people of. I am gung ho that the principle if applied is applied across the board. Such as money spent on health dollars with egregious limitations based on selective morality/religious beliefs of some members of the public.

    I think the issue of vouchers are tricky so am open to debate on the topic. But, “public” money is public and religious schools particularly might not want to accept what that means. For instance, contraceptive mandate policies deem grave threats to conscience might reasonably arise from accepting “public monies” that at the very least have a string of equal access to non-believers and leaving to them the choice to spend health monies they themselves paid for. Don’t like it? Become purely private and survive on private money. Many do manage.

  3. Joe says:

    ETA: “The principle” here being choice of use of “public monies” pursuant to private choice. Thus, if a parent can use such money for a religious or parochial school, even if the views there upset or appall a majority of the population, the parent should be able to use public health dollars for contraceptive or abortion services as might be necessary for their health needs.

  4. Justin says:

    This trend, if real, seems consistent with a broader societal shift toward disdain for expertise, particularly education-derived expertise. If education is a field that one could _study_ and thereby acquire _expertise_ superior to that of the unlettered, then leaving lay parents to the libertarian fantasy of selecting all of the details of their children’s education program is a poor allocation of decision-making. Encouraging parents to believe that they are just as qualified as school superintendents or other trained educators to evaluate and select a curriculum, school, or program undermines the core principle of education, which is that knowing more about something is better than knowing less. And, of course, decoupling public support for education from public schools simultaneously removes any educational decisionmaker who might be incentivized to promote the public good (like citizenship) over the narrow private interests that drive parents seeking what is best for their own kids.

  5. Osamudia James says:

    I echo Justin’s sentiments, especially in light of the extent to which parents consciously and unconsciously use problematic heuristics, i.e. class or race, to assess “quality.” My recent project on school choice–of which I consider vouchers to be a part–argues that school choice, no matter how well intentioned, ultimately masks race and class subordination, while abdicating the democratic values that should inform our public school system. In its place, school choice champions values like privacy, competition, and independence–none of which should dominate a public education system or public education reform.

  6. Aaron Saiger says:

    The comments posted so far are perspicacious and encapsulate many important features of the choice debate. In particular they demonstrate the political usages of the word “public” that I mention in my post.

    I think Joe is right to suggest that “public” and “private” don’t have stand-alone, agreed-upon meanings in this context: if a private party directs public funds to the purchase of a privately-provided good in publicly-regulated marketplace, what you have is a public/private hybrid. I would therefore push back when Justin and Prof. James use terms like “public education system” or “public good” as if they have a single, agreed-upon meaning.

    To Justin, many people, and not just libertarians or market-maximalists, would say that welfare maximization is more than giving in to “narrow private interests”: it is itself a public good. There is broad consensus in the US that having the government regulate the economy so as to allow welfare maximization is highly desirable with respect to many consumer goods. The important question is, why are schools different?

    Professor James is helpful when she says flat-out that “values like privacy, competition, and independence” have no place in schooling and are inimical to “democratic values.” (Her recent paper adds “liberty” to this list.) I would ask her: do you agree that this is a proposition about which reasonable people can disagree? I, for one, think liberty is a democratic value. The trend in the legislatures suggests that Prof. James’ vision of the good is not unanimously held. I feel more comfortable with her thinking that choice is bad policy than with her thinking that it is undemocratic. But perhaps we are just using the word “democracy” in two different ways and she really only means that these are not the values that she would argue should be paramount in education.

    I also want to react to Justin’s claim that aiding children rather than schools denigrates expertise. I think there is no question that choice opposes the deference to expertise characteristic of Progressivism in general and Progressive schooling in particular. But I would say a few things. First, some markets are quite good at signaling expertise to nonexperts. Think of how a person with good health insurance picks her oncologist. Second, educational “expertise” is very far from apolitical. As Mill and Dewey and many others insist, education is ineluctably political and is supposed to be political. So people’s opinions about education are and should be political. Moreover, educational expertise, as now produced in the education schools in this country, is not particularly diverse politically. This undoubtedly contributes to its denigration.

    Finally, my reading of the literature suggests that there is less “expertise” about how to educate children than expert educators would have us believe.

  7. Osamudia James says:

    I do agree that those are not the values that should be paramount in education, although they might conceivably play a more limited role. I am also, however, pushing back on our understanding of democracy, especially as it applies to public education. That is, democracy is not simply looking for a majority in decision-making. It is not merely being guaranteed that your preferences will be vindicated should you have a majority. Rather, it is an understanding that some of us are sometimes asked to agree to policies that we do not prefer, policies that might even disadvantage us–or at least minimize an advantage–for the sake of the whole; for the sake of the demos. I argue in the paper–spoiler alert!–that school choice should be limited, or even completely eliminated through compulsory universal education for everyone, for the sake of our larger democracy.

    As for the values I argue are incompatible with public education, I’ll briefly address privacy and liberty. I am not suggesting that privacy or liberty is completely unimportant, but rather that neither are problematically limited in policies that limit school choice. I don’t agree, for example, that your liberty to inculcate religious values in your child is significantly burdened by requiring all students to attend public schools. I similarly do not believe that family intimacy or privacy is significantly disrupted when parents or guardians are asked to enroll their children in public schools. What is burdened, however, is the liberty to pull your child out of the (traditional) public school system in order to secure social, political, and economic advantage, while contributing to the disadvantage of those left behind. Given my description of democracy above, I’m okay with burdening that type of liberty, and also okay with characterizing its advancement in school choice as undemocratic.

    Although I appreciate PrometheeFeu’s excitement regarding “choice,” I ultimately believe it’s a fiction (especially for marginalized communities), much the way “choice” is used to rationalize the constraints that push women out of the workplace. Given false choice, and the ways in which school choice undermines both equality and democracy, I am highly resistant to the movement.

    I will agree with Professor Saiger, however, that reasonable minds may indeed differ on these issues.

  8. Brett Bellmore says:

    ” If education is a field that one could _study_ and thereby acquire _expertise_ superior to that of the unlettered, ”

    The relevant question is not whether it’s *possible* to acquire such expertise, but whether it really happens in practice, reliably, and whether the experts so produced have the discipline to not abuse their positions in a variety of ways. Several waves of fads in the teaching of math and reading have soured me on the first proposition, and reading of children being disciplined for chewing toaster strudels into the shape of guns have made me doubtful of the second.

    The theoretical possibility that somebody else may actually know better isn’t really a good justification to give up your own autonomy, especially when there’s reason to doubt that practice conforms to theory.