Saturday, March 26, 2005

It's Time to Give School Choice a Chance

The presupposition below that socioeconomic class differences won't worsen if we move toward vouchers does not make sense. Clearly, the education that a middle class person will be able to purchase with their voucher will be better than that which a working class person can purchase. Why? Because the private school sector is stratified by class and the amount that they'll charge folks with the SAME voucher amount will logically correspond to their purchasing power. -Angela

Sat, Mar. 26, 2005

It's Time to Give School Choice a Chance
By Gavin W. Pate
Special to the Star-Telegram

If you are unhappy with your choice of grocery stores, you might try another one. If you disliked the product selection at Kroger, you might go to Whole Foods. If you were dissatisfied with the pricing at Tom Thumb, you might get a membership at Costco.

However, if you are unhappy with your local government-operated schools, you cannot take your spending power and go elsewhere.

You are truly stuck.

Of course, you have the option of working hundreds of hours to pay your local property taxes, then working overtime and taking odd jobs to save enough to send your youngster to a private school. You want the best for your kids, but you are left with no viable choice but to hope that your school district doesn't go downhill.

That's not right, nor is it acceptable for the residents of Texas.

A school voucher program that would allow families to choose where their hard-earned dollars go is a critical step toward the future.

Harvard economist Carolyn Hoxby's study of voucher programs found an increase in academic performance of not only the students who chose to attend the private schools, but also in the students who chose to stay in the public schools.

We all stand to benefit since children would have more specialized attention in a setting where schools see the direct value of competition. The end result is a platform for educational success where young Texans have more of the tools they need to surpass expectations.

In 2004, Texans spent more than $10,000 per student who attended class regularly. A highly competitive private school can cost as little as $6,000 per year.

Certainly there are advantages to both schooling environments, and families should always have the opportunity to choose whichever benefits their children the most. But what we have now in Texas is a system that severely penalizes those with the smallest incomes.

Many families want a stable home environment and believe that a single-income family is the way to go. They then limit their choices of housing to what is within their budget. If dad works as a carpenter and makes $35,000 per year, they might live in a $75,000 house. This may be a less than prestigious ZIP code -- and that's fine. But you have now forced the children of this family to go to a school that may be mediocre in its approach to education.

Neither mom nor dad has a college degree. They both dream of more options for their children, but without a path to success, there is no reasonable choice.

The myth that if vouchers were allowed the wealthy will yank their children from public schools and the schools will become desolate wastelands for our boys and girls is not true. When Hoxby studied the effect of widespread vouchers, she found significant improvement in the public schools that faced the most competition.

This isn't to say that public schoolteachers don't care. Most of them do. But some are faced with the unenviable choice of entertaining children who don't want to be there, meeting standards that aren't properly funded and dealing with a cookie-cutter approach to education that is outdated for today's specialized economy.

When shopping for groceries, you have an endless number of choices. Some of us prefer to eat what tastes good, some of us prefer to eat what's healthful. Others choose to dine somewhere in between. But the bottom line is that we all have a choice. We are not forced to pay for something that we don't want.

Shouldn't we all have a choice on something so much more important?

But we must proceed cautiously. There are some heavy hitters in Texas who don't want to see such a program succeed.

The National Education Association is completely against vouchers on the grounds that they will pull money from public education. While this may be true, the goal of an educated society should not be to feed a government monopoly. It should be to find the most economical way to ensure the highest levels of education for all people that choose to pursue it.

In Texas we are all paying for an outdated approach to education that is not sustainable. We are dooming our low-income families to a poor set of choices: bad, mediocre or average. That is unacceptable and stands to limit the future of Texas.
Gavin W. Pate of Arlington is a member of the Star-Telegram community columnist panel.

© 2005 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.


  1. With the 79th legislative session, Texas is in the midst of unprecedented efforts to privatize our public school system. This move to privatization involves issues of separation of church and state, marginalized populations such as English Language Learners, and those of low-socioeconomic status.

    This article emphasizes the issue of “choice.” However, a central question is choice for whom? Even if a parent chooses a particular private school will that school take the child? Private and religious schools have a tradition of being selective in admittance procedures. Further, privatizing proponents state that poor parents would have options for their children in failing public schools. In reality, the dollar amount for vouchers would not provide equity because the difference between the voucher amount and private school tuition would still limit who could afford what schools. Then, there are the parents of emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, and physically challenged students. Will they have “choice” in this model? Historically, private schools have not served these populations, whereas public schools have been inclusive for all by law.

    Although the article mentions one research study that speaks to the success of vouchers, there are numerous studies that document effective measures to improve student achievement in public schools such as certified teachers with access to quality professional development, smaller class size, adequate curriculum resources, etc. There are also studies that reveal the ineffectiveness of for-profit companies that take over public schools, charter schools, and virtual schools. Research on both sides needs to be closely reviewed.

    An important claim for those who are pro-privatization is that market driven competition will improve schools. Just as in the marketplace, however, competition may lead to false advertising and questionable marketing tactics for a vulnerable population. For profit and education does not mix. Even many private schools understand this and operate as not-for-profit institutions.

    In addition, how funds are expended is usually not transparent in such schools. Sometimes even parents with children in the private school do not have any access to budget information. Using public funds generated by taxpayers to subsidize private and religious schools, as well as home schools calls for fiscal accountability that some of these entities may not be willing to comply with.

    Privatizing our public school system is not the silver bullet needed for excellence in education. Our system of public education has answered to stakeholders through legislation and litigation and democratic compromise, albeit not always in a timely manner. What is important is that the debate on our schools has always been a public conversation. Privatization moves it to a different arena. Decisions in the education of our children should not be taken out of the hands of parent, community and teacher groups to be handed off to for-profit groups such as K12, an online company headed by former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett. We should not give up on public schools that will lead to the decline of a system that is the foundation of our democracy leading to a scenario in which students are separated by religion, race, class, and handicapping condition, Education should remain in the hands of public stakeholders.

  2. Linda brings up a great point, What happens to the disabled students?

    It's bizaar that this issue has been largely ignored. I doubt that the typical private institution will want to dip into this endeavor (after all they are a business, and disability expenses will make those great profit hard to maintain.)

    The voucher program will likely not only strip the lower income students of their already inefficient public education, it will also furhtur hurt and marginalize the only other segment that needs more help than the lower income students, the disabled. I'm curious to see where funds will come from to replace the lost funds which will go to private enterprises -- I'm sure special Ed. will recieve more than there fair share, yeah right!

    This exemplifies just another potential problem that school vouchers will create; I can only imagine how many more of these negative compounding variables will appear if the voucher system is implemented.