I advocate a 100% elimination of government K12 schools. 100%. No secrets there. Even if I were forced to accept government schooling, I’d like to see those schools have much more discretion in how they organize curricula and just as important more discretion in how they discipline their students (I don’t mean ruler smacks, I mean an entire ethic of seriousness and accountability). For various reasons I don’t have fantasies about a voucher program, but what I argue below is germane to that.
When I suggest these sorts of things it is not long until a good objection comes up: what about the students who will fall through the cracks in the more competitive, accountable, “private” system I prefer? Well, that objection seems reasonable until we reflect for a moment on it. Implicit in that rejection is that the current government schooling system lets no one fall through the cracks. But that in fact is the defining tragedy of government schooling – that even though all people are “guaranteed” a free and equal access to quality education, we are further away from achieving that than we were 60 years ago. I know, I know, it must be because George Bush and the Republicans starved the schools for funding – except that the K12 sector is not suffering from a lack of funds. In a future post perhaps we’ll show in glorious detail what I mean. Are there fantastic government schools? Well I happen to live in a neighborhood that boasts two of the top 100 high schools in the nation.
However, think of what happens if we voucherize education and also allow all schools to be selective about who remains in their schools. Of course some students will find that there is no place for them in the current schools that we can conceive of. But maybe that is a good thing. Not all students ought to be in school, even some of the more elementary grades of it. But I don’t really want to push on that because it’s like getting into an argument about God. I’d rather push on this: in a world of one-size-fits-all government education where students are locked into the schools they live near and into the standardized curricula, assessments, tracking, etc. there is simply no other option for a kid that falls through the crack. And many do. Take a look at the data on high school dropouts, on the percentage of days missed by certain students, and so on. Do we think that when they are not in school something good is coming of them? We have labor laws and occupational licensing laws that make it hard for young people to earn a living, and the data on youth unemployment, incarceration rates and recividism rates are not all that encouraging. Beyond that, in several inner city public school systems even the kids that do not “fall through the cracks” do in fact fall through. My city school district spends well over $20,000 per student to educate students. Less than 50% graduate. But even among those who graduate, a very very tiny percentage of them have the ability to go onto success in most any college, including the local community college.
And so when folks imagine all of the awful ways that private schools may fail or may not serve various customers or may allow some teachers to teach nonsense to their students, they have in their mental model a government schooling system that actually works. But this is no thought experiment. It’s not like we have to speculate at what the counterfactual is. We are living the counterfactual and it has been found wanting. I DO have ideological blinders on here when I say what I am about to say, but here goes anyway. Can you imagine ANY scenario where a fully privatized system would do worse that what happens to children in government schools (in cities especially) today? Really? What would be going on?
And think about what might be different if poor students had vouchers attached to them. In that world, suppose they get booted out of the existing private schools or choose not to work hard there. They still have voucher dollars tied to them. And what does this mean? It means that some entrepreneur, somewhere, can figure out a way to serve these kids purely to selfishly have access to those voucher funds. Strangely this seems to be one reason why voucher systems are opposed. It is, however, THE reason to favor them. It is the only way that these kids who have fallen through the cracks might actually get picked up. Maybe they’ll be led into some sham school. Maybe the money will simply be stolen. But maybe we’ll figure out a whole host of new ways to engage young people, prepare them for college or for the professions or for a host of other things, and private entrepreneurs would be free to try out any number of them so long as the rules surrounding the voucher were flexible (they would, of course, NOT be … which is one reason I do not support school vouchers – more on that in another post).
Under the current system of government schooling, not only are we sure that lots of kids will fall through the cracks, tell me where the incentives are in the system for anyone to serve these children better? There are not enough incredible people like Bobby Hurley Sr. in the world to shoulder it all on their own. I wished there were. But there aren’t.