What’s wrong with school choice?

Columnist Dan Carpenter answers the question in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star: Vouchers, charter schools, parent trigger laws and the like “send a counter-educational message that one doesn’t have to work to improve a school; just go buy a new one.”

Another way to put it is this: Education isn’t a commodity. It’s not a product that you shop for and buy, after doing a little research on Consumer Reports. Education is, for students, parents and the public, a transaction: What you get out of it is related to what you put into it.

School choice means parents don’t have a real do-or-die stake in their children’s schools, or the public school systems that the schools are part of. If they don’t like the way the school is being run, if they’re unhappy with a teacher or a textbook, they can go elsewhere. The grass is greener … somewhere.

More importantly, they don’t have a stake in the schools attended by their neighbors’ children – or by the kids from across town. If everyone can opt out, if everyone is encouraged to shop around for a better deal, then no parent or citizen has to do the hard, demanding work of making sure the public schools do what’s best for all students.

Caleb Mills, regarded as the father of public education in Indiana, said as much more than 160 years ago. In one of his annual letters to the state legislature, he explained why he advocated “common schools” – a system of public schools that were free and open to all – over the religious academies that competed for students and money in the early 1800s. Mills wrote:

“Sectarian zeal in this department of education is entirely misplaced. It may have its appropriate sphere, but it is downright intrusion when it crosses the threshold of the public school. I have my own religious views and ecclesiastical preferences, but I should regard it as a sad dereliction of Christian duty to withdraw my influence and countenance from those public institutions, which, properly conducted, would prove blessings of untold worth to the rising generation, for the mere purpose of educating my children with the elite of rank or morals. Let every pious man and good citizen give his countenance, patronage and influence to the enterprise of elevating common schools to the highest point of improvement, and then they will be good enough for every one and prove rich blessings to all.”

Mills, one of the first faculty members at Wabash College, was probably the most important influence on the education language in the Indiana Constitution, including its requirement of a “general and uniform system of Common Schools” and its ban on using state money to support religious institutions.

But now Indiana has created a voucher program that’s providing state money for more than 9,000 students to attend private schools, nearly all of them religious schools. And Republican legislative leaders want to expand the program. It is what Mills called it: A sad dereliction of Christian duty.

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23 thoughts on “What’s wrong with school choice?

    • Actually, Kelly, I’ve argued that no one should! But apparently the Supreme Court wouldn’t think that’s a good idea. I’ve also endorsed public school choice as a strategy for reducing socio-economic segregation. I just don’t think the free-market competition model will do a very good job of leveling the playing field, no matter how many vouchers we hand out or how many charter schools we create. It would take pretty clear evidence to persuade me otherwise, and I haven’t seen any.

      I certainly wouldn’t second-guess any parent’s decision on where to send a child to school. And I don’t object if people send their children to religious schools, even the ones that teach that evolution is a myth and climate change is a lie and liberals are no different from Communists. But I just don’t think my tax dollars should be paying for it. I’d rather pay taxes to create excellent public schools, whatever that takes.

  1. Let’s add one more observation.

    Vouchers, on the whole, do not improve student achievement like we were guaranteed they would.

    Now proponents of vouchers say that raising student achievement was never the original intent of vouchers (moving the goalposts?).

    The new rationale is all about the sanctity of personal choice and freedom. Right.

    It was always about replacing the public model with a free market model.

    And it still is.

  2. You people must be IPS teachers because my wife and I love the charter school system. I have one stepson that attends and he loves it. My other stepson and my three children all attend public schools and we all hate it. IPS teachers care only about their salaries and benefits. The charter school teachers are more interactive not only with students but we get calls all the time from them. I prefer a teacher that would call me not just when the child is being disruptive but when they are praising them also. They also have mandatory tutoring if the child is struggling. They are cheaper to operate because they don’t have unions demanding more money all the time for terrible results and then telling the public its the parents fault. We hear from the charter school teachers at least twice a week good or bad. I have never heard from anyone from IPS or Perry Township except an automatic message that everyone gets. You can call it what you want but that is not interacting. And don’t give me that balony that public schools are to overwhelmed to do so they simply choose not to out of pure laziness and lack of caring. Has it ever occurred to any of you to change your teaching strategies because its obvious your tactics are not working. But then again neither are any of you.

    • Maybe if you included more bran in your diet, you’d be less grumpy.

      By the way, we were talking about vouchers not charters.

      Try to stay on topic.

      • it says vouchers and charter thats what im talking about you ips teachers stick to your liberal values and lie in your commentary. vouchers and charter schools were a republican idea try again socialist

    • And furthermore.

      The original idea of charter schools was first suggested by Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a dreaded union! This was nearly twenty-five years ago

      Shanker envisioned charters as schools where at-risk youth could get special attention and different teaching methodologies could be employed and evaluated.

      There are charter schools in the US that have existed for over fifteen years. Most of these charters are public schools with public school teachers. Some are even unionized-the horror!

      Charters generally employ less experienced teachers and have a much higher turnover rate. Charter teachers, on average, are paid less, work longer hours without compensation, have weaker benefits packages, and little access to due process.

      (How sustainable is this? How will questionable working conditions improve long-term teacher performance and morale?)

      Most teachers support charters as long as they do not siphon money form other public schools and are held to the same high standards of accountability.

      Nationally, studies show that charters perform about as well as traditional public schools. Some do better; some do worse. Indiana charters do OK, but there’s not that many of them so the sample is pretty small.

      And anybody who has a serious interest in improving education should support competitive salaries, benefits, and working conditions for teachers. That’s how you keep good teachers.

      If unions help maintain these, more power to them.

      • you have no accountability what are you talking about? And why shouldn’t they siphon some of the money if they are taking some of the kids? You also proved my point about wages and benefits and your obsession with. And why shouldn’t a teacher be let go if they can’t produce positive results? If you were an effective teacher you wouldn’t have to worry about your pay.

    • William, thanks for commenting. I’m glad your stepson is having a good experience at a charter school. For the record, I’m not a teacher and I have no connection to IPS. Other than that, I pretty much agree with what inteach says. Except maybe about the bran … I’m no expert on that, but it sounds right.

      • Steve i appreciate your comment but no bureaucrat should make that decision for the parents especially if the parents are providing transportation for their own children. Just because a person is poorly educated doesn’t mean they are poorer judges.

  3. Steve–my comment was directed at Dan Carpenter and his hypocracy. Dan rails against charter schools and other reform measures that might improve public schools and/or provide more options for families when he did not even send his own children to school in IPS.

    I did stay in the city and I kept my kids in IPS where, for the most part, they received an excellent education. But it was no walk in the park and I saw the dysfunction up close–as a parent and as an elected board member. I fought the good fight for years while people like Dan opted out. In his case he stayed in the city but sent his kids to private schools. Even more families don’t stay in the city; they move, leaving the kids in IPS more and more racially and socioeconomically isolated, and leaving too many kids trapped in schools that are not meeting their needs.

    I agree that the free market alone will not fix our schools and I am not a fan of vouchers, but the idea that we should force mostly poor, mostly minority families to stay in public schools that are failing their children is wrong.

    • Dan’s a good Catholic, isn’t he? Maybe I’m assuming too much, but I’d let people choose their kids’ schools for religious reasons and still sound off about public education. I do agree with you that poor families shouldn’t be stuck in schools that fail their children. As a citizen, my answer to that is: Fix the schools! I understand that, if I’m that parent, I may want a quicker solution. But from a distance, I can’t tell that charter schools are necessarily less likely to fail children.

      I’m curious about your thoughts — offline, when you have a chance — regarding what can and should happen with IPS now that there’s a new board and there will be a new superintendent.

      • I don’t buy the religious argument. I’m Episcopalian and I didn’t send my kids to St. Richards. I also know many, many good Catholics whose children attend or attended public schools in IPS and elsewhere. I also know many, many non-Catholics who opted out by sending their kids to Catholic school.

        I agree we need to fix the schools, but everything Dan and others are proposing has been tried and has failed, primarily because the IPS district structure is broken. Until it redesigned to better meet the needs to schools and those in them (school leaders, teachers, kids, parents), we will be having this same conversation in another 20 years.

        Are you ever in Indy? Maybe we can meet for coffee sometime.

      • I’d love to meet for coffee. Unfortunately I don’t get to Indy often – will get in touch if I do (hopefully sometime before the Indians open). I’m Episcopalian too and I would never dream of sending a child to St. Richard’s (even if I could even imagine being able to afford the tuition!).

    • It’s not the school that is failing the children. It’s a high concentration of at-risk and poor children in one school (or one district).

      I taught at IPS. There were great teachers there. But we had to deal with chronic absenteeism, fights in the hallways, hungry kids, dysfunctional homes, and no parental support. Since our kids didn’t test well, we were a “bad” school, despite the fact we were all working hard in a high stress environment.

      Now I teach at a suburban school ( I was laid off at IPS). The teachers here are great but no better than at my former school. But, amazingly, now I teach at a high-performing school, and we are all geniuses.

      It’s not the school; it’s the demographics.

      • I totally agree, based on what research I’ve read. Two thoughts:

        1) There’s just enough variation in performance among schools — enough high-poverty schools where students seem to do reasonably well, at least some of the time — that it’s tempting to think, if we just get things right, poverty shouldn’t matter. “Fixing” poverty seems like an impossible task. But is it really any harder than “fixing” schools without addressing poverty?

        2) What is the answer to the current extreme concentration of at-risk and poor children? My suggestion would be some kind of deliberative program of socio-economic desegregation, a la Raleigh, LaCrosse and Louisville. But most communities don’t seem to have the appetite for that.

      • thats right blame it on the kids and the parents. i’m pretty sure i predicted you would say that 6 days ago

  4. There may be some high poverty schools that perform better than others, but it’s nearly impossible to determine why.

    Is it a more motivated student population, a more effective staff, good leadership, better curriculum, drilling for the test we judge performance by, or a combination of these factors?

    The big question is, if we can improve performance in high poverty school, is it scalable and long-lasting? My hunch is that these schools are anomalies.

    What is the answer to the current extreme concentration of at-risk and poor children?

    Start with equitable (re)distribution of wealth and resources…?

  5. Pingback: Voucher decision sad but no surprise | School Matters

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