Voucher Bubbles

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The American Prospect's weblog notes some reports of bad news from Milwaukee's voucher program:

One school that received millions of dollars through the nation's oldest and largest voucher program was founded by a convicted rapist. Another school reportedly entertained kids with Monopoly while cashing $330,000 in tuition checks for hundreds of no-show students.

This shouldn't be too surprising, but it does point to one of the potential problems with overselling vouchers as an instant panacea. The real advantage of a genuine market in education is about process, not time slices—about improvement through a longer-term filter process. At any given instant, a government run widget factory that starts up can probably make as good a widget as the private equivalent. The point of competition is that over time successful practices and innovations are selected and rewarded, while less successful ones are winnowed out.

I imagine the infusion of voucher money into the private education sector is a little like the early days of the dot-com boom: Plenty of crap ideas chasing those new dollars, most of which aren't going to survive. The question is whether it's politically possible for the programs to last through that phase.

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  1. Step one of government infiltration of private schools. Libertarians against school vouchers saw this coming. It will also be another chit for the teachers union.

    From the AP article: The recent scandals have shocked politicians, angered parents… “Now people are saying, ‘Geez, if the public schools have to meet this level of accountability, why shouldn’t the private schools also?”‘

    http://www.cnn.com/2004/EDUCATION/04/05/voucher.crossroads.ap/

    Did those angered parents do anything about putting those kids into different private schools then? Or did they just bitch and moan and expect politicans to do the regulatin’ work for them?

  2. To be fair, those sorts of vignettes are not unlike the brickbats section of a certain magazine.

    In general I agree with Russ D, which is why I have a slight preference for privately-funded scholarships. But if I can’t have those, vouchers are a good second choice, so long as we demonstrate that just the reportage of such events will cause the students, and hence the money, to flow out of the school faster than the government can enact a regulation.

  3. Government contractors turning out inferior quality? I’m shocked!

    I spent one summer in college as an intern with the Department of Energy. The lab was run by a contractor. As far as I could tell the private contractor working for the gov’t simply meant twice as much bureaucracy. This is not to say that there isn’t a place for private contracting, but the word “private” is no panacea. If it isn’t done right, a public-private partnership can give you the worst of both worlds…

  4. Hear! Hear! Why anyone of free market orientation thought diverting government money to private providers of primary education thought it would work better than it did in university education or healthcare is baffling to this Libertarian.

    The only good thing about vouchers is that they make union teachers upset – but that isn’t good enough to justify using them.

  5. Hear! Hear! Why anyone of free market orientation thought diverting government money to private providers of primary education thought it would work better than it did in university education or healthcare is baffling to this Libertarian.

    The only good thing about vouchers is that they make union teachers upset – but that isn’t good enough to justify using them.

  6. Well, as a liberal (and the author of the root post) I have to say I think Russ D. has this exactly right — the answer is to marry vouchers with government infiltration of private schools.

  7. School choice is useless without accountability. It just becomes a publicly funded private sector version of the publicly owned and operated debacles it is meant to remedy. That’s why mandatory testing and regular periodic review of charter and magnet school programs (among other innovations) is necessary…

  8. “Government contractors turning out inferior quality? I’m shocked!” — thoreau

    Well if the contractor is found to be doing inferior work, all you have to do is cancel or not renew the contract. If you find the government is doing inferior work, it’s a hell of a lot harder to cancel their contract.

  9. One point the TAP blog of CNN’s posting of the AP’s summary of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s report on Wisconsin’s new laws covering choice schools doesn’t emphasize, is that Mandella and Alex’s Academy got caught, and have been closed. The choice program remains popular, and new independent schools continue to be planned.

    Since Jim Doyle, Democrat and lickspittle of the Wisconsin Education Association Council –

    and what an ungrammtical name is that. Is it an Association or a Council? If the teachers can’t even name their union according to the rules of English….

    *ahem*, where was I? Oh, yeah, since Doyle won the governor’s chair, he’s been thwarting the Republican State Legislature from expanding the choice program. The two sides have agreed on more financial oversight, and backgound checks. As per one of the links I posted, not all states do background checks on their public school employees.

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/metro/feb04/206326.asp

    Oh, how about some horror stories about teachers in government schools?

    http://www.wpri.org/WIInterest/Vol9No2/Clowes9.2.pdf

    BTW, almost all MKE choice schools use some kind of standardized testing:

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/metro/feb04/208002.asp

    Yes, private scholarships in a totally privatized system would be better, but as an interim step, tax-supported school choice is a step toward a goal. That doesn’t mean that there is no danger of private schools being co-opted by the state, but life is risk.

    Kevin

  10. Stephen
    I don’t pretend to be an expert on the whole voucher/school choice bussines, but it seems to me accountability is inherently built into such a system, both for the public and privately run outfits (including the magnets and everything else in between). If parents see lagging performance at a private school (or a magnet/charter), they can always take their kid (and more importantly, the voucher/funding that comes with them) back to the run-of-the-mill public school. And of course regular public schools don’t want to lose funding, so they’ll try to improve their preformance as well. Isn’t that the whole idea? It is exactly how market systems work, when people have alternatives, you damn well better hold yourself accountable to the consumer or you’re quickly out of bussiness.

    Ok, so proposed sytems of school choice still involve massive amounts of government money, but short of imposing the Ultimate Liberterian Solution on the problem, it seems like choice would be a huge motivation for schools to make better use of their money, and would almost certainly yield positive results.

  11. Thanks for explaining HOW the process changes over time. Its invaluable. Please do it in a full length article with several examples.

  12. Where government money is involved some people will always try to bilk the system. The central point is how quickly the fraud and mismanagement at these schools was exposed and how quickly the schools were shut down. Last year the California legislature gave Oakland schools $100 million bailout without even blinking. The Oaklands and Comptons and Belmont Learning Centers drain billions in tax dollars every year with little hope of being sanctioned or shut down. In fact public school financial mismanagement and academic failure is usually a good way to draw resources into a district or school. No Child Left Behind is a perfect example–where failing schools in need of improvement get the most federal dollars.

  13. “The central point is how quickly the fraud and mismanagement at these schools was exposed and how quickly the schools were shut down.”

    My central point is that the schools should have been closed down by lack of customers, not the whim of bureaucrats.

  14. Russ D.

    The principal of Mandella school cashed over $300k in checks for students whose parents had decided NOT to enroll their kids there. Absent the alleged criminal fraud, the choice system worked. That school has been shut down, and the peculation is being treated the way any fraud in a private business would be. One or more school officials could be looking at serious jail time.

    Kevin

  15. Kevin, I understand what you’re saying but one failure sets the seed for massive government involvement. There’s already talk of requiring all private schools to administer the same standardized tests. The excuse for it is “They’re getting public money.”

    The only alternative for a private school is to not take any voucher students, which then limits the program and makes the private schools more public-like.

    Part of the problem in this case is that the Mandella school only existed for two years, which means it had no track record of educating or attracting students without vouchers (and it still was able to sign up 200 sucke- I mean parents). It appears as the though the school was set up on the expectation that it would get public money in the first place. If the school DIDN’T get voucher students, it never would have been in business. And this isn’t an isolated case!

    Read the original newspaper articles.

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/metro/mar04/215068.asp

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/metro/jan04/203354.asp

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/metro/feb04/207199.asp

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/metro/feb04/206326.asp

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/metro/oct03/177901.asp

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/metro/jan04/201654.asp

  16. Taxpayer funding of American madrassas–coming soon to a city near you!

  17. Russ, I don’t disagree with you. if you notice, up thread, I have been linking to the Urinal-Scentinel, which is my local paper. The choice program was designed to encourage the opening of new schools to compete with Milwaukee Public Schools. Before court rulings allowing religious schools to participate, these new schools were all that were available as alternatives. Now we have independent secular and church-sponsored choice schools, charter schools, alternative schools for students forced out of MPS for discipline and other reasons, and magnet schools for science, technology, health professions, language immersion, Montessori*, arts, college prep within the MPS system, and even an online academy. Minority MPS students can also participate in a voluntary program where city kids enroll in suburban schools. They are trying everything, to see what works for whom.

    No, setting up a school to admit mostly choice students is not an isolated case. Abuse of funds is nowhere near the problem the NEA/WEAC scaremongers want us to believe it is, and isn’t a patch on the billions the government school status quo has frittered away, currently or over the years.

    Libertarians who oppose existing school choice/voucher programs need to propose a workable alternative that can move as many or more kids out of state education than these pilot programs have done. Utopia is not an option, right?

    Kevin

    *yeah, I know, no real Montessori school is a state school. Maria was all about private education.

  18. David, that’s pretty clever. Almost as clever as the California educrats who defeated vouchers at the polls by scaring people with the threat of schools run by Satanists.

    Milwaukee has a whole two (2) muslim schools participating in the school choice program, neither of which could be characterized as madrassas. Our existing government schools are not free from indoctrination on a few subjects. At least in a choice program, parents can pick their poison.

    Kevin

  19. If we’d just to background check on voters, everything would be all right.

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