School Choice and Government Education Realities

Blog-fight!  Very stimulating.  My thanks to Sara Mead at The Quick and the Ed, who responds to my response to her post about how advocates of educational freedom are hawking snake-oil. 

First, I’d like to happily and wholly agree with one of Mead’s points:  “[School choice programs that target students with disabilities] create perverse incentives for parents and schools that could exacerbate one of the biggest problems in special education: overidentification of students with disabilities.”  No argument there at all, and I would simply add that there are perverse incentives for disability over-ID in the public system right now.  Getting your kid classified as ADHD, or Asperger’s, etc. allows your child to receive extra consideration and a more individualized education.  If your child is difficult to control and only responds well in a particular educational environment, your only recourse may be a special classification.  Wouldn’t it be great if parents could just choose a school that works for their child in the first place, without the need to label them?

Now, on to the good stuff. 

Mead admits that these special programs “seem to be working okay,” but that “they don’t seem to be solving the problem they ostensibly were intended to solve–parent difficulties getting needed services or out-of-district placements for their children.”  I’m sorry, but I fail to see how giving parents another choice isn’t a general step forward.  No one ever claimed that vouchers would make the government system perfect, only that it would allow parents easily to look elsewhere for the services their child needs.  The program does that, and there’s nothing disingenuous about saying choice solves a lot of problems for thousands of families.  The report Mead cites claims only that children with less severe disabilities are the ones helped most by the program, not that it doesn’t help children with disabilities. 

I’d also like to point out that although political support is difficult to come by for any school choice program, the public actually supports universal over targeted programs by huge margins, often with two or three times the support.  This is a very consistent finding (I’ve found the same thing in my own recent opinion research).  And I think the school choice movement’s myopic obsession with hyper-targeted programs is both a tactical and a strategic mistake.

Mead concludes by conceding “there’s a compelling case that building an education system more premised on choice will have significant benefits, in terms of efficiency but more so in terms of customization and parent and student satisfaction and engagement.”  But then she insists “it’s also likely that educational policies that improve student achievement on average will end up leaving some [presumably low-income] children behind.”  I don’t know where this prediction comes from, other than from a general distrust of markets, but the relevant question here isn’t whether or not some children will be “left behind.”  The question is how many, and compared to what else?  How’s our current system doing in that department?  Pretty swell, eh?  And why, if the market is so likely to leave poor kids behind, are low-income families so desperate to get scholarships?  And why is a free market already serving the poor children in poor countries well?

And while we’re comparing school choice reform to present realities in the government system … school choice program problems with fraud and theft are nothing compared with the rampant corruption commonplace in the educational industrial complex.  Never mind the legal travesty of paying incompetent teachers large sums to malpractice because they are tenured and senior.

Finally, this sex-ed thing seems trivial, I know, but Mead shows a blind spot here that’s interesting. 

The conservatives she cites as supporting abstinence-only sex ed support it because they think it’s the best policy.  These conservatives also support a system of school choice in which liberals could send their kids to a free-range school where sex ed starts early and includes cucumber demonstrations of condom use.  In the absence of such a system, many of these conservatives support making abstinence-only sex ed the standard in sex-ed because without educational freedom, curriculum decisions are a zero-sum game.  You win, I lose.  I win, you lose.  This is a recipe for social strife, and we have it aplenty in our schools.

You see, there’s the system of education we have, and the one school choice supporters want.  The system we have forces diverse communities and families to decide, through a corrupt political process dominated by the educational industrial complex, on what every child will be taught. 

If you want your kid to have abstinence-only sex ed and can’t afford a choice, then you’d better throw your support behind those who want it in the curriculum.  The same goes for everything else under the curriculum sun. This doesn’t bear at all on the issue of support for educational freedom.

Ok, I think that’s all …