Friday, January 13, 2006

The Biased Quiz Of The Day And Some Feminism

Courtesy of ABC and John Stossel's 20/20:

Do you think voucher programs and school choice would improve public education?
Yes, the competition will lead to better schools for our kids.
No, we just need to increase public funding for our schools.

Not a scientific survey. For entertainment only.

Note the loading of emotionally positive terms into the Yes-choice. Note the "just" framing of the No-choice which also uses stilted language.

It is stupid to ask whether someone thinks that competition would lead to better schools without giving quite a long explanation of what, exactly, might happen with the voucher system. Consider just these points for starters:

Most voucher schemes would allow private and religious schools to accept vouchers. Madrasas, say, could be funded by U.S. taxpayers. But private and religious schools don't have to accept students they don't want to, so they could simply go cherry-picking in the marketplace and leave the public schools with the most demanding and needy students. And if they accidentally picked up any trouble-makers they could kick these out, to be collected by the local public schools. Then in the next round the assessments would show how much better the religious and private schools are doing, and the scene would be set for the abolition of public schools.

If the voucher schemes were limited to only public schools some similar arguments would apply. Think about the students of a school located in a nice, middle-class area. These students are not going to have the problems poor children are going to bring to school with them, and they are going to do better on all the assessments. The middle-class schools will continue getting more students, presumably, and the schools in poor areas will close. Then all the poor children will be bused long distances every day, assuming the schools will have them. It's very biblical. We would take from those that already have very little and give to those that already have a lot. Sort of like the Republican ideas in general.

The parental choice markets are not the only markets that we need to analyze. The market for teachers is also important. How would the voucher scheme affect that market? Its first impact would be to add the pressure on teachers to perform "better", to focus their teaching on the "right" things, such as standardized tests. This would make being a teacher less attractive. Most people go into education as a career because they like teaching children, not because they like marketing and test-coaching.

If I am correct about this, fewer people would choose teaching as a career, and many current teachers would leave the field. Schools would then have to pay more to attract the needed labor force. Which would cost the taxpayers more. The alternative would be to increase the number of students each teacher teaches, but that would make the job even less desirable and the process would continue.

These are not the only possible problems with the voucher solution. Another one has to do with the whole parental choice idea, especially if unassisted and when it comes to parents who are, say, recent immigrants or not very educated themselves. How many people do you know that judge colleges purely on the basis of their football teams? My point here is that judging the quality of a school is actually quite difficult to do, even for those who have the tools needed for that task.

There is a hidden feminist lesson in all this. One of the open secrets behind the whole school quality discussion is that the government is trying to go on running schools on a shoe-string, a strategy which worked as long as there was an ample supply of very intelligent women who had few career choices outside teaching, social work and nursing. This was the case until the 1960's. But then other career paths opened up for women, and teaching paid less than most of these. The consequence was a shortage of qualified teachers and in some places a reduction in the standards required of them.

The change I described happened forty years ago. For some reason we still pretend that it never took place. My prescription for fixing the schools is simple: pay teachers more.

The wingnut prescription seems to be to try to find some way of paying nothing, or as little as possible. Why they imagine that a market would lead to this outcome without any quality reductions puzzles me. But most things about wingnuts puzzle me when I'm bothered to think about them.