Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Modest Proposal

Because of a congressional walkout here in Indiana over a number of issues, including school vouchers, I thought I'd republish my voucher proposal from many years ago. The exact dollar figures are of course out of date, but the ratios are still valid; just adjust for inflation.

This is the proposal that started it all, as heard on the Hot Seat segment of the Greg Browning Show (NewsTalk 1430 AM, Indianapolis), April 20th 2004. Following this original text I have included supporting text and extra material too detailed for a radio show. For those outside of the state of Indiana, ISTEP is our skills test each grade must take. The figures related here apply only to Indiana- but I'm sure the principles are the same in your state, whatever that state is!

Dear Editor, The editorial in the Sunday Star, March 28, about controlling rising college tuition costs, combined with a number of articles and letters recently about Charter schools inspired a comprehensive plan covering grade school through college that will provide a free college education for every Hoosier child without a tax increase!

The first step in this four-step plan is to take the money we’re already allocating from all sources to each student, approximately $8,700, (source: The Star, 3/29/04), and put $3,700 of it into a savings account (more about this account later). Take the remaining $5,000 and issue it as a school voucher. As this is more than the average private school tuition, and more than double the cheapest, there will be no difficulty finding the child a school for this amount.

The second step is to discorporate the various public school systems, and turn the facilities over to the teachers who already work there, letting them function as independent, employee-owned private schools. This should result in big pay increase for most teachers. Consider: multiply the average class size of 25 students by that $5,000 voucher, and you get $125,000per classroom! Subtracting that one room’s share of the utilities and the mortgage (assuming there is one- the average public school mortgage was paid off some time ago), and there’d be plenty left for the teacher!

The third step starts when the child graduates high school or passes the ISTEP. Remember that savings account from step one? $3,700 per year times twelve years of grade school and high school is $44,400, not counting interest. (more about the interest later) That $44,400 is issued as a voucher good at any state supported university! That’s enough for a four year degree at any of the state supported colleges, with enough left over for books and incidentals at most of them!

Step four takes the interest from those savings accounts- a very substantial sum- plus the accounts of those children who die, move out of state, or cannot qualify for college even when it’s free, and the excess from the accounts of those who opted for two-year degrees, and uses that money to cover all the administrative expenses of the new system! Odds are there’d be money left over to return to the general fund.

The results: as a grade school student, the child’s parents have freedom of choice. The teachers get a raise. All the state colleges get a huge influx of cash and students, allowing them to bid on the best professors from all over the world and build the finest research facilities. Business would be anxious to relocate to Indiana- indeed, their employees would demand it! And all of this without spending an extra penny!

All we need to have a world class education system for Indiana is the courage to change a system designed in another century, for another century. Our educational system was originally designed to serve pre-industrial farmers; and unless we change it, that's what our children will become. Joel Monka

EXPANSION Financial notes I had said in step 1 that $3,700 of the per student allocation would be put in a savings account. We all know that in real life this would never happen: no politician from either party can bear the sight of money just sitting there, not being spent to buy votes. (excuse me, of course I meant to provide public services) But what if we DID put it into a savings account, letting the total ride, compounding annually for 12 years? Interest Rate/Amount of Interest 5.0 % = $17,438.10 5.5 % = $19,561.90 6.0 % = $21.763.40 Remember... that’s per student!

Can you really educate a student for $5,000? Any professional educator will tell you that you cannot run a modern school system for $5,000 per student, and they’d be right- you can’t run a school system for that price; but you can run a damn fine school at that rate.

In a story in the Indianapolis Star 4/23/04 about budget woes in Pike Township we find figures to support this. It mentions a $63 million budget for 10,000 students- $6,300/student. It also says that 85% of this is salaries- a commendably high figure, actually. But then it mentions that makes up 700 teachers and 650 non-teaching supporting staff! That’s 50% staff! I’ve been in those schools, and just like the schools I attended they do NOT have a staff member for every teacher- those positions are needed to run the system, not the individual schools. Let’s say a reasonable number of staff members for a school is one for every two teachers (and most schools have fewer than that): cutting half of 85% of $6,300/student yields $5,000/student! This confirms the private school averages of $5,000 per student or less.

Put it this way: what does a school system that operates ten schools do that ten independent schools without a system don’t do? School systems do not train the teachers, they do not license the teachers, they do not write the textbooks, they do not even control the curricula- the ISTEP test does.

The school systems say they set uniform standards- but the wildly divergent results from one school to another within the system forces one to believe that either it’s application is less uniform than claimed, or that a one-size-fits-all approach is the problem in the first place.

The school systems cannot even be trusted to decide which children go to which school without oversight; their long history of racial segregation resulted in the Federal government having to intervene. What does a school system do that is worth the high cost?

OBJECTIONS You cannot eliminate the public school systems- the state has an obligation to educate the children. Yes, the state Constitution says so- but it doesn’t say what form that system must take. We feed the hungry, but we don’t have government run farms, butchers, bakers, and grocery stores; we issue AFDC and WIC vouchers. We provide shelter with section 8 vouchers, we provide medical care with MEDICAID and MEDICARE vouchers- in fact most government services take the form of vouchers; why should education be different?

Voucher systems only help the rich. In past plans, this was often true; the amount offered as a voucher was only a fraction of the amount the public schools got per student, and was not enough to cover tuition. Under this plan, however, every child gets the same allocation, which is enough to cover tuition.

Voucher systems have been tried before and failed. No pure voucher system has ever been tried before- it has always been public schools plus limited vouchers. Under such a system, the government allocates $8,000-$10,000 or more per student to the public schools, but if the child goes elsewhere he only gets $500-$1,500 in vouchers. It is true that $500 will not buy the same education that $10,000 will.

A pure voucher system would only encourage economic, racial, ethnic, and religious stratification. Which is exactly what we have right now- are you saying the Carmel schools and the Center Township schools are equal? The greatest stratification exists between the ruling classes who go to private schools and the rest of us who go to public schools. Bill Clinton opposed vouchers; his daughter went to private schools. Jesse Jackson opposes vouchers; his children went to private schools. Do yourself a favor; ask any politician who opposes vouchers where their children went to school- it’s very enlightening.

How would you handle busing for racial balance? Busing for desegregation was intended to redress past racial segregation by the public school systems. If there is no public school system, there would be no organization having a history of racism, and no past offenses to redress. The situation would be analogous to using a MEDICAID voucher- the government wouldn’t bus you from Wishart to St. Francis for racial balance. If an individual school practices racial discrimination, there are already laws on the books to address that.

The First Amendment prevents any government money going to religious organizations- including schools. That’s not exactly true- for example, MEDICAID and MEDICARE vouchers often go to hospitals run by religious organizations, and the courts have upheld their doing so. When a religious organization is only one of many possible choices, and it’s the consumer making the choice rather than a government official, such payments have always been upheld. The problem arises when you have a public school system on one hand, and private schools that are 90% religious on the other; this means that the voucher choice is not really public vs. private, it’s secular vs. religious. But under my plan, with the formerly public schools now being independent private schools, the secular choices will actually outnumber the religious, and this will restore Constitutionality.

Who will pay for transportation- the school the child wants to go to may not have buses. Even public schools do not always provide free transportation- due to budget cuts, some school districts are now charging for the bus rides- regardless of ability to pay! (, 4/20/04, ‘Budget cuts stalling school buses‘) To add insult to injury, they’re having to pay for rides to go to a school they had no choice in choosing! If there is no public transportation, (in the old days, many children rode city buses to school), and there are no schools within walking distance, and the family is below the poverty line, I’m sure some provision could be made. Remember when couples used to choose where to live to be close to the schools they wanted to send their kids to?

QUESTIONS How would the local school boards be able to oversee dozens of independent schools? School boards exist to give the parents a voice in how the school systems their kids go to are run. If there are no school systems, and the parents have control via the voucher system, then schools boards- and their attendant budgets- would be eliminated as unnecessary and redundant. We would still need a state Superintendent of Public Instruction to set ISTEP standards and such, however.

Don’t charter schools already give us choice in schools? This isn’t just a choice issue- it’s a question of economic efficiency and opportunity as well. But remember that the public school system still runs the charter schools- isn’t that like saying Microsoft gives you choice because they have Windows XP AND Windows NT?

What about the home schooled? The home schooled would be covered by this plan. As long as they’re passing ISTEP, all reasonable education expenses should be voucher eligible. Then if they passed the high school ISTEP, they would get college vouchers like everyone else. In fact, without the need to save for their kids college educations, I would expect a lot of two-income families could afford to have one of them quit their job and stay home with the kids- I would expect to see a huge growth in home schooling.

What about problem students? There wouldn’t be much of a change that I could see. If the problems are physical, what we do right now is mainstream when we can, and institutionalize when we must; those are pretty much the only options under any system. If the problem is behavioral, there are limits to what even public schools will tolerate, and beyond that the kids receive tutoring in juvenile detention. Again, what other options are there? At least this way, if he cleans up his life while in detention, and can pass ISTEP, he’ll get a college voucher when he gets out.

If there’s no public school system, how can you guarantee that small rural districts will have schools? The public schools make no such guarantee; rural students are bused to consolidated school systems. Under the pure voucher system, at least there’s a chance a local school would open. Especially if restrictions on who can teach are eased; then someone home-schooling their child could take in a neighbor’s, too. The entire system of licensing teachers should be re-examined. Under Indiana law, Stephen Hawking is not qualified to teach high school physics and Andrew Lloyd Webber is not qualified to teach music; but someone with a generic degree in education can teach either one. Why? I figure that licensing is unnecessary. If a teacher can’t teach, the school will fire him rather than risking de-certification for vouchers for flunking ISTEP. If the teacher can teach, the job is secure; he’s bringing home the bacon. Either way, the license is meaningless.

ONE LAST TRY... I know that even after reading all the above there are still those saying “I don’t know why not, but it still can’t work.”, so let me make one last attempt. Let’s make this really simple: we’re currently spending $8,700 per year per student on education. That makes the total obligation for the twelve years through high school, in constant dollars, $104,4000. If we divided that total by sixteen years instead, to reflect the extra four years of college, that would be $6,525. Can you buy a year's tuition, at any level from first grade to college senior for $6,525? Hell yes- there are grade schools charging as little as $2,500, and Vincennes University charges less than $3,000!

So why didn’t I say it that way in the first place? Because nobody would read past that simple sentence; half would just run off and tell people this guy says you can run the school system for $6,525 per year, and the other half would say we can afford $6,525 vouchers without ever mentioning that the school systems have to be dismantled before that is possible. Anyone saying that can be easily proven wrong, and that would be the end of the story.

Until you have it firmly in mind that the traditional style of school systems, for all the good they have done for the past- and they really have- are obsolete, nothing else can be done. We are running our schools in the least efficient manner possible because “that’s the way it’s always been done”. Can we really afford the high price of this nostalgia?


Chalicechick said...

I don't remember this from its earlier posting, so I'm reading for the first time.

Here are initial thoughts:

1. You could get a decent private school education for $4,000 in Indiana in 2004? Really? In these parts, a decent private school runs about 30k per year. I'm sure it was less seven years ago, but I'm sure it wasn't $4,000. Other than that, I'm going to take your numbers on faith, not because I'm absolutely sure you're right but because other parts of the discussion are more interesting to me.

2. Do the schools get to pick their students? If not, how do the students end up at each school? If so, what about the kids that nobody wants?

3. Do the students get to pick the schools? I assume so from what you're saying and that partly answers question 2. I tend to think that a totally voucher-based system would lead to essentially the same situation that we have now--parents who are really into getting their kids into the right schools and are good at playing the system will have their kids in the best schools, the parents who don't give a shit or don't function will be at the worst schools and everybody else will be somewhere in between.

4. What if there's a deaf kid whose parents don't have time to home school her, but there's no school for the deaf anywhere around her? If there's no school board to hold accountable for educating the kid, what happens?

5. What if there's a kid who has screwed up a lot in that "maybe he has learning disabilities, maybe he's got a shitty home life, maybe he's just a troublemaker by nature but basically a good kid" sort of way? IMHO, "Alternative Schools" with small classes that are the way school districts sort those kids from the kids who belong in juvie. Without that system, are those kids going to juvie?

6. As my concerns with 4 and 5 illustrate, there seem to be a lot of broken eggs with this plan. The homeschooled kids with an untrained teacher is a little questionable as well. At the same time, perhaps that is not a fair consideration given that there are a lot of broken eggs in the current school system.

Chalicechick said...

7. I have a sense that in this program, community values will dictate what ends up getting taught beyond the baseline requirements. Maybe it makes sense for farm kids to learn agriculture because that's what their teachers know, inner city kids learn about retail jobs and suburban kids are the only ones who are seriously treated as potential doctors and lawyers. Maybe that's all true now. (As a suburban kid who got a really fine public education, I'm not in the best place to tell you.)

But I worry about the kid on the farm who just wants to work in the city and the kid who has wanted to fix cars all his life and is tired of reading Thomas Hardy with his college-bound peers. 12 years is a long time to be educated in stuff

I guess the kids who don't conform to their environments are another set of broken eggs. Indeed, such kids usually are in other systems, I'm sure. But it bugs me.

8. How on earth would grading be standardized? The simplest solution to me seems to be to send grades with an explanation stating the average GPA of students at that given school.

9. Would Indiana Universities need to pick up the slack and have some remedial programs? I think so. The most obvious example to spring to mind is that no tiny country school and very few charter schools are going to bother to teach drafting and engineering schools are hesitant to take students who haven't had it. Again, assuming the kids go to school in Indiana, there can just be a remedial summer program, but I think Indiana kids who wanted to go someplace else would be in trouble. Maybe they could attend the summer programs too, then go on to school out of state. (Can drafting be taught in a summer? I have no idea.)

All that notwithstanding, I don't hate this plan and if someplace (like Indiana) with cities and suburbs and rural areas wanted to try it as an experiment, I wouldn't be against that. Real students would be the guinea pigs, though, and that remains a sobering though.

who could do a whole discussion of the church and state aspects, too, but as you've noted the courts have at least partially settled this.

Joel Monka said...

1. Yeah, you really could. My brother in law was sending his kids to an accredited parochial school for $2,700 each just a couple years earlier, although admittedly that's the extremely low end. According to this article, from a local television station, the current average price for a Catholic elementary school is $4,000- that's February 2011 dollars! A Catholic high school is $7,000 today- and there are accredited schools cheaper than the Catholic ones. Yes, Virginia, everything in Indiana really does cost less than the East coast.

2. & 3. The kids' parents pick the schools, and the money follows. And while yes, many parents won't look much farther than "is it convenient", at least under this plan, each school gets individual attention paid to it for accreditation... the big city public school systems here have played fast and loose with statistics around here. For example, the Indianapolis Public School system was touting a 94% graduation rate a few years back... an investigative reporter discovered they calculated that on how many started and finished the senior year. If you follow individual students from K-12, the graduation rate was about 38%

4. Indiana has a state run school for the deaf, independent of any school system. Don't most states? (I really don't know) Same for the blind, and both are pretty highly rated.

5. & 6. Currently, those kids go to juvie anyway, because the Indianapolis Public School System sure as Hell doesn't want them. At least with this proposal, there's the possibility that someone would start such an alternative school here. Maybe we could get Marva Collins to come here.

7. Community values, expressed through the school board, dictate what gets taught right now. And under the public school system, there's no chance of getting anything different. At least under this system, the parents would have the right to send their kids to a Montessori school, or whatever they wanted, knowing it would be paid for; they just have to find it. And that's tremendous incentive for existing schools to open new ones in new neighborhoods as well. Those fish out of water kids you mention will be no worse off, and possibly much, much better.

8. Why would you need standardized grading? We have the standardized achievement tests; the law requires those right now. Antioch college never gave any grades, but Ginj tells me that had some sort of GPA equivalency system they could give prospective employers; I imagine Montessori and other non-traditional schools must do something similar.

9. I'm sure the various universities would have to have some remedial programs- they have them right now, because several Indiana colleges cannot refuse an Indiana resident with a valid high school diploma, and many of those diploma holders read at a third grade level.

Chalicechick said...

I'll write more when I'm in front of a real computer, suffice to say that my engineer buddies pointed out that some of the weaknesses (e.g. Drafting) can be covered by the community college system.