Wednesday, March 7, 2007

What's Wrong with School Vouchers

Here's a piece from the Waco Trib on school vouchers. I like the Trib; it's very soft against the buttocks. (Once again I truly dislike the paper greatly, but can't stop glancing at the website.)

I want to address a few of the writer's points.

"Instead of allowing school vouchers, if we could give public schools the same freedoms that private schools have, the cry for vouchers would be silenced."
As long as there is state or federal money going into local school districts, there will be strings attached to that money. An argument often used against school vouchers is that there is no control on how private schools use the voucher funds. Giving state or federal money to school districts with no strings attached would result in the exact same issue of control.

"I suspect these bills were less about fairness than ploys to gradually grant all private school families tuition breaks."
I can't see how this is a motivation behind school choice legislation. Teachers unions are much stronger politically than private school parents, so even if the purpose of a voucher bill is to eventually grant tuition breaks to private school families, it would never happen politically.

"All citizens must support public education, either through property taxes or through higher rents imposed by property owners. People who don’t have children in the system still pay for public education through their tax dollars."
Whether the writer admits it or not, this is a problem. Costs are widely dispersed and benefits are concentrated. This leads first to spending levels that are higher than socially optimal levels. If someone else is paying for your lunch, why not buy the most expensive thing on the menu? Secondly, there is a problem of people footing the bill that have no say in what happens in a particular school district.

Lets say for instance that I own property in, but don't live in the school district. Because I own property in the district I'm helping to fund the school through my tax payments. However, I don't live in the district so I don't get a vote in school board elections. Even though I'm helping foot the bill, I have no say in what goes on in the school. If I try to walk into the school to investigate teaching methods or student behavior, I'll be ignored at the least and removed by force at worst. (A nice reform might be giving all property owners in a school district voting right in school board elections.)

This disconnect between who makes decisions and who funds the school results in inefficiency. Just imagine what would happen if you paid someone to purchase art work for you but there was no feedback mechanism. The art buyer could purchase pieces of art that you found repulsive, but you would have no way of telling him to stop buying that garbage. It's the exact same situation with school finance. Even though I pay part of the costs, I have absolutely no say in how the school operates unless I happen to live in the district. If I think the school should teach more economics (and force students to read The Misanthropic Economist) and teach less art there is absolutely no way I can make that preference known to the relevant decision making unit. Because the people who fund the school are the not same group that receives benefits from the school, there is little incentive to effectively monitor expenditures and the incentive to provide quality instruction is diminished because the majority of parents can't afford (or won't pay the cost, I'm not sure which is more accurate) to pay for private schooling, the public school doesn't face the prospective of losing revenue if the student leaves.

The writer also brings up No Child Left Behind as a cause of public school underperformance, but that act wasn't present 6 or 7 years ago and the problems were exactly the same.

Once again I'm not saying that school vouchers are a good idea. You would probably have some of the same incentive problems in terms of who funds the schools and who makes the decisions. All I'm trying to point out is that incentives matter. Any amount of wishful thinking or dedication on the part of teachers will not change that.

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