A House of Straw:
A Critique of the Clinton Administration's Position on School Vouchers

by Doug Payton

I heard about the website Vote.com, run by Dick Morris, et. al. (he of Clinton polling fame and, of late, FOX commentator), and thought I'd take a look to see what all the fuss was about. What this site does it put up a number of polls on current event issues, and E-mail the results to those in government under whose jurisdiction the information would fall under. Generally, this includes the President and Vice President, as well as the user's Representatives & Senators. It can also include, as in the case of my first (and, as yet, only) vote, Education Secretary Richard Riley.

The result of my vote supporting school vouchers, and the automated E-mail sent to the Education Department, was a canned response giving a couple of web sites where the administration's position on school vouchers could be found. Among them, this paragraph:

* Testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives
  Committee on the Budget -- "Fixing Our Schools From the
  Bottom Up: State, Local, and Private Reform
  Initiatives" (September 23, 1999). We invite you to
  read the "Vouchers Are Appealing, But Fatally Flawed"
  section of this testimony, which you will find at:

So I took a peek at the document to see how fatally flawed the voucher idea could be.

Prior to the section on vouchers, the document addresses "What Really Works" in providing a better education for students. The topics covered are:

And now we come to the crux of the matter, in the section "Vouchers are Appealling but Fatally Flawed". There are so many misrepresentations and half-truths in this section that they need to be addressed individually.

"These examples show that successful educational improvement demands comprehensive approaches, a sustained commitment from everyone involved, and plenty of hard work. The appeal of vouchers, I believe, rests largely on the idea that you don't have to do these things. That there is some kind of parallel universe of superior private schools that is ready, able, and willing to take on the job of educating 46 million public school students. That all you have to do to fix the public schools is to leave them behind and subsidize private education instead. Well, I'm here to tell you that there is no such parallel universe. The only way to fix the public schools is to fix the public schools, not abandon them."

The appeal of vouchers is the fact that this hard work is not being done at the public school level in far too many instances. When parents actively choose a school for their children, public or private, there is "sustained commitment". When schools and teachers compete for those dollars, there would be "sustained commitment" to provide the best education for the dollar, the way competition does it in other fields. Often parents put their children in private schools so that they will have to work harder, and private schools often require more of the parents in participating in the education of their children. This is straw argument #1 (at least in this section): No one is suggesting that giving parents a choice of schooling makes the commitment and work involved magically go away.

Straw argument #2 follows immediately, suggesting that voucher proponents think that public schools should be abandoned entirely and every child put in private schools. Vouchers would allow parents to choose public or private for their children without the financial penalty currently involved in that decision (still paying public school taxes for children not attending the public school). No one is suggesting the public schools be abandoned.

"And that's not just me talking--the American people agree and have agreed for almost 40 years. In 1950, a Life Magazine poll asked Americans whether they favored Federal funding of schools run by churches or just the public schools. Only 30 percent favored giving Federal money to religious schools. In 1999, at a time when improving education is the top national priority and Americans favor increased Federal spending on education by a 3 to 1 margin, a new Life Magazine poll showed the same 30 percent support for giving Federal dollars to schools run by churches."

We begin straw argument #3 by trying to make a poll say what you want it to say; by slanting the question. The poll assumes that all private schools are church-run, which they are not. By asking the question that way, you invite those who are antagonistic to religion and those who may see some sort of Constitutional religious establishment problem with it to vote against the proposal. Given this poll, we have no idea how Americans think about giving federal funds to private schools in general, thus invalidating this argument.

And of course, this whole problem of federal funding vs. religious schools could be moot if the money wasn't taxed from us in the first place. Giving my money to a religious school for tuition does not create any legal questions. Once it passes through the hands of the federal government, however, the wrangling begins. For this reason, the best solution would be for the government to let people keep their own money and do with it what they choose rather than invite the ACLU to tell me how I can spend a voucher.

"Let me begin with the core assumption of voucher proponents: that private schools provide a superior education to public schools, and at lower cost. Numerous studies show that if you control for family educational background and income, students in public schools perform about as well as students in private schools. I won't deny that the very best private schools provide an excellent education, just as the very best public schools do, but on average private schools do not deliver the superior education promised by voucher supporters."

Straw argument #4 begins with the assumption that the only reason parents choose a private school is because of the education standards. Secretary Riley just finished lumping all private schools under the "church-run" category, so he must be aware that many (but, of course, not all) are religious in nature. Thus, many parents choose a private school based on this as well; that their children will get an education that is in harmony with their values and beliefs and not the value-free and, in some cases, anti-religious sentiment found in the public school system. If his assertion about performance is true, it is still not the whole story. The sad thing is that he knows the whole story, if in a stereotypical sort of way, but selectively ignores it when it suits him.

Further, I wouldn't even be sure of those studies. In many other studies (that Secretary Riley should probably know about), homeschooled students (the classic private school) consistently score in the 80th percentile on standardized tests. (Public school students, by definition, average at the 50th percentile.) And private schools generally already have all of the features that Secretary Riley wished to improve upon in the public school system. Thus, if the studies he refers to are accurate, then improving standards or class size or teacher quality won't change the quality of education! Straw argument #5 is thus exposed: He cannot say that both improving certain qualities will improve public schools, and that private schools that have those qualities fare only as well as public schools.

"As for costs, research shows that nominal tuition charges at private schools substantially understate the real costs of private education. Most private schools rely heavily on special fees and fundraising activities to supplement tuition. In addition, most private schools do not provide the range of educational services found at public schools, such as special education, bilingual education, free transportation, and food and health services. The record keeping and reporting required to ensure accountability for public funds in a voucher system also would increase costs. Once these factors are taken into account, any cost benefits of private education largely disappear."

Straw argument #6: My family and I have been involved with a number of public school fund-raisers. Private schools are not the only ones that do this.

Straw argument #7: If a private school does not provide certain services, parents are free to choose another school, at greater cost, if they wish. Further, if vouchers were available, I have no doubt specialized schools, such as one for those with special educational needs, would be created. In doing so, they would spread out the cost of those special facilities such that on a per-person basis the increase would not be as substantial as the Secretary suggests.

Straw argument #8: If the government would let me keep my own money and spend it on the school of my choice, there would not need to be that record keeping. Private schools already keep accounting records.

Possible straw argument (but I won't count it against him): Maybe I'm wrong, but I thought the annual tuition to a private school was currently more than the tax I'm charged for the public schools, and I assumed that a voucher system would not necessarily pay for the entire cost of the school of my choice. Of course, as I've already said, with a voucher system (or with allowing me to keep my own money), competition would cause schools to work at giving the best education for the price. Competition in other fields does this for us, and it would do it for the education system, too.

Once these straw arguments are taken into account, Secretary Riley's points about private education largely disappear.

"It also is important to remember that a significant portion of any public investment in vouchers would go to students and families already in the private schools. Nationwide, for example, it would take some $15 billion to pay the costs of the 5 million students already enrolled in private school. This substantial expense would do nothing to help students in public schools, particularly the disadvantaged students who are the focus of Federal education programs."

Is the Secretary really suggesting that spending money on a private education is wasted, since it's not helping public school students? The idea that public school students, disadvantaged or otherwise, are somehow more deserving of education money, from whatever source, is nothing more than a bureaucrat trying to save his own little fiefdom (along with a little dash of bigotry and class warfare). It's also straw argument #9.

"Another set of concerns is purely logistical. With over 90 percent of our children attending public schools, there just are not enough spaces to accommodate more than a small percentage of public school students in existing private schools. In California, for example, less than one percent of the State's public school students could expect to find space in private schools. It also seems logical to assume that the spaces that are available are likely to be found in second-tier private schools and not the best ones."

Here, the Secretary revisits straw argument #2, suggesting again that every single public school child, under a voucher system, would have to be placed in a private school, or that every single parent would make that choice.

Additionally, the Secretary doesn't seem to think that, if parents had more choice with their money, more choices would be forthcoming. When the telecommunications industry was "de-monopolized", the range of companies offering services did not remain the same (AT&T plus a couple of fledging upstarts, like MCI). Instead, with the opportunity for choice, the choices themselves multiplied, with the original monopoly company still holding a sizeable share of the market. The Secretary is entirely ignoring market forces.

"And getting students to private schools can require costly transportation subsidies. The City of Cleveland, for example, spent $1.4 million in one year to pay for taxis that carried voucher students to school. Transportation is an often overlooked but unavoidable and very expensive extra cost of voucher programs."

If I'd been on the House of Representatives Committee on the Budget, my first question after this would have been, "How much did it cost to bus the same number of students?" It's quite convenient that Secretary Riley omitted that figure. Here in Atlanta, disadvantaged students might get bus tokens to get them to school at a substantial cost saving over taxis.

In any event, many private schools, and even day care centers, already have their own buses for transporting students, and this is folded into the cost of the school.

In terms of dollars, taxis are an incredibly inefficient way to get students to and from their school on a regular basis. I think this is the highlighting of a bad example to try to prove a point (thus straw argument #10). If vouchers (or tax cuts) were implemented on a large scale, it would open up a market for private bussing companies to pick up students, perhaps for multiple schools to lower costs. If it's costly now, it would be costly then, vouchers notwithstanding.

"A final area of concern is that many of the attributes that explain the appeal and the academic success of private schools are incompatible with the purposes of publicly supported education. For example, many parents turn to private schools because they believe religion should be an important part of their children's education. And most private schools use selective admissions procedures to screen out difficult-to-serve students, such as some children with disabilities or behavioral problems."

The Secretary's selective memory returns in this paragraph. He ignored religion as a reason to choose a particular school before, but he has remembered it now. The idea that religion in education is "incompatible with the purposes of publicly supported education" is a big reason why public schools are in the fix they're in with respect to shootings and all sorts of other activities that make the learning experience dangerous and unhealthy.

And again, with the advent of more choice in schools, there would be new ones that would not have restrictive admission policies in order to bring in more students. If they worked well with those difficult-to-serve students, then they would prosper.

The big straw argument here (#11) is that the Secretary feels he needs to explain the academic success of private schools even though, as he has already asserted, they are no different academically than public schools.

"Private schools have been quick to recognize that participation in voucher programs threatens much of what gives private education its character and vitality. For example, a 1998 survey of 22 urban areas found that 86 percent of religious schools would not participate in a voucher program if it permitted students to opt out of religious instruction. Many private schools also value their independence from the oversight that necessarily accompanies the use of public funds. This led 64 private schools in Miami to abstain from participation in Florida's statewide voucher program. While we can all appreciate and respect the determination of these schools to remain independent, their position underscores the difficulty of ensuring accountability for public funds in voucher programs."

Once again, we have a survey tailored to back-up Secretary Riley's assumptions. The survey asks if religious schools would participate in a voucher program that required them to allow students to opt out of religious instruction. The assumption, straw argument #12, is that a voucher system must have that stipulation, but that isn't necessarily so. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a Cleveland school district policy (overturning an Appeals Court ruling) that vouchers could go to private religious schools. If my tax deductions can go to a religious institution, why can't my voucher go to a school that includes religion?

Further, if instead of vouchers I got to keep my money without Uncle Sam getting his paws on it, this would be a non-issue altogether. It wouldn't be "public funds", it would be my funds.

"All of these factors--the performance, capacity, costs, character, and accountability of private schools--suggest that the supporters of vouchers have not really thought through the real implications of their proposals. If they had, I believe that they would have to agree that private school vouchers just don't make sense as a responsible strategy for effective reform of the public schools. Voucher proposals can only distract the American people from the hard work of real education reform, drain critically needed funds from our public schools, and undermine support for public education. "

All of these factors are, of course, empty rhetoric. It is Secretary Riley that has not thought through the implications of vouchers; more choices for parents, better schools through the time-honored method of competition, and ultimately better education for students. The true distraction is the claim of improvement by this administration, many of which were made necessary by the destruction of personal responsibility, elevation of self-esteem over education and pandering to the NEA on teacher accountability. Most of the problems the Secretary wishes to fix were created by the liberal Outcome-Based Education effort.

Consider this: Re-read all of Secretary Riley's quotes with the assumption that he is talking, not about public elementary and high schools, but a public college and university system. Ask yourself why private education works so well in that field, why state-run colleges and universities are not undermined by private ones, and how college scholarships are that much different from vouchers (or the elimination of public school taxes).

There is ample evidence that when people are given control of their own money and their own choices regarding education, they can choose well. There is plenty of historical precedent for the idea that competition will increase the choices available and the quality of those choices. The fear in this administration is evident in their empty arguments against letting us decide for ourselves how we will spend our own money. To them, it is not education that is paramount, but the retention of money and power, as well as the liberal cornerstone that only the government can solve our problems.

Vouchers threaten them, and for my money, that's not a bug, it's a feature.

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