Why not education vouchers for low-income families?

I’m voting for Barack Obama but I disagree with his opposition to school vouchers for low-income families. (I don’t blame Obama for playing it safe on education or moving to the center on other issues for the general election. The guy wants to win.) In his recent speech to the AFT, he said (prepared remarks):

Now, I’ve been a proponent of public school choice throughout my career.  I applaud AFT for your leadership in representing charter school teachers and support staff all across this country, and for even operating your own charters in New York.  Because we know well-designed public charter schools have a lot to offer, and I’ve actually helped pass legislation to expand them.  But what I do oppose is using public money for private school vouchers.  We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them.

Yesterday’s AP article describes John McCain’s reaction: McCain depicts Obama as too close to teacher’s union and against school choice for the poor.

Strib editorial writer Lori Sturdevant did a piece in late June on former state legislator and Humphrey Institute professor John Brandl titled:  The professor of policy: ‘What’s your agenda for Minnesota?’ We need more people like John Brandl answering that question.

It was 25 years ago this year that he began talking up vouchers to low-income families, to allow them to choose private as well as public schools for their children. The idea met fierce opposition and went nowhere. In the years since, the achievement gap between rich and poor children has widened.

“More than a whole generation of poor kids have been lost,” he said. “I’m struck at how horrified we are [of his voucher idea], struck to the point of wondering whether there isn’t a certain bigotry behind it. That may be too strong a word, but it shows how strongly I feel about this. We’ve got to be trying things different from what we’ve been trying for those kids.”

In a commentary for the Strib last fall titled How to give kids a proven head start; Research suggests letting families pick from publicly funded (but not necessarily government-run) options, Brandl wrote:

… the deepest source of inspiration for most people is not government but family or religion. We should consider the possibility that some such supportive cultures exist in institutions other than the public schools. For example, most (but not all) research finds that low-income blacks who attend Catholic schools graduate from high school in significantly larger numbers than do those from public schools. The Catholic schools accomplish their results at considerably lower cost. Perhaps for some children religion creates the supportive community they need.

For some children, overcoming the untoward consequences of street culture and unsupportive family life might very well be beyond the powers of government. Some people — teachers, as well as students and parents — are buoyed by government, inspired even, but very many are not.

There is an opportunity here for a grand accommodation of the political left and right. The accommodation would publicly fund early childhood education and other government programs whose benefits exceed their costs — but in ways that would leave the poor free to use those funds at nongovernmental institutions, including religious schools.

Earlier this week, NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote about the skills gap in a piece titled The Biggest Issue: America’s stagnation in educational progress threatens the country’s long-term economic and sociological prospects. He wrote:

Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.

I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists.

Interestingly, he mentions Obama’s support for early childhood education and takes a whack at John McCain:

Third, it’s worth noting that both sides of this debate exist within the Democratic Party. The G.O.P. is largely irrelevant. If you look at Barack Obama’s education proposals — especially his emphasis on early childhood — you see that they flow naturally and persuasively from this research. (It probably helps that Obama and Heckman are nearly neighbors in Chicago). McCain’s policies seem largely oblivious to these findings. There’s some vague talk about school choice, but Republicans are inept when talking about human capital policies.

44 thoughts on “Why not education vouchers for low-income families?”

  1. During my brief, miserable interlude as a Latin teacher in the Edina Public Schools, two of my most motivated (and well-behaved) students were African-American students from a poor neighborhood in Minneapolis who took advantage of open enrollment to attend middle school in Edina. Their parents were very involved and supportive and ambitious for their children, and went to extra lengths to improve their children’s educational opportunities. There’s no question that “school choice” was a good thing for those two children. But what about their former classmates in Minneapolis, children who might not have such involved parents, and who therefore might not be so motivated themselves? Do we let their public school sink around them, providing lifeboats, in the form of vouchers, to a few motivated and well-parented children? How, in other words, do we distribute the benefits of school choice (including vouchers) fairly, consistent with the democratic ideals of public education?

    The best student I have ever taught is a lifetime homeschooler who went on to receive a National Merit Scholarship. Obviously, homeschooling requires the maximum of parental involvement. Across the board, I’m convinced that parenting is one of the main keys to educational success. Smart, motivated and involved parents produce smart, motivated and involved children who generally succeed in school. What can we do for the children who don’t have such parents—the parents who homeschool, who make the effort to obtain vouchers, who provide models of motivation and love of learning?

    Even at Northfield High School we have a stratified system of AP and Advanced college prep classes for some children (most of them, I’m sure, with motivated, involved, college-educated parents) and less challenging classes for the rest. I know this is idealistic, but I do believe that as a society we should strive for justice and equality. I believe in strengthening our communities. How do we do that through vouchers? Instead of skimming off the cream from our public schools, we need to provide mentors and role models for all students. We need to foster community. We need smaller class sizes so that teachers can have real, personal, mentoring relationships with students. We need to spend less time on standardized testing and more time on teaching—on human interaction.

    I do strongly support our charter schools, and the right of parents to homeschool their children. But at the same time we need to balance individual choice with an effort to improve conditions for all students, for the community.

    (Note: I hate terms like “human capital,” as if children are simply economic units and not very complex human beings.)

  2. Taught by Dominican nuns throughout grammar and part of high school, and having attended three other schools at the beginning and end, I saw a huge difference in my Chicago schooling.

    The nuns taught facts, facts about math, science, English, Latin,Geography. There was no hemming and hawing, no popularity contests regarding teachers or favorite students, there was no coddling or hollering. Just the facts.

    I believe any private or public school educator can look to this teaching order of nuns who have been at this one thing exclusively for over 250 years, and take a clue or two, and leave all this other emotionally draining, economically taxing bickering aside. It’s not getting anyone anywhere better…voucher or no.

    What do you think the kids think when they see that none of the adults can agree on how to run a classroom? It’s the same thing when they see their parents argue and fight…why pay attention to those dum dums?, they ask.
    Teachers need to be the role models, whether or not the parents are fulfilling their proper roles by providing the very first basics and the extras.

    If you can get this part straight, all the rest will fall into place as each school will be about equal to the next…teaching facts and letting the kids get a solid foundation to work from when they are finally asked to start using their own brains.

    I realize this approach only applies to kids without super special needs or behavioral problems, but that’s about 80-90% once you break it down, and
    that is about as good as it gets. I think a lot of people are doing a good job on the special needs front as they learn more and more about these singular and difficult problems.

  3. I remember the nuns. I also remember the paddle that my second grade teacher Sister Dorothy kept hanging on the wall. Mercifully, since it was the 70’s, I never actually saw that paddle put to use.

    Interestingly, I recently attended a childhood development conference that was a mix of medical and educational participants, and I was introduced to a body of research that purportedly showed that many (but definitely not all) more traditional, structured teaching techniques consistently outperformed some more recent innovations. In particular, an emphasis on group response (as in, teacher says “Class: what is 2+2?”, and class responds “4!”) was highly supported, presumably because it demands more constant attention by each student than most other methods.

    Obviously, it was more complicated than that, and I don’t have a name on the tip of my tongue regarding the studies cited or the techniques tested. It’s on my list of things to learn more about. Suffice it to say that, paddle notwithstanding, Sister Dorothy may have gotten some things right.

  4. On the original topic, I am quite dubious about school vouchers. I haven’t needed to keep up on the subject recently, but I lived in Milwaukee when that city became a test case for private school vouchers. Mostly, what I remember was slashed budgets for public schools, and a promise that the marketplace (or parents) would sort out the good private schools from the bad. Problem was, there were no standards to assure that the private schools provided a quality education (indeed, many schools seemed to be created for the sole purpose of making a lot of money off the public dole), and there were no measures in place to see if the private schools were actually teaching anybody anything.

    Mercifully, the government finally demanded some accountability and quality assurance standards from these schools back in 2006, and I’d like to hope that the situation has gotten better since.

    Milwaukee’s lessons on school vouchers:
    http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0523/p01s03-usgn.html

    (I’d note that the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel should probably be considered a dubious source on this issue, since Journal Communications Inc was a very vocal advocate of school vouchers in the 90’s, and the paper has sometimes – on this issue and on advocacy for the building of the new Brewers ballpark, for example – shown a tendency to confuse its editorial and journalistic duties.)

  5. Much of that paddling with wooden items is more about snapping the child’s mind to attention with the SOUND of the paddling than trying to inflict pain upon a child. I saw it done a couple of times, no tears or cries of pain were noted. The palm and the butt, usual targets areas are pretty hard to hurt from a short distance application. We tried it out for ourselves, being pretty smart by fourth grade, to see what we might be in for. Try it yourself with a wooden yard stick, like our math nun used to use.

    It’s an old tradition dating back much further than the 19th century. When we used to go to the Zen Buddhist temple run by a Japanese priest, Sayu Matsuoko, In Chicago, we would spend an hour meditating after a chanting session, and if and when we felt dozy during the meditation, we would “gosho” or put our hands together in a prayer like manner and bow our heads down til the moderator came by with a yard stick like wooden implement. We would receive a whack on the upper shoulder area, right near the neck, to stimulate our over relaxed bodies and minds. It’s very loud and it really works, but it doesn’t hurt at all.

    I once opened my eyes to see one of those whacks being administered to
    another meditator and I observed that the moderator raises that stick several feet high before it comes down quickly and sharply. No nun ever took that much distance. Now I am gonna do a search and see if any nun
    was ever sued for any damage to a student.

  6. Okay, did a quick search, using several different approaches, and although I did see some about sexual abuse, nothing about punishing type of abuse,
    not that sexual abuse isn’t punishing, but ykwim, and couldn’t not find anything at all, even google kept asking me if I meant ‘non’ instead of nun.

    So, vouchers, I’ll vouch for the Catholic school. Oh, and I just remembered the times I went on job interviews and the headhunter would see the Catholic school on the list, and usually make some sort of favorable comment about it.

    The key to solving problems is to realize what is the root cause. IF the root cause is that the schools are not teaching kids how to use their brains for their own survival and adaptation into society, then you don’t move the kids around, you fix the system that is failing and you do that by eliminating everything that isn’t teaching how to use the brain, and start teaching the
    right thing to the kids.

    All that other stuff is for after school. Period. Class dismissed.

  7. I’m quite glad that paddling has gone the way of other childrearing traditions of our predecessors, including sex between men and boys (Greece), and leaving unwanted babies at the dump (Rome).

  8. Okay, I’m learning on the fly, and I’ll take back what I said about the Journal-Sentinel – partly. Sounds like they finally started doing their journalistic job on this in 2005, with an investigative series that probably had a lot to do with the 2006 reforms.

    http://www2.jsonline.com/news/choice/

  9. Rob- I think you hit the nail squarely on the head with this statement- “…I’m convinced that parenting is one of the main keys to educational success…”. Having three daughters and a daughter-in-law who are presently or have recently taught in public schools, this is the greatest obstacle they said they faced in trying to teach. So much of their time was spent disciplining the unruley kids (parenting) that insufficient time was left to really help the motivated kids excell. Two of my daughters now teach in a college, and they said the difference between college students and high schoolers is amazing. When a person is having to pay for their education, there is a much greater motivation to actually do the work required than when you are on a free ride.

    IMHO, what we are seeing happening in the public schools right now has its roots in the 70’s and after, when students suddenly had “rights”, and were allowed to continue their undisciplined lives into adulthood. I think we are seeing the fruits of this in undisciplined attitudes in present day students. And the worst part is when parents threaten both legal litigation and physical harm to teachers who don’t give their little darlings a passing grade. My daughters can attest to both these situations in their teaching carriers.

    I don’t believe vouchers are going to help with the overall performance of students any more than doubling the available money to hire more teachers will. I heard this best stated by a CW comedian years ago, in a schtick he put together on the topic, “Why can’t Johnny read?” He said the reason Johnny can’t read is because Johnny doesn’t give a rip if he can read or not. And, unfortunately, there are parents who see no responsibility of their own in fostering whether Johnny gives a rip, because they don’t give a rip either, as long as the schools keep them out of their hair. From my own daughters’ experiences, the problem parents were not income challenged, but were so caught up in their carriers and affluence that they had no time left to provide proper input into their children’s lives.

    This statement by professor Brandl sums it up the best, “…the deepest source of inspiration for most people is not government but family or religion.” I think it is interesting that the very source of the best motivation for both parents and kids is mostly outlawed for public schools to actively provide because of the erronious interpretation of the separation clause in the Constitution. We are not dealing with a problem with the education system in the United States. The problems that are arrising there are simply symptoms of a greater problem in our society. It is the general slide toward lawlessness and greed and consumerism by our generation, and I don’t think we recognize the disastrous effect it is having on the generation coming forth. As long as we can aleviate the symptoms with a “pill”, we will not treat the underlying disease, and someday, like the cancer it is, we will succomb to it.

  10. I grew up in a tough working class neighborhood. Most of my friends had parents who worked hard all day at dirty jobs and drank hard all night…I’d see my friend’s dads get up with a hangover on Saturday afternoons, so I know it’s true. They didn’t attend church. They sent us there to Catholic schools because they knew we’d get a good education, cuz that’s all we were gonna get til we went out and got what we needed as adults. My friends and I did well because from day one, we were treated with honor and respect and kindness…then we were taught the facts and we were expected to sit still, feet on the floor, cuz that’s the best way to let the blood flow and keep a child grounded while sitting through classes. We had two recesses and a lunch break over a 8 and a half hour day.

    If a kid was bad, they were warned several times. Then they got the wood,
    to sting, not injure, as I said before. If that didn’t work they went home and their parents were forced to deal with them. Mostly that worked, one kid I never did see again, but he was like a monkey and would never sit still or stop chattering. Poor thing, probably needed a lot more specialized treatment…hope he got it, but what didn’t happen is that he was not allowed to disrupt the entire class, and kids like him were not allowed to disrupt the education of the entire city, country, what have you.

    How foolish is that? Sure, we want to be compassionate, but not to the detriment of all the other children…who is going to give their compassion to the children who are ready, willing and able to be educated but are not because those who cannot are taking top priority too much of the time?

    As soon as the schools start modifying the thrust of the goal of education because of some perceived lack on the parents part, they are taking their energies out of the educational process and into the fix the family process which is not their mandate. Not.

    Soon the families will learn they must prepare their child for school or watch that child fail over and over again. It is not the job of the schools to prepare the child for the school, either before or after the child is there.

    Teachers must eat well, present themselves as organized, well balanced people and fulfill their function, just like any other job. They must encourage children in every way they can to ask questions and to ask for special help if the child cannot quite grasp a concept. There must be mutual respect and honor between the child and teacher. Teachers who
    fail to do this on a regular basis need to get out of the system until they can , or altogether and let someone who will do a good job do the most important job of educating our children.

    People do not wish to become teachers now because of the horrendous otherness of it. Let these people teach, and teachers, let these children learn! Start if off right this next school year.

  11. I guess I also have to spell out that I am in no way in favor of any child abuse tactics. I am in favor of separating out chronic disruptors of the educational process. Let them voucher out to a place where they can adequately deal with such children so the others can do what they came to do…learn about something other than disruptive kids. And if the disruptive ones are teachers, let them separate themselves from the educational process, too.

  12. Bright- I think your experiece challenges some of the “studies” that say that school performance is linked to poverty. I grew up on a small farm, and my parents worked very hard. They didn’t really have that much to show for it during or at the end of their lives. We got by alright, but there were not a lot of extras. If we kids could go into town with them at the end of the week with a nickel to spend however we wished, that was a real treat. I had my “chores” to do from before I was school age, age appropriate, of course, but responsibilities I had to have done at the end of the day. I think your parents, like mine, strove to see us have a better return for our work than they did. One way was higher education. The discipline we received while we were growing up gave us the depth of character we needed to handle that knowledge. I think your parents were successful, as were mine.

    I remeber when Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty. We haven’t won that war yet, but according to the census information I could find, it appears the percentage of the population at or below poverty level has about halved over the last 45 years. I don’t think we can completely aleviate poverty, but I think there is evidence that higher education has helped. If I’m reading the charts correctly, there appears to have been about an 8-fold increase in the number of people with 4yr. college degrees in the last 45 years. It would appear that people have increasingly been able to rise out of poverty. I hope we don’t lose that gain through apathy.

  13. Rob, in your comment #2, you wrote:

    “Even at Northfield High School we have a stratified system of AP and Advanced college prep classes for some children (most of them, I’m sure, with motivated, involved, college-educated parents) and less challenging classes for the rest.”

    Is this just an observation, or are you pointing out a problem? Please tell us more.

  14. Bright, I’m glad your nuns were the nice ones. I remember rulers that were far more than noise. And there was a big German nun so mean we all gladly prayed along with her until she got her wish for a missionary assignment to Africa…but I digress.
    John, it’s just so much more complicated than parents ignoring kids. There also are helicopter parents who hover over every move their kids make, constantly telling them how great they are and mowing down anyone who gets in their way. I know even 20 years ago I saw rampant grade inflation in high schools where upper income parents demanded As and drove out teachers and principals who didn’t comply. I see it now in my husband’s college courses, where executives who fork over $30,000 for an MBA believe they have paid for the degree and therefore don’t really have to show up or ‘do the work. And they hold their money over the universities, threatening to transfer if they don’t get their way. The schools, competing for market share and using adjunct professors who have no faculty support, are no match for this kind of extortion.
    Yes, there are many parents who emotionally abandon kids as they move from marriage to marriage or partner to partner. And where we had older brothers and sisters and cousins to help show us the ropes, one- and two-child families guarantee kids grow up isolated from any sort of kid support network. Grandparents talk to kids on webcams. And kids grow up in houses with walled back yards where they see nobody but their parents 24 hours a day.
    Just watch reality TV, which sadly shows a reality borne out in polls that show a huge percentage of kids today want to be celebrity personal assistants as their career. And yet there are kids who volunteer and do well and make us all proud, in spite of lousy parents.
    It seems ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ is as true today as ever.

  15. Rob- What a great article in the Times. Thanks for the link. I think this exemplifies what Anne and I are talking about in our posts. I appreciate the author’s reference to eleminating suffering from our lives. This whole idea is an escape from reality. Learning how to handle pain and dissappointments and go on with life is an important part of growing up. It instills hope in a person.

  16. Oops- I was going to tie my comment back into the thread before I hit the Say It button. I think that vouchers are just a bandaid to the problem, not a cure. They will help some families who have the motivation but not the means, but I don’t think they will help the overall health of education, public or private.

  17. I think most everyone that has posted a comment in this threads seems to want to see some changes in our present education system….or in the education delivery system. I actually think our two main candidates for President also believe that; they just believe it can be accomplished using different means.

    In looking at vouchers, there should not be any inherent drawback to them. A voucher allows parents and children to have the funds available to them to probably attend most schools in their community. Comments made about skimming the ‘cream off the top’ are a little hard to take, in that each child should have a basic level of intrinsic worth. While serving on the school board here I always tried hard to see the value and worth of all children and help them get the education they want and deserve. While there is great value in having a number of students in an AP chemistry class, there is also great value in having students in welding and machine technology. They may be headed in different vocation directions, but we need them both.

    But I think the real value in vouchers is in the promotion of a system of schools that truly serve the students needs. Much as charter schools are doing, if someone wants to create a school that teaches to a specific subject area…math, science, technology, etc….they can do that. However, just doing it doesn’t make it work. If the students do not value the school that was created, and that vouchers may support, then it will fail for lack of students, just as charter schools do.

    The argument that vouchers will ‘destroy’ public education I believe is a false argument in that the great majority of our public schools are doing a great job. I imagine the vast majority of them would continue on in a system that incorporates vouchers. But for lower income students that are looking for an education they simply cannot get in a public school, why do we prevent them from accessing voucher funds and looking for an alternative that works for them? The only way vouchers could ‘destroy’ public schools is if the vouchers themselves were selectively distributed to accomplish the task of breaking down public schools. With a free and wide open voucher system there should be no problem for public schools.

    I do think many comments in this thread are hitting on the real problem with public education…society standards. If we create a society that allows and supports (and some may say encourages) students to fail miserably in school, then simply toss them out into the public to exist, how are we going to continue on as a functioning society?

  18. Ray (#21) says:

    Comments made about skimming the ‘cream off the top’ are a little hard to take, in that each child should have a basic level of intrinsic worth. While serving on the school board here I always tried hard to see the value and worth of all children and help them get the education they want and deserve. While there is great value in having a number of students in an AP chemistry class, there is also great value in having students in welding and machine technology. They may be headed in different vocation directions, but we need them both.

    Although you may have slightly misinterpreted my remark, your point is well-taken. I absolutely agree with you about the equal merits of different vocational directions. But my concern is still that the benefits of vouchers can’t be distributed fairly. Some parents will be motivated to obtain vouchers for their children, and many more students will be left behind. Every child certainly does, as you say, have an intrinsic worth—so why provide vouchers for some, instead of insuring that the public schools are excellent for all?

  19. I think Ray’s comment about education being related to society standards is accurate. One thing I have noticed just in dealing with young people managing cash tills is that they are calculator dependent. If you give them change to help round out your purchase to even dollars, they cannot seem to figure it out unless they re-enter it into the computer. It seems that simple addition and subtraction and multiplication tables don’t seem to be taught anymore. Another thing I have noticed is the atrocious spelling in written communication. I think it is evidence of phonics not being taught. One of my biggest irritations is the interchangable use of “a lot” (to describe many) and “alot” (which used to mean to give to). Now I see them used interchangably in the same context of a sentence. Perhaps my old standards of education are passe, but I think there is still merit in knowing some of these basic things. It is these types of things that make me reluctant to throw more tax money into education, be it vouchers or otherwise, without some greater expectation of results.

  20. It seems like the conversation is equating vouchers with charter schools, which might not be useful. In his comment #21, Ray suggests that “the real value in vouchers is in the promotion of a system of schools that truly serve the students needs. Much as charter schools are doing…”

    At the end of June, the MN Legislative Auditor released the results of an extensive study of the performance of charter schools. The report concludes:

    “We found that, in general, charter schools do not perform as well as district schools; however, after accounting for relevant demographic factors and student mobility rates, the differences in student performance were minimal. Additionally, we found that charter school oversight responsibilities are not clear, leading to duplication and gaps in oversight.”

    http://www.auditor.leg.state.mn.us/ped/2008/charterschools.htm

    That suggests that as a long-term experiment, charters haven’t proven to be the panacea proponents claims. Still, it has been a worthwhile experiment, just not one that we need to continue, if the result is no different than that produced by the existing school structure.

    So, echoing Rob’s question above, why the sustained interest in siphoning energy, resources and kids from the public school system? In the last century, especially the last half of the century, education was generally a public good, one in which everyone had a stake. There have always been options for people who want to opt out, from the parochial schools described above to private schools like Prairie Creek, before it converted to a publicly-funded charter; but the vast majority of students, families and communities stayed invested, literally and figuratively, in their local schools. What’s the compelling reason for public funding to pay for people to opt out of the shared system?

  21. I disagree with Anne Bretts’ remark of Aug. 3, which was “And where we had older brothers and sisters and cousins to help show us the ropes, one- and two-child families guarantee kids grow up isolated from any sort of kid support network.” That’s too broad of a stereotype and certainly is not the case in my one-child family (and I would bet in others). Our child has both older and younger supportive and empathetic young friends from a broad cross-section of local society, cousins, aunts and uncles, adult community members who know and support him, and has never communicated via webcam with his large extended family. He volunteers, does well, and makes us proud.

  22. In #24 it is noted the legislative auditor has issued a report on charter schools. While doing a great job evalutating many areas of government regulations, Jim Nobles may not necessarily be the guy that I’d select to carefully evaluate the educational aspects of schools. There are a lot of areas that need to be evaluated when judging a school for a child. We are on the eve of the ‘school report cards’ today and I certainly don’t expect the hundreds of schools in Minnesota that will be on a non-performing list to be considered failures simply for being on the list. They have things they should address and I expect them to do so, but I don’t buy the failure label.

    And John (#23) I totally agree with you. Not long ago I gave a young clerk (store to remain nameless!) a $20 bill to pay for something that rang up just over $16.00. I was busy chatting with someone in line and glanced over to my hand as she was putting the change in it. I saw a $5 being put in my palm, quickly to be followed by some one dollar bills and change. I simply said to her “That’s not correct” ,kept my hand open and turned back in conversation to the person in line behind me. A moment later I heard the clerk saying somewhat loudly to me “Yes it is, it’s your change” I replied “Well it looks like it’s my change and a bunch of your employers funds as well”. She scowled at me for a bit, looked at me and said “It’s right. You gave me a $20.” I said “Yes, I gave you a $20 for a $16 dollar purchase. When I saw you lead off with a $5 bill in your hand I knew instantly that the change was incorrect. You are trying to give me too much change back.” She pulled the tape, looked at my purchase, then snatched…..and I mean snatched….all the change back from my palm, which remained open during our talk. She then made change again, this time it was correct. I thought about giving a lesson about estimates, etc but knew it wasn’t the place or time for it.

    I stick by my beliefs that vouchers, when distributed in a fair and meaningful manner, is an idea worth looking at. And as Rob noted a concern in #22 , maybe the best and fairest manner would be to distribute vouchers to everyone and let all make their own choice.

    Earlier Rob noted the idea of cream of the crop. We all know that metaphor is related to milk and the cream that was skimmed off of it. That was because the cream was the only real useable part of milk in decades past, and often the skimed milk was fed to pigs and such. But when looking at a bottle full of fresh milk today we see there is a fair amount of cream on the top. Then there is a lot of reguar milk. And if you take out enough cream and butterfat from it you end up with true skim milk. All in the same bottle folks. Kids are the same thing.

    It is pretty hard to teach well to all the range, ideas and interests of a classroom full if kids. So we select an area or range and teach to that level. Too often we bore some children and work above others in our effort to teach to the mid-point. I do believe vouchers might create some more choices for all and we would all do better. Getting a child tuned into education in a meaningful manner is worth so much.

    All this being said, I can see no reason that our existing public school system couldn’t implement a system that would do the same thing. They might need some laws changed and some enthusiastic support from everyone, but a major overhaul of our educational system is needed. I do not think we can plod along using an agrarian based system from the 1800’s (or earlier) and think the current system is so good that it simply cannot be improved.

  23. Joan, good point. Guarantee was too strong a word.
    Better to say it is much harder for kids today to have the connections kids used to have, simply because there usually are fewer aunts, uncles and cousins who see each other less often. It is hard even for good parents who want to do the right thing.
    The summer television show ‘The Baby Borrowers’ very clearly demonstrated how little some very smart teen-agers knew about taking care of babies or children or younger teens. And while it was slightly exaggerated, a recent TV movie told the true story of five young cheerleaders who terrorized other students and their teachers because their parents were afraid to stand up to them.
    Tying this comment back to the thread, I have seen giant battles rage in school districts over charters, over open enrollment, over post secondary options, over whether they could afford two high schools or three, whether middle schools needed to be grades 6-8 or 5-8 or whether k-12 configurations worked best.
    Interestingly, the studies showed that any configuration worked if the parents and teachers and kids believed in it and were committed to making it work.
    In my opinion, vouchers only work if they are large enough to offer real choice. Giving a middle class family $5,000 might close the gap and make private school an option. Giving a poor family $5,000 voucher means nothing when a private school costs $18,000 a year (Blake School, Minneapolis, plus books, uniforms and transportation.) It helps some with Catholic schools charging $7,000, but if you’re not Catholic it might not be an option. And starting a private school isn’t easy. Economies of scale mean that running a single private school will be more expensive than running five or six public schools and sharing expenses — and providing special educations, English as a second language and other services can be impossible. So vouchers make it more likely that the middle class will flee and the public schools will be left to deal with the poor, the immigrants and the disabled. That will worsen the separate but equal system we have now between rich and poor districts.

  24. Ray- Your analogy of the milk bottle is interesting. This can only happen with raw milk. Since I left the farm, all the milk I have been purchasing is homogonized. This takes external processing to accomplish, since the particles of butter fat are lighter than the rest of the milk. Homogonized milk will not stratify into layers. When I apply this to a classroom setting, as your example of trying to target a “mean” range if information and try to make it stick, the young people, dispite all of the attempts otherwise, are still like the raw milk. Perhaps there is need of a “homogonizing” agent to get the mix in the classroom to flow together like the milk. Interesting concept. I’ve never thought about it in these terms before, and I’m not sure it can or should be accomplished.

    Your concept of paying for education through vouchers only might be a way of getting more parental involvement in the process. It seems a radical departure from the way things have been done since the industrial revolution. Education has been treated as part of the infrastructure, since it is difficult for each family to educate their own children independent of the surrounding families. Mind you, there are homeschoolers who have been doing this for some time, and the results have been exemplary. But in general, this is something that falls outside the possibilities of most families. Changing over to a voucher method to finance public education would seem an insurmountable task to me, but I won’t say it is impossible. We just need to research all the effects this system would have on the general population. It would be unfortunate if a couple class levels were lost in the changeover.

  25. Vouchers are another ploy to dismantle the public school system. There is a well-funded, vocal group whose aim is just that. They have worked with the Bush administration to take an old law and make it so unworkable that it will erode any confidence in the public school system (you know it as “no child left behind.”)

    Look at the title of this thread–vouchers for low-income families. Such a voucher is a claim that the public school system is unable to provide an education for poor kids-so, for that matter, any kids.

    That may be true in California and Alabama, but in Minnesota we have enjoyed truly wonderful public education. It is only with the constant barage of unfunded federal mandates that schools end up cutting important costs, (like librarians and classroom aides and other important school functions) and the Minnesota school system has suffered. (As well as a shift from state and county run social welfare to requiring schools to provide these services, from full-time nursing to food and clothing.)

    To claim that the increase in school costs is all because of (pick one)
    1) overpaid administrators, 2) overpaid teachers 3) overpaid janitors 4)other unnamed and unspecified waste; is again the result of our reluctance to shoulder our burden for paying for public education.

    If this was Washington DC, I might buy into an argument that a child might be denied a decent education in the public schools, and so should get a chance to voucher -out–but in Minnesota it is simply a way to use public funds to finance schools that are mostly Catholic private schools.

    We need to quit whining about public schools not doing their jobs, and get to work ourselves by attending school board meetings and letting our concerns be known and by electing good representatives for our school board–there is an election this year and we need to know who is running and inform ourselves so we can vote for the best people.

    Yes, the school district needs to be efficient and prudent in financing, but we also have a responsibility to be involved.

  26. Jane- Great comment- “It is only with the constant barage of unfunded federal mandates that schools end up cutting important costs…” Perhaps it is past time for states to regain control of their education systems.

  27. Jane M…

    In general I support public schools, but…

    In Minnesota, (just like California and Alabama), there are public schools that do well and others that do poorly. Some of these schools are adequate… some are great successes, but some are failing and some are flat out failures. Failing schools need prudent investment and close supervision (and their students need a chance to go elsewhere). Failed schools need to be closed. Trying to save failed schools only results in sacrificing more students. Maybe the ‘milk’ was sweet once but now it’s sour, and time has come to throw it out. The students in these schools need other choices now.

    A system needs to be in place that will allow all the students from failed schools to go elsewhere. If they can be accommodated in successful public schools…fine. (Moving them to failing schools doesn’t seem to make much sense.) If not, vouchers might be an option.

  28. Ray,
    Do you have a substantive rebuttal to the legislative auditor’s report on charter schools? Simply criticizing the person who nominally issued the report doesn’t address its findings. The student achievement evaluation was based on MDE test data. We can argue about whether the MCA-II is an adequate measure of student or school achievement, but for better or worse it is a common metric that can be uniformly administered.

    What the report concludes is that as a model for the delivery of education, the charter experiment has, on average, delivered no better results than the current educational system. From that I draw the conclusion that if, after 15+ years, charters do not represent a systemic improvement, then let’s refocus the energy and resources. To have tried something and find that it didn’t work is not a “failure”; to perpetuate such an experiment might be.

    The existing system of public education generally works pretty well within the constrained resources we allocate to it. Of course it can work better. I’ve never met a teacher, principal or school board member who didn’t think there was room for improvement. But when we layer on all kinds of unfunded requirements and expectations that have more to do with social problems than with education, and we then provide a convenient way to allow some people to opt out, we start to create conditions in which self-interest trumps collective interest. That kind of free marketeering works in lots of places in our consumer society, but not in areas where there is a public good at stake.

  29. Randy, my comment was not negative at Jim Nobles. I stated it to note that I prefer to examine schools in a different light than a Legisaltive Auditor report. That report looks at many things….but not many seemed to deal directly with the education of students. The report goes into detail about some conflicts of interest, including finding fault with the requirement that teachers be on charter governing boards. He notes the oversight of some things is not good. The education evaluation seems to mainly center on looking at ‘adequate yearly progress’. If we are to judge all our schools on that basis we are probably in trouble.

    Charters were set up to require teachers on the boards. Their effort and design is to get the most education opportunity to the students. Charters are exempt from many of the requirements of traditional public schools in an effort to give them some ‘free wheeling’.

    A big issue that the Legisaltive Auditor didn’t talk much about is the fact that there are thousands of students in charter schools that most likely would not be in any school system at all if it wasn’t for the charter. To me, keeping a student in tune to education, interacting in a postive way with adults and other students, and attending classes on a regular basis is a tremendous value—-even if AYP suffers.

    You brought up the issue of unfunded mandates. That term is tossed around a lot. I never had problems with mandates when I was on the school board as I viewed them as directions the legislature is asking all schools to head. That is their right. If people want to talk about unfunded mandates then I would respectfully ask them to write down what they believe the basic tasks a school system to be, and how much it will cost to accomplish and administer those tasks. From that point on there might be meaningful discussion about unfunded mandates. But without that basic education issue being set solidly on the table, mandates from the legislature are just things to do in the school year. It all becomes a managment issue.

  30. Oddly enough, a similar discussion has been brought up on a think tank group I work with and the ideas of what should be done to improve the school system ranged from blowing up the buildings and starting all over again, to why not let the kids have more fun!

    This is where I say, people, people, people, there are about eight other free hours a day where kids can “be kids”. Why does everyone expect the educational system to do it all? It is enough to ask the educators to educate. It is a big and important job all by itself. We are trying to a get the next generation of human beings to think, not like us, but like they will need to think by the time they are old enough and experienced enough to lead their own lives, lead the country, or at least vote for those who do, and to lead into the next generation.

    On the think tank, the question was, how do we get kids to think like us?
    We don’t. We teach them to think. Math is a pure thought process subject.
    It is essential that they know what happens once money or land or grocery bills or credit card statements get divided and multiplied. Geography is important so they realize they will be living with and dealing with and visiting countries where people have differing points of view, depending on their environments and their adaptation to it. Reading is important so that they can not only read the subjects they are studying in school, but so that they may continue their self education throughout their lives…even if it’s only a newspaper geared to eighth grade reading levels. Our kids have lost the ability to write. No one knows about their relatives living in other parts of the country and world, because no one can write about their experiences before they forget all about them. No one can tell their own story. We have to rely on the few who can tell our stories for us and they often get it wrong, because no one experiences our lives like we do ourselves.
    My friend just spent thousands of dollars and two whole weeks in Italy, and
    I said, how was it? It was beautiful. How was the food? It was good. How was the wine, I said. It was fine. I hoped for a story. I hoped for some observations. This is the same thing I see over and over again. We are in
    the dark ages. We really are.
    Please, let us concentrate on the basics, and let the rest take care of itself.

  31. Bright..I think it was just a few months ago when a Minneapolis City Councilman, Don Samuels, came under fire for publicly stating that he thought one of the Minneapolis high schools—North I believe— should be burned down. While his statement was very blunt, I know he was expressing what many people think, namely, just junk what we have and lets start with a clear slate.

    Minneapolis schools get about $13,000 for every student from the State of Minnesota. They get more from the local taxpayers. They are to use those funds to educate their students. Last year about 43 percent graduated on time. Huge numbers struggle. I think what Councilman Samuels was expressing was complete frustration at going on and on with a system that appears to be significantly damaged, if not completely broken.

  32. I found allot to enjoy in john george’s railing against people’s “atrocious spelling in written communication” in posting #23, followed by his description of “homogonized” milk in #28. Time to hit the fonics!

  33. Randy you seem to being saying, “you came to our park, played our game, by our rules and only tied us so you are no better.” If the small charter schools are already doing as well as tradition schools while servicing the enormous bureaucratic reporting requirements with a tiny fraction of the overall dollars then a complete shift would likely outperform the traditional school model. That traditional model is basically an industrial age assembly line structure pushing a student into math for an hour, then out and into reading for an hour, etc. Nobody would design such a system starting from scratch today but the system is huge and has many financially interested parties who will fight change at every turn. For the charter schools to be holding their own under the current system’s reporting is truly a sign that citizens should expect far more than we are currently getting for education dollars.

  34. Let me take this another step. I am gonna blame the mortgage crisis on a system that cannot teach their students how to figure out whether or not they can afford a home at a certain price, and on the people who take advantage of that fact…I know, I know, buyer beware, but what if the buyer does not know what to beware of. First time buyers are often young and inexperienced about rip offs. Older buyers may have come from nice home and expect the same, except that the same costs more now, or those who worked hard and grew up without a home could easily be talked into making the plunge if they don’t realize how deep that plunge goes if you don’t get that raise or have another child or get sick. Can’t think that far ahead if you are not prepared to think that much at all about math and how one thing leads to another and so on.

    I hope I am reminding teachers and all concerned parties about what the system is supposed to do, not what everyone wants it to do. Take care of survival necessities and all the complications that entails in this new century of ours…that’s what is needed and that is what we should stick to now.

    During my schools years, I attended three public schools, two Catholic schools, before college. I attended one of the best and oldest community colleges in the country and Indiana University…now rated in the top 100.
    I have taken dozens of museum classes, online classes, taught art to 1-4,
    and volunteer watercolor classes at our own senior center.

    All experience were different, but all schools have one thing in common,
    all schools good teachers and bad teachers. Good teachers teach you something worthwhile, lasting, and do it with seeming little effort. They are so good they make it look easy. Bad teachers don’t teach you anything much, make you feel like you wasted time and effort just going there, and will continue to do that until people let them know they don’t measure up.
    So, the biggest difference, is not money, but the ratio of good to bad teachers. The best schools have a couple, the worst have almost all.
    Whether it’s the system, the danger, the low pay, it still boils down to a
    teacher who cannot teach.

    I say, as long as you don’t have danger to deal with, causing so much stress in everyone, a school can function, even if they have not one cent. They can find a stick and do a math problem in the dirt. That’s a lesson. They can used their hands and count to a hundred. That’s a lesson. They can sign abc’s. That’s a lesson. You cannot say there are no books anywhere in this country. There are books. Get them and read them aloud. That’s a lesson.
    I tell you what I tell my collie when he doesn’t listen to me…I say, I mean it.
    and then he puts his head down and does the thing I asked of him. so,
    I mean it. If you don’t have money, don’t tell me you can’t teach. Teach with what you have. If you have old socks, teach with old socks. IF you are so spoiled that you cannot teach with old socks, you don’t deserve the title, or the privilege of your post.

    Almost Nothing is worse than not teaching a child. If there is danger, get rid of it now. I am tired of this country being held captive by criminals. Oh, it’s natioanal night out. I’m out of here.

  35. Randy, have you had a chance to visit the two charter schools sponsored by the Northfield District? As a teacher and board member at ARTech, I would like to invite you to our school. Come take a tour, see our solar project, talk to our teachers and our students. We’re celebrating our five year anniversary on August 27th — come to that, too, if you like.

    FYI, the auditor’s recommendations included many things that the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools and the Center for School Change have been recommending for a while. Some of them were included in the 2008 education policy bill that was vetoed by the governor.

  36. David,
    You miss the point. The charter movement asked for, and received, relief from some of the rules and regulations under which “regular” public schools operate and, on average, they still don’t perform as well. They haven’t been playing “our” game at all, except in the broad sense that the “game” should be about developing a citizenry capable of the critical thinking skills a democratic society requires. Fragmenting the system into enclaves of self-interest seems dangerous to me.

    Sarah, I haven’t been to Prairie Creek since we looked at it as a possibility for my own kids many years ago. It was an excellent private school then, and appears to remain so. All that’s changed is that it is now funded by the public, instead of by the families that founded and sustained it. One certainly can’t fault the school leaders and parents for taking advantage of the public funding being a charter school provides.

    I’ve only second-hand experience of ArtTech through a handful of students. My observation is that their school experience is uneven, as can be said of the experience of many students at the high school. Again, the point is that as a systemic innovation, charters haven’t delivered improvement, not that there aren’t individual students or individual schools that have been successful.

    This morning’s StarTribune includes ArtTech on the list of schools not making adequate yearly progress. That is by no means the only relevant measure of school success, and certainly doesn’t speak at all to any individual student’s experience. The Northfield schools, as a whole, are also on the list.

    There’s no question that a small group of impassioned people operating outside the existing system can create dynamic schools that are great places for children to learn. Look no farther than Prairie Creek for a good example. It’s equally clear that impassioned people operating outside the system will not automatically be successful just because they operate a school differently. In my view, the public investment in innovation should be in financing experiments that will be replicable within the system and an improvement for all, not a replacement for it.

  37. Randy this is like comparing WalMart to Just Foods and saying you can’t compete on the price of Twinkies … the comparisons are not fair. I’ve seen the reporting requirements in action and the general ledger codes are like 17 digits long (that’s more that a telephone # or a UPC code).

    Each Charter School in effect has to build it’s own systems from scratch for every aspect of the school. These schools have problems of scale and I would agree with the enclaves of self interest comment. But they could be professionalized by having joint campuses where lunches, equipment etc could be shared.

    As far as delivering quality education and tailored education I think many of the Charter Schools show they are better models.

  38. Randy, you’re right. The only schools in the Northfield area that did make AYP are Sibley and Prairie Creek. (Though funny enough, because the Department of Education has only posted schools that did not make AYP, I can’t find any information about ARTech’s middle school.)

    Also among the lists of schools that are failing is Edina High School, one of the nation’s top 100 high schools in 2008 according to Newsweek Magazine. (I picked this information up from Rob Hardy’s blog.) It makes me wonder — along with a million other things — how effective these tools are at evaluating school success.

    So, back to the issue at hand here — vouchers — if all of the state’s public schools undergo scrutiny from (IMHO ineffective) data like this, would private schools also need to submit to certain requirements if they were receiving public dollars?

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