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Thursday, October 4, 2007
Vouchers and the Public Schools

Here is the best explanation I can give of what may seem a contradictory fact: It is my commitment to and my belief in public schools which moves me to advocate school vouchers.

A Necessary Bit of Biography

I am a product of the public schools of Boulder, Colorado, and rural Idaho. In 1983 I graduated from Snake River High School in southeast Idaho with about 100 of my classmates.

Overall, it was an excellent experience. My high school was small enough that I could play on the basketball team if I worked really hard, despite having no abundance of talent. I was in the band, the chamber choir, and a school musical or two. I had to take calculus on my own through BYU Independent Study, because math didn't go that far at my school, but that was manageable. A happy coincidence placed me in a Russian language class as a high school senior. (Reportedly, the only Russian class being taught at any level in the state of Idaho that year was in a small rural district in southeast Idaho.) That class was the beginning of some remarkable things.

During my junior year, some experts came to study our advanced classes. The question on the table was, How much would these courses need to be upgraded to be certified as Advanced Placement (AP) courses? In the case of Mr. James O'Dell's Senior English course, the answer was that the course was harder than it needed to be for AP status. By my senior year, we had our first official AP courses. And at the end of my senior year, a state education official told me -- maybe he was just being a politician -- that my little high school might be the best academic high school in the state.

Small, public school or not, that English class was first-rate. A student who earned a "B" in that course would go off to her college freshman English classes and be hired as TA for the course after the instructor read her first paper. Modesty forbids me to describe how well the "A" students fared at university.

I went on to study under world-class teachers and scholars at two of the world's great universities. But I have never had a better or more influential teacher than James O'Dell, or a more pivotal class than his Senior English. (His Junior English the year before was superb, too.) A handful of other teachers there were in his league. Among them were a math and chemistry teacher, a band teacher, a basketball coach. They were not just excellent teachers. They were good, intelligent people. For years, Mr. O'Dell and these other stars stayed at Snake River High School, in some cases refusing attractive offers from higher education. There were plenty of other teachers willing to cater to students who preferred mediocrity.

I now have three children in three different public schools, and a fourth who will be there in three years or so. They have had some fine experiences, including academic experiences, in their schools. (Generally, this has not included math, which we have had to supplement at home.) In some important ways, my children's schools are better than mine were. Most of their teachers have been good enough. Some have been great. Some others have been decidedly inferior.

Commitment to the Public Schools

I belabor my biography to show that my belief in and commitment to the public schools is deep, long standing, and -- by any reasonable assessment -- beyond question. It rests on more than sentiment, more than personal experience. I view public education as one of the pillars of our freedom. If you don't want to take my word for it, consider Alexis de Tocqueville's expression of the need for a well-educated populace:

The federal system rests on a complicated theory which, in application, demands that the governed should use the lights of their reason every day. . . .

When one examines the Constitution of the United States, the best of all known federal constitutions, it is frightening to see how much diverse knowledge and discernment it assumes on the part of the governed. (Democracy in America, tr. George Lawrence, p. 164)

It seems to be common knowledge, outside the schools themselves and their PTAs, that the public schools are gradually failing in some important respects. Even if they weren't, education-minded parents and civic-minded citizens would be eager to improve them, for economic, political, personal, and other reasons. It should be entirely believable that I support the public schools, hope for their increasing success, and want to improve them -- and at the same time intend to vote next month for Referendum 1, ratifying school vouchers.

Perhaps some can scarcely conceive that it is possible, but my support for vouchers and other major public school reforms is rooted in my belief in and my commitment to the public schools and to public education generally. That, in turn, is rooted in my commitment to the welfare of my own and my friends' and neighbors' children and the society in which they will live out their lives. Fundamentally, it is rooted in my commitment to the basic social, political, and moral principle: human freedom.

Some of the Problems

Here are some of the more obvious problems with our nation's public schools. The establishment freely admits most of them, in one form or another; others you can get a teacher or principal to admit only off the record, in unguarded moments:

  • Like any tax-funded bureaucracy, the public schools' natural tendency is toward bloat, inefficiency, and unresponsiveness. Bureaucracies are biased toward bureaucratic growth and self-perpetuation, not toward improving production -- in this case, the teaching of children.
  • As is typical in bureaucracies, especially unionized bureaucracies, it is nearly impossible to fire a poor teacher.
  • For the most part, the teaching profession is not attracting the best and brightest -- which means, by the way, that it is poorly equipped to identify or to teach the best and brightest students. (Recent studies show that education majors as a group have a far lower average SAT score than other majors at the same university.)
  • Often, particularly good teachers leave the profession after a few years, despite loving the teaching and the students, because their tolerance for bureaucracy, internal politics, and aggressive institutional mediocrity is exhausted.
  • The good teachers who remain are sorely underpaid.
  • Teaching majors actually study a lot less of their subjects than students with ordinary majors in those subjects. (Hillsdale College is an exception.)
  • To some degree, the system is hostile to excellence, in students and in teachers.
  • "Give us more money" is the mantra of the public schools, when teacher pay, class size, or performance is at issue. Yet decades of soaring per-pupil expenditures have seen a general decline in standards and in test scores, and little if any improvement in class sizes.
  • A large percentage of college freshmen require significant remedial work in English or math.
  • Effective, time-proven methods of teaching math are actually very controversial in many districts.
  • More often than not, a note, newsletter, or flyer written by teachers or staff comes home with numerous basic errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. (This is based on my own local observation.)

For my part, I would like to see the public schools get more money, not less. But it makes no political or economic sense to pour more and more money into them in return for less and less value.

Obstacles to Solutions

Any attempt to raise teacher pay to a level appropriate to trained, experienced, and effective professionals is lunacy, as long as it is impossible to direct the funds specifically to the teachers who deserve them. In the current unionized environment, collective bargain is designed to insure that if one teacher's pay increases, every teacher's pay increases. So, perversely, teacher pay stays relatively low. Thank the unions for that. And we can't stop paying poor quality teachers altogether, so we keep paying them and hope for their eventual transfer to a different school. Thank the unions for that, too.

Moreover, any serious attempt to measure the quality or effectiveness of teachers faces bitter opposition from within the educational establishment itself. This is as convincing a symptom as I can imagine that an institution is possessed by a spirit of aggressive mediocrity. (Casual mediocrity does not try to propagate itself as aggressive mediocrity does.)

The only way to attract and retain significantly more of the best and brightest is to increase salaries substantially, so they can afford to teach, and to change the prevailing culture of mediocrity, so they can stand to teach. The only way to raise student performance substantially across the board -- and, in economic terms, to be able to afford the higher salaries -- is to start measuring performance (student progress in essential subjects) sensibly, and in a way that is tied to teachers' continued employment and their level of compensation. The only way to achieve these things -- we've tried everything else -- is to change the system. But bureaucratic systems don't change themselves.

Actually, there is another way: eliminate the system -- wait until it completely implodes -- and then replace it with a more rational system. But how many generations of students would suffer if we waited for that, and at how many trillion dollars' cost?

Competition is the Key

Instead, in principle, we force public schools to compete with private schools on as level a playing field as we can manage. This is for their own good and for ours. Vouchers are the key. In a competitive environment, for their own survival -- and they will survive -- the public schools will have to adapt. They will have to empower principals to fire poor teachers and reward excellent ones. They will have to tie funding to performance, or they won't get the performance they will need to compete with private schools which do make that connection. They will have to shift more funds to production, so to speak, and away from other purposes. They will have to be as good -- or at least almost as good -- as cheaper private schools are at teaching math, English, and other essential, measurable subjects to all sorts of students.

In such a competitive environment, teacher salaries will become competitive, too. An excellent teacher will be worth her weight in gold. School districts would be much less prone to drive away the excellent teachers at the top of the pay scale, in order to save money by hiring inexperienced teachers at the bottom of the pay scale, as we often see them do. They couldn't afford to do that. And maybe, just maybe, administrators would feel it important to be responsive to one child's parents, rather than dismissing them because they have 10,000 or 50,000 students to worry about, and therefore cannot treat any individual student as if that student were important.

Vouchers are the key. The current plan is somewhat half-baked out of political necessity, but it will be a good start. The establishment knows it, too. That's why it's such a fight.

What If . . .

What if teaching were like the other professions? What if a person who wanted to be a teacher had to get a bachelor's degree in one or two academic subjects -- not teaching -- then get a few years' experience in the world of work, then get a master's degree in teaching, in order to make a career of teaching? That's how the best MBA schools work, and their products are very good indeed. The starting salary could then reflect the value of an effective, highly trained professional, because productivity would reflect it.

How would we pay those salaries? I suspect that the increased efficiencies of a system which really had to compete would allow the increases. If the economies themselves weren't enough, do you think voters or a legislature would hesitate to provide the necessary funding to a superb school system, understanding the enormous competitive advantage of such schools, and realizing how much money is saved when Junior gets to college and doesn't need a lot of remedial work?

If the system could or would reform itself, it would have done so a trillion dollars ago, and we wouldn't be having this debate. An irresistible outside force is needed, and the only capable and cost-effective candidate is competition. The state legislature -- including my elected representative, doing a superb job of representing the will of at least this voter -- has acted to impose some competition on the public schools. The public school machine generated enough signatures on a petition to put the law to popular vote in November.

The schools are resisting for all they're worth, because they fear they cannot compete. But I think the schools themselves, and the teachers, including many of the present teachers, can compete. I think they will, if we require it of them. But we won't know one way or the other anytime soon, and we won't see the enormous benefits of that competition, if the voters don't ratify the voucher bill in November.

The public education establishment is betting that the voters aren't smart enough to understand all this, that we will bend to specious arguments about accountability and funding and to shallow protests that vouchers are bad for the children. They are betting that we're not bright or attentive enough -- we're not good enough students -- to see and understand what I've been trying to explain.

What does it say about us, if we prove them right? What does it say about them?

In a Nutshell

Vouchers, currently in the form of Referendum 1 in Utah, are good for students, parents, teachers, and schools. Vouchers are how we fix the system. They're bad for the bureaucracies and the teachers' unions, though probably not too bad even for them, in the long run. Which side most deserves your vote?

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