Educational Nonsense and Vouchers

Educational Nonsense and Vouchers by Ron Unz
Sacramento Bee, Sunday, January 3, 1999

As the hot-button political issue of the 1998 election, educational reform has inspired a host of political proposals, ranging from the foolish to the ridiculous. Unfortunately, political sloganeering makes doubtful public policy, and if incoming California Gov. Gray Davis and his weakened Republican opposition actually hope to do something about our poorly performing school system, they must first separate the nonsense from the reality.

First, the liberal nonsense. Despite endless amounts of campaign rhetoric claiming that California’s public school system has been woefully under-funded for decades by the taxophobic legacy of Prop. 13 and other budgetary constraints, the facts are very, very different.

Over the 30 years from 1960 to 1990, per capita student spending in California’s public schools actually rose almost 150 percent after adjusting for inflation ($ 2,170 in 1960 vs. $ 5,202 in 1990, both in 1995 dollars). Although spending leveled off during the severe recession of the early 1990s, it has recently gone up sharply again. There are very few other governmental sectors where huge per capita growth over many decades is routinely characterized as fiscal starvation. The problem is that during this period large increases in input (dollars) have been matched by large drops in output (academic achievement as indicated by standardized test scores).

A central reason for this paradox has been that much of the extra funding has been poorly spent or has been allocated to costly categorical programs such as special education and bilingual education whose results have been dismal at best. A huge and hungry public school bureaucracy has regularly devoured much of the other money. Amazingly enough, only about half of public school employees in California are teachers, with the remainder being a wide variety of other “staff,” many of whom are very well paid. By contrast, 87 percent of the employees of California private schools are actually teachers.

Another crippling burden for California’s public schools has been a huge emphasis on doubtful educational fads and other gimmicks rather than traditional academics. Our schools are only just now starting to recover from the decade-long disaster of “whole language” reading instruction (pushed by the very same academic theorists who advocated bilingual education!). Current battles are still being fought over equally dangerous curricula such as “fuzzy” math, constructivist science, inventive spelling, and other harmful pedagogical experiments regularly inflicted upon millions of innocent California schoolchildren. Add to this educational innovations like “team learning” and a widespread emphasis on fostering student self-esteem at all costs, and it is a wonder that schools have any minutes in the day free for old- fashioned academics.

Aside from transforming American public schools into international laughingstocks—schools in nearly every other developed nation have a curriculum and structure strangely reminiscent of what ours were during the 1950s—we have built educational machinery which, according to a 12-nation study, produces students with the highest self-esteem but among the lowest academic test scores of any of their global peers. About half of entering California State University students must take remedial classes in English and math, forcing our universities to teach the academic subject matter that our secondary schools did not. It is also hardly surprising that such a huge fraction of the places in our top science and engineering college and graduate programs are regularly filled by foreigners or recent immigrants, whose education has been traditional rather than faddish.

If we want to solve our educational problems, we don’t so much need to add—whether more money, more teachers, more programs, or more days of schooling— but to subtract: by eliminating as much of the burdensome nonsense in public schools as is possible. If a traditional academic curriculum seems to work reasonably well in nearly every other major nation, the burden of proof is on those on the Left who say it can’t possibly be tried in America’s unique society.

As for the political Right, in recent years “educational reform” has become almost a synonym there for “school choice,” whether through vouchers, charter schools, or some other variation. Press accounts indicate that California will once again see a voucher initiative of some sort on the 2000 ballot, perhaps with massive campaign spending on both sides, generating much heat but little light.

Partly, this emphasis on vouchers may flow from the deep political pessimism of conservatives: If their years of effort have failed to dislodge the liberal nonsense from the public schools, perhaps the task is simply impossible, and our public education system should be “blown up,” or at least enough holes be knocked in it to allow conservative parents to flee with their children to private or charter schools. Partly, vouchers are popular because they have strong ideological appeal to disparate but powerful elements of the conservative movement, ranging from libertarians (who often seem to worship the free market and competition as being axiomatically beneficial in any policy area) to religious conservatives (who eagerly seek public funding for their religious and parochial schools).

Perhaps vouchers (or their attenuated cousins, such as charters) will someday turn out to be an educational “magic bullet, as their proponents claim; small-scale experiments in a variety of locales should and are being tried. But there are major questions, both theoretical and practical, about vouchers, questions that voucher proponents must answer before any large- scale—let alone statewide—experiment should be undertaken.

First, most of our international economic competitors– -including those nations whose academic performance so humbles that of our own schools— rely upon exactly the sort of government school system that is allegedly responsible for our own educational failings. In fact, public education in most other countries is far more centralized and government-controlled, with less local flexibility and free choice, than our own. If traditional government schools seem to work well everywhere else, perhaps they can be made to work here; on the other hand, vouchers would constitute a radical leap into the complete unknown.

Although voucher advocates argue that school competition would inevitably lead to the competitive triumph of good schools over bad because of the “magic of the marketplace,” this seems far from obvious. Objectively measuring the success or failure of a given public school program is not easy, especially when students have been enrolled just a few months or a year. How much does student achievement in a particular school reflect the performance of the school and how much the home background, aptitude and parental support students bring with them to school? Most working parents cannot devote endless time to researching the matter.

In fact, it is easy to imagine in a voucher system that schools might better succeed in winning parent dollars by investing more heavily in advertising and public relations than in the quality of their product, as is often the case in the vaunted private sector. The actual physical content of most colas or sneakers is almost indistinguishable, but the Coke and Nike brands reign supreme because of massive spending on public image-making and celebrity endorsements. Although fine for the soft drink industry, this is not a desirable model for our public education system under market competition.

There are actually some indications that such an disastrous outcome would be quite likely. Consider America’s technical and trade school sector.

These adult training programs have long been fully “voucherized” (through government-backed student loans) , and are awash in entrepreneurship and the free enterprise culture. Market competition in this sector has several major advantages over such a system in the public schools. The educational recipients are adults, far better able to directly judge the quality of the instruction which they are receiving; measuring success is rapid and highly objective (if you got a good job, it worked); and the pressure of loan- repayment would seem to discourage educational frivolity. Yet this system is generally reckoned a monumental disaster, with endless scandals and no clear pattern of success, except for some of the fly- by-night entrepreneurs who feed off it. We can’t risk such a fate for America’s public education system.

Finally, the gravest danger for widespread school choice is rarely explicitly raised by either side of the debate. Today, America’s society is highly fragmented along ethnic lines, perhaps more so than it has ever been before. Unlike most other nations around the world, which are relatively homogenous in culture and race, we have just a few social institutions that bind our diversity together, and one of the most important has been a unified public school system. Under vouchers, there is a very real possibility that substantial portions of our most vulnerable populations will be drawn into Louis Farrakhan schools, or a variety of others preaching a range of ethnic- nationalist ideologies, which could have a lethal effect upon our already fraying social cohesion.

This is not mere speculation. It is an underreported fact that Polly Williams of Milwaukee, poster-girl for the conservative voucher movement, until recently served as a colonel in the local Black Panther militia, whose leader, Michael Mcgee, pledged his support to Saddam Hussein around the time of the Gulf War and threatened a campaign of terrorism against white America, with snipers and bombings, unless hundreds of millions of dollars of “compensation” were immediately paid to Milwaukee blacks (he was bluffing). Just last year, the leadership of the Marcus Garvey charter school in Washington, D.C., founded along ethnic nationalist lines, physically attacked a visiting reporter and camera crew, along with the police officers escorting them, a shocking incident which both Left and Right sought to downplay, although for different reasons. Our society already has enough social division without paying schools to generate more.

For these reasons, perhaps it is finally time to call a truce in the ideological wars over education. If the Left will agree to scour the public schools clean of much failed liberal nonsense (most of which has no real connection to liberal ideology in any obvious way) , the Right might agree to stop its dogged efforts to turn our public schools over to Saddam Hussein’s American allies or the marketing division from Nike. And for a change, children could actually begin to get a decent education in California.

Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, was co-author of Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative passed by voters last June.

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