Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Deconstructing anti-voucher arguments

This piece is typical of the anti-voucher "argument":
Vouchers and education tax subsidies do not provide "choice" since neither can guarantee parents that their children will be admitted to the school of their choice. There is also no strong evidence that these programs improve student achievement.
I would like to take this opportunity to point out a little-known fact (at least it's little-known inside of educator circles). Speaking as a parent, I would guess that probably 1/3 to 1/2 of parents in Utah provide supplemental instruction to their public school students. Whether they conduct summer school, hire tutors, or tutor the kids themselves, they are artificially inflating the public school's scores by their actions, which they undertake because they feel they are necessary to keep their kids' education up to speed. We parents put in all this work, and then the school comes along and takes credit for it. They did their spiel in front of the classroom, and magically the student learns the material, therefore what they did must have caused the learning. They don't take into account that they're not the only ones educating children.

As for the "guarantee" argument, anyone with half a brain can see that it is fallacious. Try this version on for size: "State inspections don't guarantee you won't be injured in a car accident, so why should we require safety standards on vehicles at all?" See how ludicrous that sort of "reasoning" is?
Furthermore, these programs undermine accountability, since private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools.
Ms. Weselak fails to appreciate that this is precisely the reason why voucher supporters want to send their children to private school. She argues from the assumption that public schools are held to a better standard of accountability. On what does she base this assumption? The only thing I can think of that she might base it on is the superior size, measured in shelf inches, of the volumes of rules and regulations that are imposed on public education, regulations so stifling that they make public schools entirely moribund. Private schools that accept vouchers will be accountable to the state as well as the parents. In my mind, that's twice the accountability that the public schools have.
Vouchers divert money from public schools, where 90 percent of all school-age children are enrolled, to private schools, where the public has no oversight of how those public dollars are spent.
Talk about circular reasoning! The reason 90% of school age children are enrolled in public schools is precisely because there is no choice in most areas. I'll bet her $50 that if there were a viable choice for most families, they would line up around the block for even the chance to get out of the public school system. I base my confidence in winning this bet on the fact that when Thomas Edison Charter School opened in North Logan, people did line up around the block to apply. Where's her evidence that when people have a choice, they'll choose the public schools (which to her are so "obviously" superior) in the same proportions they do now?

As for the "public" having no oversight, I think she's confusing "the public" with certain aspects of the current school regime. Last time I looked, parents of children were a very large part of "the public". Or don't we count unless we go through our designated district officials, whom we didn't elect?

Also note the "diversion of funds" argument. More on that later.
There is no strong evidence that voucher programs - whether funded directly or indirectly through education tax subsidies - improve student achievement.
Since when is lack of evidence an argument for not trying something? Did the Founding Fathers have "strong evidence" that representative democracy was a superior form of government to monarchy? How then did they justify jumping into the void and trying the untried? How, indeed, does Ms. Weselak get up in the morning and go to work as PTA National President, when there is no "strong evidence" that it is the best job in the universe for her? There has been no large-scale "clinical trial" of vouchers, hence no evidence. I challenge Ms. Weselak to show me the "strong evidence" that public schools funded directly by the taxpayers and without parental opportunities to choose the school are the optimal source of student achievement.

Not only that, but the standard for choosing vouchers shouldn't be that it improves student achievement, but that it fails to produce a decline in student achievement. If the state can find an arrangement whereby they pay a third of what they're paying now and produce the same results, on what basis (other than left-wing idealism) can you argue that the state, and by extension the Utah taxpayer, does not benefit from such an arrangement?
We hope the people of Utah continue to stand up against this poorly devised plan to take money away from our public schools. The national PTA is fully behind the Utah PTA's efforts to reverse the action of their legislature and will help in any way possible.
Not ONCE in this entire piece has Ms. Weselak mentioned the diversion of students from the public schools. This is the second time she mentions diversion of funds. This says a lot about where her priorities lie. It also says a lot about how intensely she's studied the Utah voucher law, which addresses this concern by means of a "hold-harmless" clause which guarantees non-diversion of funds from the public schools. The voucher program is separately funded.

She also completely ignores Occam's Razor, for she provides no compelling reason why even if legislators wanted to see public schools partially defunded, they wouldn't just vote for less money for education in the state budget. Why would they need a separate plan, poorly or well devised, to do that? And what evidence does she have that Utah legislators want to defund public schools? Talk about a crazy conspiracy theory!

Is that the best you can do, voucher opponents?

Anyone who's read my blog knows that all other things being equal, I'm opposed to vouchers, but that's because I favor charter schools over vouchers, not because I'm against school choice. This sort of simplistic and illogical argument is just pabulum that is being put out there in hopes that the public will go back to sleep. I know I just about fell asleep reading it, it was so full of eduspeak buzzwords that reading it produced a soothing white noise. Go back to sleep, people, all is well in the public schools. You don't need this crazy new voucher stuff.

Good luck getting the public back to sleep, Ms. Weselak.