We have a new Secretary of Education in the US Department of Education and she is the talk of the education world! DeVos. She is known for favoring school vouchers. Is this okay? What’s a voucher! What’s The Grauer School’s position on vouchers? We’d love you to learn about these since advancing great education is a powerful part of our school mission. Be an advocate! Read on…
1. Background: Our Growing Bureaucracies
First off, the US Department of Education is a huge bureaucracy: gigantic, sprawling, and growing each year. Why? For one thing, its mission is to provide equal access to all, such as through Title IX, and it’s a big country. But also because its efforts to centralize and standardize education add bureaucracy and politics that make it keep sprawling.
There is a shift going on, and it is not in concert with American family preferences. Think of the shift this way: the more control we give to the federal and state governments, the less we give to local schools, local communities, and local experts. Local communities and parents are rapidly and steadily losing their influence in the way they educate their own children. Unless, of course, their children attend independent schools, like Grauer.
But don’t we need those federal curriculum guidelines, frameworks, and bureaus? Hmmm…I don’t think I have ever met a single person who thinks we do, except the people who work in them or get contracts from them. As “local experts,” those of us who operate independent schools have easy access to curricular frameworks, college entry requirements, and benchmarks for student achievement. We do not need a $70 billion a year federal agency to show them to us. I personally have been using such frameworks since before the U.S. Department of Education was even created! Avoiding this bureaucracy is the reason for creating alternative public school funding strategies. Such as: Vouchers.
As pointed out in my earlier writings, The Grauer School is an independent school and a not-for-profit public charity. As such, in some states we would be eligible for “vouchers” such as advocated by the controversial, questionably qualified, incoming Secretary of Education, DeVos.
But what is a voucher? A school voucher is a government-funded credit redeemable for tuition fees at a school other than the local public school. Re-phrased, in voucher states, if you enroll in an independent school you can get some of your school tax dollars applied to that independent school, even though it is not the local public school. Vouchers have been in use by some states for about 150 years now, so they are hardly unknown. They have not been made available in California at this point, and my guess is that they never will be unless vouchers are extremely limited from current proposals. By comparison, in the Netherlands, more than 70% of pupils attend privately-run but publicly-funded schools.
Over two-thirds of all economists considering the issue, including the famed Milton Friedman, have argued for the modern concept of vouchers, stating that competition would improve schools and cost efficiency. Would this work? Research studies on schools in many states have shown that vouchers increase competition and produce student gains—improving both private and public schools.
3. Cons of Vouchers, and Some Pros
The Federal Government should most certainly have a hand in national educational efforts. We are a united country, with shared traditions and needs. We need strong public schools.
Therefore, many public school advocates argue against vouchers, stating that they threaten to reallocate school funding. Public school districts naturally want the money for themselves, and they want their jobs. Our minorities are struggling to get equal opportunity in their underfunded schools. I hear those arguments: Vouchers that were used for something other than diversity-oriented scholarships would be a tough sell for many of us, myself included.
Public school advocates also argue for fairness, meaning that all schools should be the same. At Grauer, we don’t agree with that part of the argument, at all.
Current trends that are rapidly consolidating schools are deteriorating them—bus rides are getting longer, local traditions are being lost, communities are being divided against their will, and schools are growing bigger and bigger and bigger – for well over a century.
We do not favor uniformity in schooling. Independent schools like Grauer are creating jobs and local commerce. We believe that each community produces its own best education. We believe that each community has its own wisdom, lore, elders, history, and resources. Why should the son of an Uptown New York Manhattanite get the same education as the son of a Lakota Sioux Elder in North Dakota? All great schools blend and balance local learning with nationwide learning. The trouble is, the balance has shifted rapidly towards nationwide, standardized education—away from local.
Disappointed as I am at the prospect of “standardized kids,” I do not want arguments in favor of the free market taken too far. Again: we need great public schools! Nor am I in favor of a laissez faire approach to governing schooling—public schooling needs strong regulation. I am simply advocating for allowing taxpayers legitimate choice. I would favor action that stimulates good and fair competition between all schools.
I would be equally disappointed to find our country outsourcing public education and public funding to private providers. The trouble is, that is already happening. Public schools have outsourced a tremendous amount of their work to private corporations. Textbook and testing companies with billion-dollar federal and state contracts now exert enormous pressure on public school curriculum and instruction—this has turned much of public instruction into a standardized, corporatized, and compliance-oriented business not well suited to the development of free thinkers or democratic schooling.
The reality of teachers and principals under tremendous pressure to raise test scores is well documented, and it leads to corruption and teacher burn-out that is equally well documented. Voucher opponents argues that we need primarily to remove the pressure on standardization and over-testing causing so many teachers to feel disenfranchised. That would surely help, but we have to be realistic and understand that this is not going to happen—the corporate forces driving it are huge, vested, and powerful. Public school teachers are leaving the profession at crisis levels. And yet, almost none of this pressure or burnout is present in independent schooling. Likewise, teaching to the test, as our public schools have enormous pressure to do, means crowding out instruction in subjects that aren’t tested, particularly art, music, physical education, crafts, free time, and play, which are fundamental to a well-rounded education. All of these forces are at play in our public schools. Alternatively, independent schooling generally offers all the enrichments that parents choose to fund.
4. Vouchers in Action
For a non-partial illustration, let’s look outside the bounds of the US and check out the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. These provinces have moved past the public-private split, forgone off-the-shelf privatization, and embraced models of educational diversity by providing partial funding to independent schools.
Like in the US, Canadian independent schools have a documented history of providing high-quality education to diverse populations of students. Independent schools in Canada and virtually everywhere consistently perform on par with schools receiving the top PISA (internationally compared) scores.
In Canada, the educational systems around the country reflect the unique population and history of each province by providing academic approaches that represent religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity, as well as diverse pedagogical approaches, including Montessori, Waldorf, and home-schooling models. While these systems are not identical, they all use key principles of subsidiarity: devolving autonomy to parents, communities, and education professionals while also holding the schools accountable for educational excellence. There is balance.
U.S. public schools have grown and consolidated for so long and so much that most communities feel substantial loss of the community school. Hardly a day goes by that I do not receive word of a distraught, community school fighting government consolidation and bussing in their region. Since I run the Small Schools Coalition, I hear the anguish of community educators first-hand, across the nation: We are losing our communities and it’s heartbreaking to watch. Whatever their pros and cons, which tend to go on forever, vouchers clearly bring local community influence back into the schools.
5. How Much is a Voucher Worth?
Short answer: vouchers tend to pay the independent school about 35 – 70% per student of what the public school would get. That could amount to five or six thousand dollars per pupil. In California, independent schools currently receive no funding for any student attending, despite the savings they bring to the local public school. There are no vouchers.
In Alberta, however, public schools (including charter schools) are fully funded by the government, while independent schools receive partial funding of up to 70 percent of the per-student operating grant that government schools receive. In British Columbia, independent schools receive between 35 percent and 50 percent of the per-student funds provided to government schools in return for varying levels of accountability and accreditation.
I’d be interested in at least seeing a proposal for vouchers. At Grauer and other independent schools, vouchers could do a lot. For instance, a voucher system could offer tax-credit scholarships to students, which could be disbursed to our scholarship fund—If we ever became eligible and indeed chose to receive vouchers, I pledge I would work to put this funding directly into our scholarship fund so that we could advance socio-economic diversity and expand access to our great school. We could have the best scholarship program in the world!
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