Sunday, June 10, 2007

Vouchers for the children

Environmentalists want to reduce suburban sprawl. Progressives want to reduce the wealth gap. Conservatives want to teach their children traditional values. Libertarians want to cut taxes. Guess what, we can do all these things at once, using an idea that has already been tested in places like New Zealand and Sweden: school vouchers. School vouchers would have limited impact in rural areas and low-density suburbs. In the inner cities, however, the impact would be huge.

The U.S. public school system was designed for a different era, when people lived on farms or in small communities -- that were often segregated by race, class and/or religion -- and children walked to school. Because children walked and people lived far apart, education was a natural monopoly. And because the schools were small, and the parents of similar backgrounds, democratic management worked well.

Democracy does not work so well as the number of voters grows. The impact of each vote diminishes, so people have less reason to put much effort into making a good decision. Also, it is harder for those running for school board to get to know the parents. Power devolves from the parents and taxpayers to the bureaucrats and teacher’s unions. Furthermore, democracy works poorly where communities are deeply divided. Just look at the history of the Third World countries containing multiple tribes.

One possible solution for America’s cities would be to have more than one school district per city. Let each high school have its own school board, which oversees that school along with its feeder schools. Layers of bureaucracy would be removed, and each neighborhood could set its curriculum and standards of student behavior. Do this, and the city schools would have a chance at being competitive with the suburban schools.

But we can do better. There is no need for the school board approach in cities. Where children live close together, competition works! Implement a program of school vouchers and the inner city schools would become better than the suburban and rural schools. Upper middle class families would move back into the cities in order to have better opportunities for their children. Interstate highway traffic would lessen, as people move closer to work. Pressure to turn farms and wild lands into subdivisions would weaken. Children in the slums could get a good education should they so desire. No longer would a poor family have to afford a nice house in order to qualify for a good education. The wealth gap would narrow substantially over time.

So, why aren’t progressives and environmentalists jumping on board this opportunity? Two problems come to mind: First, vouchers raise the ugly specter of segregation. Some parents would choose schools based upon race, ethnicity, class or religion. This is a legitimate concern, but I think it is way overblown. Many inner city schools are segregated already, since people moved apart after the public schools were desegregated. School vouchers would likely cause a net reduction in segregation, as more people become comfortable living in mixed race neighborhoods. More importantly, ethnic minorities would benefit the most from a system of school vouchers. Giving inner-city minority children a better education would do more to dispel the remaining bits of racism than any amount of propaganda or social engineering.

The second problem is political. The teacher’s unions have been reliable allies to the environmental and progressive movements. Going against their wishes would be hard – just like it has been hard for the Bush Administration to go against the wishes of Halliburton.


Vouchers are the way to go for Australian schools

They are the logical next step in improving education outcomes and would be a winner for the politicians who back them, writes Kevin Donnelly

WHAT is the best way to strengthen schools, raise standards and, in an increasingly competitive and challenging international environment, ensure that more Australian students perform at the top of the league table?

One approach, favoured by those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo, such as the Australian Education Union and the educrats responsible for the present parlous state of Australian education, is centralised and bureaucratic. Schools, especially government schools, are forced to conform to a top-down and inflexible system of command and control management where there is little, if any, room for autonomy at the local level, or flexibility in curriculum and developing more effective ways to meet the demands of parents and the marketplace.

The alternative, based on research identifying the characteristics of "world's best" education systems (as measured by international tests) and overseas innovations such as vouchers and charter schools, is to free schools from provider capture and to increase parental choice. Vouchers involve parents receiving an agreed amount of funding from government that they can then use to send their children to either government or non-government schools. The money follows the child and, as a result, good schools prosper and grow while underperforming schools face the consequences of falling enrolments and reduced demand.

Related to school choice is the need to ensure that how well schools perform, or underperform, is made public. When school effectiveness is clouded in secrecy, it is impossible for parents to make informed decisions about where their children go to school. At the minimum, all schools should be made to release details about educational performance, staff morale, absenteeism, student behaviour and, where relevant, indicators such as Year 12 results and post-school destinations.

Compare this to the present situation in Australia where, notwithstanding the rhetoric about identifying and turning around underperforming government schools, there are few, if any, consequences for failure and, as a result, thousands of students receive a substandard education.

Vouchers can either be universal or targeted at particular disadvantaged groups, such as children with disabilities or children educationally at risk because of their socioeconomic background. Vouchers can also either provide the full cost of educating a child, measured by the per-student cost of educating a child in a government school (about $10,000), or they can be set as a percentage, for example, by being means tested.

However, increasing educational choice by giving parents the right to choose where their children go to school is ineffectual if all schools, government and non-government, are forced to follow the same industrial-age management regime and dumbed-down, politically correct curriculum. The other side of the voucher equation is what in the US are termed charter schools. If schools are to be in a position to respond to community expectations, they need the autonomy and flexibility to meet parental demands. Charter schools, within general guidelines, fashion their own management style and curriculum, freed from the constraints of an intrusive and insensitive government-controlled bureaucracy.

As outlined in a 2006 paper prepared by the Australia Institute, titled School Vouchers: An Evaluation of their Impact on Education Outcomes, those associated with the cultural Left side of politics are staunch critics of freeing up schools and increased parental choice. The authors of the paper argue there is no evidence increased competition and autonomy improve educational outcomes.

An argument is also put that Australian society will become less cohesive as vouchers will lead to "greater segregation on the basis of race, religion, academic ability and socialeconomic status" and, based on the assumption that choice will lead to more parents choosing non-government schools, that state schools will be seen as second-rate and the least preferred option.

As might be expected, given that its continued survival depends on a centrally controlled, compliant state system of education, the AEU is also opposed to vouchers and the existence of non-government schools more generally. After criticising the federal Government's introduction of literacy vouchers, the AEU, at its 2005 federal conference, attacked opening schools to market forces by stating "the introduction of the voucher system of funding ... will ensure that much-needed government funding is directed away from those public schools with the greatest need into private pockets without any accountability requirements whatsoever". According to Pat Byrne, the AEU president, the Howard Government's policy of supporting parental choice is a ruse to destroy the state system.

It's ironic that supporters of state schools, such as the AEU, spend thousands of dollars on campaigns talking up government schools, under slogans such as "state schools are great schools", while arguing that introducing vouchers will lead to increasing numbers of parents fleeing the state system. Logic suggests that if state schools are as successful as their advocates make out, despite the introduction of vouchers many parents will still prefer state schools. The popularity of selective government schools in NSW and the fact that Victorian parents, if they can afford the real estate, are buying into areas with highly regarded state schools, proves that given a choice, parents will not necessarily "flee" the government system.

In his book Education Matters: Government, Markets and New Zealand Schools, Canberra-based economist Mark Harrison, in opposition to arguments about lack of effectiveness, details research showing that voucher-related choice and competition improve educational outcomes. Common sense also suggests this would be the case. If nothing else, the collapse of communism and the success of capitalism proves that the old days of statism have long since died and the most effective approach to government policy is to allow responsibility and decision-making to rest in the hands of those most affected, ie, at the local level. Harrison cites research undertaken at Harvard University into voucher schemes implemented in Washington and New York as concluding that "the academic achievement of voucher students who attended private schools grew faster than the similar students who did not receive a voucher and attended public schools".

Research evaluating the Milwaukee scheme arrives at a similar conclusion about the benefits of vouchers; instead of lowering standards or creating social fragmentation, there is evidence that not only are students' test scores improved, in addition, as Harrison states, "parents are highly satisfied, there was no creaming, parental involvement increased, the program targeted disadvantaged students successfully and reduced segregation".

Caroline Hoxby, a US-based academic and author of School Choice: The Three Essential Elements and Several Policy Options, on examining the results of the Milwaukee scheme, also argues that increasing choice and competition lead to improved results, as measured by improvements in students' mathematics scores.

Those supporting vouchers also make the point that improved standards are not restricted to schools enrolling students with vouchers; nearby government schools, given the reality of competition and the consequent incentive to improve, also register stronger results.

On identifying the characteristics of those education systems that achieve the best results in international mathematics, science and reading tests, Ludger Woessmann, from the University of Munich, reinforces the importance of choice and competition, especially as the result of a strong private school sector and decentralisation of management. Woessmann argues the market provides strong incentives for schools, as institutions, to provide a better service by meeting the expectations of parents and raising standards. If parents are not satisfied, they go elsewhere, and there are clear consequences and rewards for performance. While acknowledging the central role individual teachers play in successful learning, Woessmann also makes the point that those education systems suffering from provider capture, especially where teacher unions have an undue influence, underperform in terms of international test results.

While critics of vouchers, such as the AEU, emphasise that increased diversity and competition will only benefit so-called wealthy, elite, non-government schools, it is significant that American voucher schemes focus on supporting disadvantaged groups such as Hispanics and African-Americans. Such is the success of these schemes in addressing educational disadvantage, as noted by Terry Moe, a researcher at the Hoover Institution, that "in poll after poll, the strongest supporters of publicly financed vouchers are blacks, Hispanics and the poor, especially in urban areas".

As the 30 to 40per cent of Australian parents who send their children to non-government schools are well aware, debates about vouchers are of more than academic interest. Not only do these parents pay taxes for a system they do not use, thus saving state and federal governments millions of dollars each year, hard-earned cash has to be found to pay school fees. The reality is that parents who, as a result of the perceived shortcomings in government schools, choose non-government schools are financially penalised. While state and federal governments support such choice by partially funding students attending non-government schools, the amounts provided are well short of the costs involved and the system lacks the preconditions necessary for an effective voucher system.

On the grounds of equity and social justice, it makes sense if more parents, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are able to choose between government and non-government schools. Ideally, such a voucher would be set at $10,000 and the money would follow the child. Vouchers and charter schools, reflecting a commitment to choice, competition and accountability, present new territory in the education debate. At first glance, such initiatives are a natural fit for the Howard Coalition Government and, given the cultural Left's antagonism, something traditionally opposed by the ALP. As such, vouchers and charter schools provide one policy area where there are clear differences between the two parties and fertile ground for public debate.


Vouchers are the way to go for Australian Universities too

Comment by Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Macquarie University

The Group of Eight universities has launched a far-reaching higher education policy statement and, again, educational vouchers have been thrust into the spotlight. Ever since the Nobel economics laureate Milton Friedman suggested funding education with vouchers in 1955, the idea has surfaced periodically in Australia only to be met with howls of rage from education unions and yawns of apathy from everyone else.

There are three reasons this time could be different. First, educational vouchers can no longer be dismissed as impractical. School voucher systems operate successfully in several countries and a university voucher system has been introduced in Colorado. Second, both sides of politics are committed to a diverse system of higher education. By forcing universities to find a competitive niche, vouchers foster diversity more effectively, and certainly more efficiently, than the present system of centralised formula funding. Third, it has previously been taken for granted that vouchers would be politically unpopular because they would have to be rationed. It was feared that promising everyone a voucher would lead many extra students to enrol, thereby causing a budget blowout. But times have changed. There is no longer any need to worry about hoards of frustrated students queuing for vouchers because, the Government says, there is no longer any unmet demand.

Everyone who wants to attend university is already being admitted. Unless it decides to be uncharacteristically generous, a universal voucher entitlement would cost the Government no more than the block grant system. Vouchers would overcome anomalies inherent in the present funding arrangements by introducing rudimentary market forces into a system that operates according to Government fiat. At present, universities have little ability to respond to student demand. The quota of Government-subsidised student places at any university each year is determined by history: universities get about the same number they received the previous year, with small adjustments.

We know that students prefer some universities to others. However, even if they wanted to, popular universities are prohibited from expanding their intake to meet student demand. Indeed, like plant managers in the old Soviet Union, university managers are punished if they enrol "too many" students. As a result of quotas, many qualified students are turned away from their university of first choice. They are forced to try their second, third or even fourth choice, until they finally find a university that will admit them. By limiting the number of places in any university, the Government makes it impossible for universities to expand their intake in response to student demand. It is a way to protect less popular institutions whose students might go elsewhere if given the chance.

Giving funding to students in the form of vouchers and eliminating quotas would allow universities to adjust supply to meet demand. But vouchers would not be enough. To ensure the highest levels of excellence, they would need to be combined with the deregulation of university fees.

At present, the amount students pay through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme is largely determined by the Government; universities have limited leeway to charge more. Yet, they are in competition with generously funded competitors from around the world. If we want to compete in the premier league, we have to direct resources to those institutions that achieve the highest standards of excellence. Lifting the cap on student contributions would allow our best universities to raise their fees; this would bring them the additional resources they require to compete with the world's best. To ensure that access to elite higher education institutions is not limited to the rich, universities that raise their fees should be required to spend some of their new wealth on income support for needy students.

In reality, however, only a small number of institutions would be able to charge premium fees and provide exceptional services. Many would go for low price and high volume. Other models would also develop. Some universities would offer vocational and technical types of education. Others would focus on distance learning. Some would deliberately focus on a small number of programs that met student needs.

Under a voucher system, universities would have to be attractive to students because that is the only way they would receive any resources. Students would benefit because they would control the purse strings and would therefore be able to influence what was taught, by whom and when. Institutions would benefit by being able to adjust their offerings to meet student demand. Most of all, Australia would benefit from having stronger world-class universities to produce the graduates we will need to ensure social and economic progress.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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