Why Libertarians Were Wrong About School Vouchers

Megan McArdle has an interesting article on Bloomberg on the disappointing results from voucher programs. I notice it has been getting attention from the likes of Charles Murray.

I don’t want to brag, but I could have told her this years ago

One reason I left libertarianism is because I felt the movement suffers from ‘Blank Slate’ thinking: like the Beltway right and the left, it is stuck in an “it’ll all be okay if we can just fix the schools” mindset. I think libertarianism can be enriched and made redeemable, however, if human biodiversity was properly incorporated into thought and policy.

For this reason, I did not hail the appointment of Betsy DeVos, something that pleased even the very anti-Trump CATO Institute.

Don’t get me wrong: I support school choice on principle. This is because a voucher system makes it cheaper to send kids to denominational schools. However, I do not believe it will perform miracles in terms of test results or narrow the achievement gap between different groups, even though this is how most of it’s supposedly Friedmanite advocates are compelled to sell the idea. If you want a good study on this, read Robert Weissberg’s ‘Bad Students, Not Bad Schools.’

Firstly, let’s have a look at Uncle Miltie (not Milton Berle, the avuncular economist). He is often credited with birthing the school choice movement in his 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education.” But most of the school choice people show little indication of having read it. The essay concentrated only on permitting more parental choice, freedom from government control, and a little bit about bringing teacher salaries to market levels. In fact, 50 years later Friedman was compelled to say that nowhere did he mention anything about raising academic excellence or closing race, class, or sex gaps in test scores (the current obsessions in the education business). He does mention parents choosing to permit social dancing or not, and allowing to let them so choose.

Secondly, let’s accept the virtues of free choice and let’s say we roll it out across the country. What can we expect to happen?

Well, in a sense, we already have an example of free choice in education: the university sector. There are cheap loans available and no ZIP Code lottery to speak of. They are mostly private organisations. How many of the 4000 universities in America put academic work above all else, and how many focus on attracting students with fancy football stadiums, the social life, or other amenities? I’d say 1% or so focus on the academics, the rest are kindergartens for 20 year olds. George Lynn Cross, when he was President of the University of Oklahoma, was being more honest than most when he said his goal was to “build an academic program the football team could be proud of.”

Weissberg’s insight is that the real problem is not lack of supply, it is insufficient demand for academic achievement. Hey, we all want to be fit, too. But if we opened up free gyms across the country, or increased the number and types of gyms, how many of us would go and put the effort in? I know I didn’t when I had a free gym at college.

The desire for academic excellence may be widespread in some quarters. But across great swathes of American society, academic excellence is not much valued.

To quote Weissberg: “America’s educational woes reflect our demographic mix of students. Today’s schools are filled with millions of youngsters, many of whom are Hispanic immigrants struggling with English plus millions of others of mediocre intellectual ability disdaining academic achievement… To be grossly politically incorrect, most of America’s educational woes vanish if these indifferent, troublesome students left when they had absorbed as much as they were going to learn and were replaced by learning-hungry students from Korea, Japan, India, Russia, Africa and the Caribbean.”

The vast majority of a school’s success depends on two factors: the cognitive ability of the child and the disposition he brings to class; not on texts, teachers or classroom size. A smart kid will do just as well with a grimy old textbook as he will with a flashy free laptop.

Thirdly, the school choice people come out with another fallacy. At every school choice event you will hear somebody say that at one time there was a single, small TV with a crappy picture on the market for $1000 a pop. Now, they say, we have a plethora of TV sets to choose from, including fancy widescreen plasma things for a few hundred bucks. Contrast this with the classroom, they say, which has remained the same for 200 years because there is no free market in education.

Yes, the free market brings us wonderful things. But human beings are not a typical commodity.

There is a museum in Ithaca that costs more to enter than a good seat to see ‘Hamilton.’ It is a museum of failed products, open to researchers, marketers, product developers, etc. Watch a news report about it here.

90% of new products fail. When they do, these products can be safely discarded or put on a shelf in a museum. But with the product of a failed school, you can do no such thing. What do you do with a person who can’t be educated? They have a legal right to be in school and so far nobody has come up with a program that can turn kids with 85 IQs into Harvard students.

(This view of people as like products is one reason many libertarians have turned into open borders loonies, by the way).

I would suggest too many are in school and it would be better to have more teens working. It might even be more cost effective to have them on welfare, as some places are spending $20,000 a year per kid to educate, which is more than what they could get on unemployment benefits.

What is a value for money option conducive to social peace? One option might be to let struggling and disruptive kids drop out of school earlier and give them the opportunity to go back to learning later, when they are more mature and perhaps sick of doing menial jobs.

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About Cranky Notions
Reactionary. That fella from the Norris scandal.

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