Eric Zorn, a Chicago Tribune columnist, and I renew our discussions about important public issues from different viewpoints. Our earlier debate was on health care; now we exam school choice and vouchers. For further readings, we both have put together bibliographies that you can see here. This debate also is posted on Eric's blog, Change of Subject, where you are invited to join the conversation with you post.
From Dennis to Eric:
State Sen. James T. Meeks,
D-Chicago, one of the most influential voices in the city's black
community, recently stood before a group of mostly white, free-market
conservatives to passionately plead for their support.
It was an
unlikely meeting of the minds at an Illinois Policy Institute lunch
session, but when Meeks was finished, he had his audience cheering.
Might this be the launch of a political alliance that would unshackle
Chicago kids from the tyranny, dangers and incompetence of Chicago
Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church, was pitching Senate Bill 2494,
his proposed Illinois School Choice Program Act that would give
vouchers to students in the worst public schools to attend non-public
schools of their choice.
Meeks, a recent voucher convert, came
to talk political reality: Legislation that would free children from
their bondage would be hard for African-American lawmakers to oppose.
Combined with the support of Republican voucher supporters, they might
be able to create a coalition that could make vouchers available for
the first time in Illinois.
Meeks is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Some leading
suburban Republicans -- Chris Lauzen and Dan Cronin -- have signed on as
co-sponsors of the legislation.
Voters clearly are fed up with the partisan bickering; maybe this is a place to start.
From Eric to Dennis:
I'm glad our overlords have given us the OK to tangle again in
print, and I'm glad you chose this subject because, like you I'm sure,
I believe that improving educational outcomes is critical to the future
of our nation.
At first blush, S.B. 2494 sounds like just the
sort of social welfare program that liberals like me would love and
that would have a roomful of conservatives like you sitting on their
hands: Throw money to the poor! Yessss!
Yet where does
the money come from? Meeks' bill doesn't say, but the long-term goal of
voucher advocates is to divert the money that's now going to public
schools into private ones.
I worry about how that transition
would go -- if you think inner-city public schools are ghastly dungeons
now, let's see what they'll look like when half their funds go to
private schools. And I doubt that private schools are really up to the
job of dealing with the troubled youths from fractured and economically
stressed families that public schools must attempt to educate.
Meeks' own Salem Christian Academy on the South Side, for instance, says on its Web site (see New Student Admission Procedure.pdf)
that it wants students "who are able to achieve at grade level with a
minimum amount of special assistance" and who "score at the 50
percentile or above" on standardized tests.
That school aims to
"provide students. . . with a strong biblical foundation, which
emphasizes the lordship of Jesus Christ over all activities." Which is
fine, but not with tax money, please.
What, specifically, do private schools do that public ones can't do with the right reform measures in place?
From Dennis to Eric:
would offer the children most in need of a better education liberation
from their enslavement on a plantation overseen by self-serving unions
and a lock-minded education establishment. Not the least, they would
offer safety and security.
Those opponents perpetuate the myth
that vouchers would devastate public schools by taking away half their
money. Not true. Each departing (i.e. escaping) child would take only
as much money from the state treasury as the private school's per-pupil
cost, which is typically lower than the public school's.
public school system would retain their local sources of funding such
as property taxes (although a good hunk of that goes to paying
teachers' and administrators' pensions, and not into the classroom).
Studies have shown that even considering the public school's fixed
costs, vouchers actually save them money. Yes, student departures mean
losing some revenues, but it also means the schools save up to 100
percent of the costs.
Independent studies by, for example, the
Federal Reserve Bank and Harvard University, have shown that voucher
competition often improves public school performance in Milwaukee and
Florida. As best as I know, no empirical study has shown that vouchers
harm public schools.
Of the 10 studies of the Washington, D.C.,
and Milwaukee voucher programs, six have found significant improvement
among their students and three have found improvements for black or
other student segments. No study showed students did any worse. Is it
because private schools skim the best students from public schools?
Some studies show that vouchers don't drain the best and brightest, but
there's a way to find out for sure.
From Eric to Dennis:
you've done your homework, you know that scores of studies have been
performed on school voucher programs, that it's an elusive idea to test
and that you can find plenty of data to support my side as well as
For example, University of Arkansas research published
less than a year ago found fourth graders in Milwaukee's two-decade
voucher experiment were actually less proficient in reading and math
than comparable fourth graders in public schools elsewhere.
Northwestern University economist released a study of Florida's voucher
program a few months later that found more or less no difference in
academic achievement between voucher and non-voucher students.
But rather than take up space here parroting think-tank spin on select data, I'll direct readers to a robust webliography
with links to significant research and analysis that supports my
skepticism. Send me links to sites that support your enthusiasm, and
we'll cross post on our blogs. Deal?
Why do you use
such racially inflammatory language about public education? I had a
great experience being "enslaved" on the "plantation" of public
schools, and despite the "self-serving unions and lock-minded education
establishment," most of our state's top ranked schools, including the
Chicago high school my older son attended, are public.
schools struggle to deal with the multifaceted pathologies in
low-income areas, true. The magic ingredient you perceive in private
schools is an engaged, motivated parent community and students who know
that they have to study hard and behave or risk getting kicked out.
put our experimental money and energy into public school reform rather
than the pipe dream of free-market conservatives whose concern for the
poor is suspect, to say the least.
From Dennis to Eric:
from the Arkansas University Longitudinal Educational Growth Study of
the Milwaukee voucher program that you cited: The program "has produced
a rising tide that has lifted all boats, but that tide has not exactly
been a tsunami." Among the benefits are higher reading scores for boys
(not shared by girls), a statistically significant improvement by
students remaining in the public schools and a $37 million savings by
It's just the second year of the five-year study, so
we all need to be careful about drawing firm conclusions. True, some
studies show mixed results. But in reading this and other reports, I
find nothing to justify such steely hostility to even a first step, as
proposed by Meeks.
Voucher programs are enormously popular with
parents because they dream of advancement and safety for their
children. Who are we to say no to those dreams? Do these parents have
to wait around for some academic to come up with the latest "right
measures," as you say, for reforming public schools? They've been
waiting for decades for those measures, as generations have remained
tethered to a failing system.
Maybe parents don't feel like
they've been liberated from a plantation, but they''e been given a
choice, and they've cleared opted for something other than the status
quo. But, hey, what do they know? They've got to wait for scholars,
unions, politicians, school apparatchiks and other self-interested
parties to decide for them. All for the good of the children, right?
We've heard a lot about change and bipartisanship lately. Where did they go?
From Eric to Dennis:
If you want bipartisanship, try reaching across the aisle rather than pointing across it with an accusatory finger.
skepticism about vouchers isn't based on a fondness for unions,
bureaucracy or, your insinuations aside, racism, indifference or
communist sympathies ("Apparatchiks?" Really?).
It's based on an examination of the unimpressive results of scandal-plagued pilot programs.
It's based on a belief that switching to a voucher-based system would ultimately further separate the haves and the have nots.
based on the reality that most private schools, like Rev. Meeks'
academy, don't want and can't address the needs of the troubled,
underperforming children who pose a huge challenge to public schools.
it's based on the belief that this "free-market" passion is really all
about funneling tax money to religious schools and destroying public
education -- a system that serves students well in most parts of the
country and is not inherently flawed.
Can the public system do better in low-income areas where we ask it to do so much? I hope so.
there a compromise approach? Sure. Let's continue to expand charter
school programs and try out the most innovative ideas from private
schools. But let's not give up on public education.