Rules Are for Schmucks: Making Choice Better

I spent a long career working for companies competing in the private sector, many of which I came to admire. I spent much of that time battling against a variety of government bureaucrats, many of whom I came to disdain. And I’m well aware of the dismal data about the performance of American schools, which burn through astonishing amounts of spending per pupil while producing results embarrassingly near the bottom of the industrialized world.

So when people suggest that we put the competitive enterprise system to work in education, empowering parents with government-issued vouchers to reward schools that work and punish those that don’t, it makes loads of sense to me.

Except for one problem: it doesn’t seem to work.

The latest evidence comes from Betsy DeVos’s own Department of Education. They just released a study of the results of a school voucher experiment Congress has for several years been forcing on the District of Columbia. The study focused on students during the first year after they switched from public schools to private schools, tuition paid in part by Uncle Sam. Compared to students who didn’t switch, the voucher kids actually performed worse on their standardized tests—exactly the opposite of what DeVos & Co. would predict.

Mere facts, though, never bother a committed ideologue. “When school choice policies are fully implemented,” DeVos insisted, “there should not be differences in achievement among the various types of schools.” Should not? What’s that supposed to mean? The whole point of examining data is to discover what is happening, not what should be happening.

Furthermore, even if she’s right, the whole point of the expensive voucher gambit is to improve performance, isn’t it? Not to produce “no difference” in achievement levels.

So why isn’t the free market approach working, when reason and experience would predict that it “should”? I suspect the answer lies in the fact that so many of the private schools to which the voucher kids are transferring have a more complex agenda than simply educating children. Education is their sideshow: what they’re really about is indoctrinating future customers for the God industry.

Singer Katy Perry is a good example. She spent much of her childhood at Paradise Valley Christian Preparatory School in Phoenix, Arizona, later shifting to Santa Barbara Christian School. “The schools were really makeshift,” Perry told Vogue. “Education was not the first priority. My education started in my twenties, and there is so much to learn still.”

Of course, that’s just one person. On a much larger scale, another study by academics at Leeds Beckett University and the University of Missouri indicates that the more time students spend studying religion, the worse they perform on science and math. Which makes sense, given the finite number hours available for study. You can’t memorize catechism and study algebra at the same time.

In Indiana, legislators have responded decisively to the poor performance of voucher-subsidized schools, nearly all of which are religious. Not by strengthening standards or oversight, though, as one might expect, but by weakening them. It used to be that a religious or other private school that failed to satisfy some bare minimum standards was kicked out of the program. Now, under a bill just passed by the Republican state legislature along partisan lines, the school is merely given another year to try to improve. The kids who get hurt in the process? Nobody cares about them. While they were on a roll, the legislators also trashed the requirement that a school wanting to suck at the state vouchers teat had to be operated and observed for a year first so administrators could evaluate it. That silly rule made life less easy and less convenient for religious school administrators, so out it went.

An argument can be made that even if religious schools were as good as secular schools, it’s wrong for Baptist taxpayers to have to subsidize the spread of Islam in a Muslim madrassa, or for Jewish taxpayers to have to subsidize the spread of Catholicism in a parochial school, or for atheist taxpayers to have to subsidize any of this baloney at all. As Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” But as the evidence piles up that religious schools actually perform worse than secular schools, the continued voucher payoffs to the God industry are tragic.

A sensible, evidence-based approach would suggest limiting the use of vouchers or other government-subsidized educational choice programs to non-religious schools, e.g. to charter schools as we have here in DC. Schools that the data suggest are doing better, not worse, than the public schools (although the evidence is far from conclusive). Wouldn’t it be nice to have decision makers who are influenced neither by the teachers union lobby nor the God lobby, but who care only about what’s best for the kids?