An Ignorant Screed on School Choice

by on February 21, 2007 · 12 comments

I’m sure Leander Kahney of Wired makes a lot of sense when he’s talking about music and copyright protection, but when the topic is schools, he seems completely clueless:

Jobs has also been a longtime advocate of a school voucher system, another ridiculous idea based on the misplaced faith that the mythical free market will fix schools by giving parents choice.

Jobs argues that vouchers will allow parents, the “customers,” to decide where to send their kids to school, and the free market will sort it out. Competition will spur innovation, improve quality and drive bad schools (and bad teachers) out of business. The best schools will thrive.

It sounds great–for the successful schools. But what about the failing ones?

Jobs thinks even the low end of the market will be hotly contested, like the market for inexpensive cars. Not everyone can drive a Mercedes, but there’s lots of competition for cheap Toyotas, Kias and Saturns.

But Jobs is using the wrong analogy. It’d be more like the market for the low-end food dollar–rich kids would have lots of choice, but for poor kids it’d be Burger King or McDonald’s. For the system as a whole, vouchers are untenable.

Here’s the thing: vouchers for food isn’t a hypothetical situation. They actually exist! They’re called “food stamps.” And as far as I know, most food stamp recipients do not spend them at Burger King or McDonalds. They spend them at places called “grocery stores” which are, in fact, considerably cheaper, on a per-meal basis, than eating at McDonalds.

For that matter, school choice isn’t a hypothetical either. Milwaukee has had vouchers for more than a decade, and the program is popular among Milwaukee parents. I had the opportunity to tour a couple of voucher schools last fall, and I was quite impressed. One of the schools, opened three years ago as a result of the expansion of vouchers, was a Lutheran high school. Nearly 100 percent of the students were black kids from poor neighborhoods. The school had longer-than-usual hours and an incredibly dedicated staff; they worked long hours and gave kids their cell phone numbers so they’d never have an excuse not to do their homework. Obviously, I can’t tell if a school will succeed from a 1-hour tour, but it certainly wasn’t a “McSchool.” If there are educational entrepreneurs willing and able to create such schools, how can anyone object to that? It’s not like kids trapped in failing urban schools have anything to lose.

In his conclusion, Kahney chalks up our poor educational performance to “enormous economic inequality and the total absence of social safety nets.” I wonder if it’s occurred to Kahney that one of the major contributors to economic inequality is our quasi-feudal education system, in which access to a good school is tied to your parents’ ability to purchase a home in a good school district (or to afford tuition at a private school)? The whole point of school choice is to give low-income parents the same opportunities that wealthier parents now enjoy–to send their children to the school that works best for their own child. If Mr. Kahney is concerned about inequality, supporting school choice should be a no-brainer.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Tim, I feel your pain. I’m driven to madness every time Leander Kahney strays from his Mac beat. Here I take him to task for his idea that Gates should be praised for giving his money to charity while Jobs just a greedy capitalist:

    http://www.techliberation.com/archives/032703.php

    And here I point out that, when trying to decipher trade secrets law, Kahney should consult a lawyer and not a sociologist:

    http://www.jerrybrito.com/archives/000975.shtml

    Sadly, this is nothing new for Wired News:

    http://www.jerrybrito.com/archives/000899.shtml

  • http://www.jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Tim, I feel your pain. I’m driven to madness every time Leander Kahney strays from his Mac beat. Here I take him to task for his idea that Gates should be praised for giving his money to charity while Jobs just a greedy capitalist:

    http://www.techliberation.com/archives/032703.php

    And here I point out that, when trying to decipher trade secrets law, Kahney should consult a lawyer and not a sociologist:

    http://www.jerrybrito.com/archives/000975.shtml

    Sadly, this is nothing new for Wired News:

    http://www.jerrybrito.com/archives/000899.shtml

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    Arizona has had one high school ever make the Newsweek list of the 100 best high schools in the country.

    It was a charter school, BASIS, which only exists because Arizona has allowed experimentation with publicly-funded but privately supplied education, and it came in at #3 on the list last year.

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    Arizona has had one high school ever make the Newsweek list of the 100 best high schools in the country.

    It was a charter school, BASIS, which only exists because Arizona has allowed experimentation with publicly-funded but privately supplied education, and it came in at #3 on the list last year.

  • Randy Picker

    I confess that I regard very few public issues as moral issues, but I think of vouchers in exactly those terms. The members of Congress who rail against vouchers–typically Democrats–who at the same time send their kids to Sidwell Friends aren’t against private schools for their kids, just for not making the same possibilities available to people with less money. I find it hard to describe that as something other than morally offensive.

  • Randy Picker

    I confess that I regard very few public issues as moral issues, but I think of vouchers in exactly those terms. The members of Congress who rail against vouchers–typically Democrats–who at the same time send their kids to Sidwell Friends aren’t against private schools for their kids, just for not making the same possibilities available to people with less money. I find it hard to describe that as something other than morally offensive.

  • http://www.onlyrepublican.com Matt S

    The fact that Kahney asks frames the question:

    It sounds great �¢â?¬â? for the successful schools. But what about the failing ones?

    …demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the issue. The failing school may well fail, but that doesn’t mean the students are hurt. It simply means their business goes elsewhere, to schools that perform better. The resources of the failing school are redirected toward better-performaning ones.

    The intimation that we should be protecting schools first, and students second, is absurd in the extreme.

  • http://www.onlyrepublican.com Matt S

    The fact that Kahney asks frames the question:

    It sounds great �¢â?¬â? for the successful schools. But what about the failing ones?

    …demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the issue. The failing school may well fail, but that doesn’t mean the students are hurt. It simply means their business goes elsewhere, to schools that perform better. The resources of the failing school are redirected toward better-performaning ones.

    The intimation that we should be protecting schools first, and students second, is absurd in the extreme.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    School choice pits two traditional Democratic constituencies against each other, minorities and unions. Until the Dems perfect a fundraising and volunteering model that doesn’t depend on unions, the minority kids are screwed.

    It’s sad that Jobs’ remarks are seen as controversial; it should be obvious there are a lot of under-performing employees in the school system, and it’s largely because of the tenure system that makes them untouchable after two years on the job (in California, at least.)

    That’s not the end of the school system’s problems, however: politicized textbooks and curricula and slacking parents are big parts of the problem as well. And lately it seems to me that the “video culture” we’re developing is hostile to learning in itself, and I don’t begin to know what we do about that.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    School choice pits two traditional Democratic constituencies against each other, minorities and unions. Until the Dems perfect a fundraising and volunteering model that doesn’t depend on unions, the minority kids are screwed.

    It’s sad that Jobs’ remarks are seen as controversial; it should be obvious there are a lot of under-performing employees in the school system, and it’s largely because of the tenure system that makes them untouchable after two years on the job (in California, at least.)

    That’s not the end of the school system’s problems, however: politicized textbooks and curricula and slacking parents are big parts of the problem as well. And lately it seems to me that the “video culture” we’re developing is hostile to learning in itself, and I don’t begin to know what we do about that.

  • http://rgreetings.com Kevin Delaney

    It seems to me that charter schools and voucher systems lead to diversity of ideas. Oddly, this seems to explain why progressives tend to oppose the measures. Progressivism wants a diversity of peoples all with the same indoctrination.

  • http://rgreetings.com Kevin Delaney

    It seems to me that charter schools and voucher systems lead to diversity of ideas. Oddly, this seems to explain why progressives tend to oppose the measures. Progressivism wants a diversity of peoples all with the same indoctrination.

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