Taking Education on Faith

In an ironic twist, erstwhile Republican Governor (but really presidential candidate) Scott Walker wants to create a new entitlement program.  Yes, you read that right.  He is proposing that every low income family who chooses to send their kids to private schools should have the cost paid by the state.   Technically this entitlement program is “cost neutral” because the state is taking per pupil support that would have been paid to the public schools and sending it to the private schools.

There is certainly an argument to be made that it isn’t really a new entitlement program.  Children are already entitled to a state provided education, so this merely changes the provider, proponents would argue.  I would argue otherwise.

For example, currently Medicaid provides medical to low income families by allowing them to go to certain providers and have those bills paid.  Even the most ardent free market advocate would never argue for simply giving Medicaid the money directly and allowing them to spend the money on whatever they thought would be “best for their health.”  We would certainly want more accountability than that.

But that is basically what is happening with school voucher money in Wisconsin.  Public money is going to private schools with no accountability whatsoever.  Unfortunately, this article is from 2011, so I don’t know when this happened, but it certainly in line with what has been found in other studies of private schools:

Under pressure, voucher schools were required to administer standardized tests. The results were not released publicly but to a group of academics in Arkansas. When those academics released their reports, the voucher schools did no better than MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools].  What’s more, the reports became unreliable because more than half the students had dropped out of the voucher schools before final results could be tabulated.

The solution to that is simply to allow private schools off the hook for state testing mandates.  Actually pretty much all state educational mandates, especially those for special education.  In the same way that the bible supposedly proves itself infallible by internal evidence, in the same way voucher programs show that the private schools receiving them are unaccountable.

It’s very simple, if the private schools were going to be held accountable to taxpayers in the way public schools are, there is no way in hell they would take voucher money, pure and simple.

Schools are governed by publicly elected school boards (sometimes to our chagrin).  So, if public money goes to private schools, shouldn’t we get representatives on their governing boards?  In proportion to the amount of money we put in. Isn’t that taxation without representation if they don’t?  Why should private schools be exempt from the kinds of “report cards” which are issued for public schools.

If they take public money why don’t they have to take all students?  Including special ed students.  Public schools have to take all comers, if private schools take our money, their doors should be open to all as well.  Also, what is to stop the private schools from simply raising their tuitions the amount of the voucher?

As things currently stand there is no evidence that private schools use better educational methods than public schools.  None whatsoever.  To the extent that private schools seem to turn out better students (which I will also argue is more perception than reality) is because they start out with better students.   I can assure you that if you go to most private schools you won’t see any radical educational ideas.  Kids sitting in rows with textbooks, with a teacher in front lecturing.  Probably a teacher who would rather be making more money teaching in a public school.

And those schools that do follow radical educational ideas (Waldorf or Montessori schools, for example) are conservative nightmares.  No grades!  No subjects! Just working on projects?  How can anyone learn like that?  I will admit I sent my kids to a Montessori charter school because I like the philosophy, with absolutely no evidence that it actually works better than other types of schooling.  I think most people send their kids to private schools for the same kinds of reasons, including some that might not be so admirable.

Voucher proponents are of two types.  Those who already send their kids to private schools and want help paying tuition.  Perfectly logical.  The other type are folks who believe that private schools are full of today’s equivalent of ruler wielding nuns who can whip even the most unformed child into shape, a la “Lean on Me.”  To mix metaphors slightly.  These kinds of things pop up in real life from time to time, but mostly they are faith based myths.

Finally there is the unspoken assumption that really what these kids need is religion.  That somehow exposure to “biblical principles” is going to make them better students.  First of all, statistically speaking, most kids come from “Christian” homes, so there is nothing new for them at religious schools.  Secondly, as I pointed out earlier, religion doesn’t seem to have anything useful to say about raising kids that we don’t already know and/or often makes things worse.

If private schools want public money, they should be liable to being held accountable to the public as well.  When that happens, the voucher movement will be dead as the dodo.


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