By Damien Manier
In order to effectively reform education every aspect of education must be questioned, including why the government funds education in the first place. Education has what Milton Friedman in "Capitalism and Freedom" describes as "neighborhood effects" (86), meaning that it benefits society as a whole and since the beneficiaries of education can not all be charged individually in any practical way the government collects taxes and pays on their behalf. Following this logic Frederick Hess in "Common Sense School Reform" writes that it is evident that the purpose of the public funds are to educate children, thus indirectly benefiting all of society, not to necessarily support a public school system (92). If education of children is the primary goal towards which public funds should flow then education reform should reflect this.
Federalism is a part of American history and a philosophy the forefathers intended to be used, according to the Amendment X of the constitution, when contemplating issues such as education reform. Federalism is the philosophy that decentralizes power, lessening the influence of the federal government and giving power to the individual states. With this in mind, any education reforms should be implemented on a state by state basis with each state adapting or modifying the reforms to reflect the needs of that particular state. However, a voucher system, that forced public funds to follow the children to the schools of their parents' choosing, and creating a competitive environment that encouraged accountability and flexibility while at the same time providing an incentive for the creation of specialized schools that would meet the diverse needs of America's children, would be a good basis for each state to begin their respective education reforms.
Competition is not an unfamiliar idea to Americans. Americans have long recognized the benefits of competition in creating a variety of innovative products at reasonable prices and as a way of allowing consumers of a product or service to enforce a kind of accountability on the producer of those products or services. Education could also benefit from competition. Hess writes "no school can excel at everything" but competition "permits schools to excel at particular services" and allows parents to pick the school that best matches their child's needs or abilities (70). In a competitive environment whenever a need is recognized an entrepreneur will see that need as an opportunity and find an innovative way to meet that need. These ventures fail to produce the desired results they will not survive so long as public funds follow the child and the children are free to exit the school. This is competitive accountability. However, it would be unwise and naïve to rely solely on the goodwill of education service providers. James Madison in the "Federalist Papers" wrote that "If men were angels, no government would be necessary" (qtd. in Hess 13) and for this reason, states should collect and disseminate information about schools to parents to include student achievement, "school safety, attendance rates, graduation rates, college attendance rates, and other appropriate measures" (Hess 87). This information would give parents the information they needed to make good choices between schools and will provide criterion by which schools can be judged.
Whenever public funds are used additional accountability measures must be put in place to ensure responsible use of tax payer dollars. Collecting and disseminating information about schools to promote competitive accountability would be one of the most effective measures. Another measure that should be taken is standardized testing; however, this measure must be implemented very carefully so as to not encourage teaching to the test. Schools can not excel in all subject areas, nor should they be expected to, and should not be tested in all subject areas. Hess writes that standardized testing should not be used as a measure of a school's overall success but as a way of ensuring that at a minimum the core skills necessary for life beyond high school are being effectively taught at all schools (49).
The "one size fits all" mentality of American schools is probably the worst impediment to success in today's education system. Specialization is the common aspect of the education systems of the countries that score the highest among the OECD countries. For example, Finland and Korea both divide students among a variety of vocational studies or general high school after middle school, and Korea and Canada both use private or parochial schools as an integral part of their education system to meet the diverse needs of their citizens. School vouchers will provide Americans with specialization by allowing all types of schools to compete for students on an equal playing field.
Arguments and perceived problems with school vouchers exist but most, if not all, are addressable. Critics worry that schools will limit admissions to students that are inexpensive or easy to teach and that public schools will be forced to teach all the handicapped or failing children. There is merit to this argument since there are definite differences in the cost of educating certain children. However, this assumes that vouchers will be based on a flat rate with out taking any of these concerns into consideration. The answer is not to scrap the entire idea of school vouchers but to make the vouchers "accurately reflect the real cost of education of a particular [sic] child" (Hess 86). According to Hess many states already use a similar approach in apportioning local aid and "school districts like Seattle, Cincinnati, and Houston have developed relatively sophisticated systems for determining real per-pupil costs" (86). When determining the value of a voucher physical and mental handicaps, geographical location, age or grade level, and any other factor that affects the cost of educating a child should be considered.
Another perceived problem of school vouchers is the possibility of fraud. Con-artists may set up "cardboard" schools in order to cheat parents out of their child's voucher or parents may try to use the voucher for personal use if certain measures are not taken to prevent fraud. A solution to this is a definition of what states recognize as a school. The definition should be broad enough to allow for the needed flexibility to create a variety of schools, but should contain language to keep public funds out of the hands of con artists and frauds. Milton Friedman in Free to Choose: A Personal Statement wrote that "school vouchers would have to be spent in an approved school…and could be redeemed for cash only by such schools" (165). With a bureaucracy as large as the government and the huge sums of money involved in the funding of education, fraud or corruption are inevitable, but a careful defining of what a school is and keeping parents from turning the vouchers in for cash will help to keep fraud at a tolerable level.
Also, when a voucher system is implemented it is usually challenged in the courts because most of the programs allow for government money to be used at parochial schools and some believe this violates the establishment clause of the constitution. However, the Supreme Court of the United States has already ruled on this in the case Zelman v Simmons-Harris in 2002. The opinion stated that so long as the aid, in this case school vouchers, is "neutral with respect to religion" and is provided to a "broad class of citizens" then the "incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual aid recipients, not the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits." The voucher program recommended in this paper fits safely within the guidelines put forward by the court. According to Milton Friedman there are several other examples of government aid programs that fit these guidelines and are generally accepted as constitutionally sound such as the Montgomery GI Bill that gives college tuition aid to veterans and allows them to use the funds at a school of their choice, to include religious universities. Government aid to the poor is spent at religious organizations that sell discounted food, clothing, and shelter and social security can be donated directly to religious organizations by retirees.
Federalism should be taken into account considering the text of the constitution and the philosophy of the forefathers. Federalism also has positive practical effects. By allowing individual states to implement education reforms the initial impact of the changes are small and other states can step back and watch before making similar decisions. However, if vouchers do prove successful and several states adopt them as their means of financing education than the entire education system will be revolutionized. The way text books are chosen, the power of teacher unions, and the teaching career field will be changed forever.
Andrew Coulson gives a good history of what he calls the "Lobotomization of Textbooks" noting that all students learn at different paces and that with the adoption of an aged-based grading system "all textbooks were simplified to the level of the slowest students" (170). In the 1800s schools divided students based on skill level rather than age. This allowed faster learner to excel meeting their potential and for slower learners not to be left behind as they, too, studied at their own pace. To make matters worse many states decided to implement statewide textbook adoption. This allowed a state-level committee to choose the text books for the entire state. While this seemed beneficial economically since they ordered all their books in bulk at a discounted price it had severe consequences. Textbook producers found that it was less profitable to produce text books for individual schools, forcing schools to either purchase the same textbooks that were adopted state-wide or pay much higher prices for their textbooks of choice. Coulson writes that "adoption states of thus come to dominate the textbook publishing industry over the years, with California, Texas, and Florida carrying the greatest weight" (173).
If several states implemented vouchers to include there would be enough independent schools to provide incentives for publishers to produce a larger variety of textbooks. The purchasing of textbooks will become decentralized and textbooks will become less generalized. Independent schools will also have the option of breaking from the current mold and to start teaching kids based on skill level rather than age again.
Another effect of a voucher revolution would be the lessening of the power that teacher unions hold under the current education system creating a more democratic and positive environment for education. Myron Lieberman, who was once an influential and active union member in both the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to include being a candidate for AFT president in 1962, explains in, "The Teacher Unions: How they Sabotage Educational Reform and Why" that the key to teacher union power is collective bargaining. This essentially allows teachers from many schools and districts to collectively negotiate with state governments. Lieberman notes that the effect is that a union is "bargaining for seventy thousand teachers in over nine hundred New York City schools" which is critically different than "bargaining for twenty teachers in a rural one-site school district" (49). Lieberman also writes that union members receive a "dual system of benefits," both contractual and statutory (68). Lieberman concludes from his experiences in education and in teacher unions that "collective bargaining in public education is inconsistent with democratic, representative government" since "government officials negotiate public policies with one special interest group (teacher unions) in a process from which other parties are excluded" (xi).
A voucher system would force unions to negotiate with individual schools and make them more like unions in the private sector. Collective bargaining will help them gain power in state run schools and independent schools will have a distinct interest in including parents, administrators, teachers, and all other concerned parties in the bargaining process.
Any voucher program that is going to be implemented has to seriously consider the effects it will have on teachers. Teachers are the backbone of education and ways to increase the numbers and quality of teachers is essential to any successful education reform and decentralizing the power of teacher unions will be one of the benefits of a voucher revolution. Teacher unions only support salary scales that pay teachers based on their time teaching and have little to nothing to do with teacher performance. This pay system also makes raises or bonuses difficult since they must be applied across the board to all teachers at a school and sometimes all teachers in a state. Another problem under the current system is the requirements necessary to become a teacher. Richard Murnane reports in the book, "Who Will Teach?", that "extensive preservice training requirements deter many talented college students who would like to teach from ever doing so" (qtd. in Coulson 144). Hess writes that the best potential candidates for teachers will have the most options and are the least likely to forgo work for a year or more to become certified and meet the requirements to become a teacher.
Under the voucher system independent schools would be able to negotiate teacher salaries as they see fit which would most likely lead to pay increases to teachers in subject areas of critical need such as math and science. It would also lead to higher pay for teachers who have better performance and who do extra work or work extra hours. A voucher system would also give more power to principals and school administrators who hire and fire teachers. Currently, due to contractual agreements and statutory regulations firing a teacher is nearly impossible, and even when it is possible it is extremely time consuming and wastes resources. However, with vouchers school administrators will have to balance the needs of teachers against the needs of the children they teach and will not be burdened by collective bargaining. Teachers are the backbone of any education system and should be treated with that respect, but we must also realize that bad teachers have the potential to paralyze that education system if they are not remedied.
Public schools have only been a major part of the American landscape since the late 1800s and early 1900s. According to Andrew Coulson most Americans depended on independent private schools and free schools established by philanthropists and religious organizations. He also notes that "England and the United States had already achieved widespread literacy before government-run schools were introduced, as had parts of France" (105). His findings show that private schools are not the new untested idea but that public schools are the new idea and they have failed their test. The history of private schools is much brighter than that of public schools and this should be taken into consideration in trying to decide whether or not to implement vouchers.
Vouchers should not be seen as a threat to public school or any other form of schooling, but should be viewed as a broadening of choices for America's children. Vouchers will have many positive effects on education and if adopted by several states in the union will revolutionize the entire system in a way that will make Americans proud. By implementing vouchers states will be recognizing the individual needs and the uniqueness of every child and providing a way for them to meet their potential without trying to fit them into a one size fits all mold. Vouchers will allow parents to send their children to a school that reflects their values. Most importantly vouchers will allow the most money to go directly to the education of children rather than getting siphoned off at every level of the current bureaucracy.
Coulson, Andrew J. Market Education: The Unknown History. New Brunswick:
Transaction Publishers, 1999.
Friedman, Milton. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. New York: Harvest, 1990.
Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Goldman, Jerry. "Zelman v. Simmons-Harris." Oyez. 27 Jun. 2002. 22 Apr. 2006.http://www.oyez.org/oyez/resource/case/1496/.
Hess, Frederick M. Common Sense School Reform. New York: Palgrave Macmillan,
Lieberman, Myron. The Teacher Unions: How They Sabotage Educational Reform and
Why. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2000.
OECD. Education at a Glance 2005-Tables. 2005. 19 Jun. 2006.http://www.oecd.org/document/11/0,2340,en_2825_495609_35321099_1_1_1_~1,00.html