Against education subsidies

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar Scott
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    says:

    “Whereas public schools let anyone sign up and attend for free, public universities are still exclusive institutions, and charge a fee in order to attend.”

    That is strange, I thought I paid taxes which went to support public primary schools.Report

  2. Avatar Mark Thompson
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    says:

    “Who’s to say private schools accepting vouchers wouldn’t simply start charging more for their tuition as well? I’d say that is a very likely outcome. Meanwhile, public schools – which don’t charge admission like public universities and which must accept every student who comes knocking – will have fewer resources at their disposal.”

    1. Some private institutions may well charge marginally more for tuition, at least in the short term, to keep pace with increased demand. This is not the same as saying all private institutions, though, nor is it the same as saying that tuition hikes at private institutions will be nearly as large or larger than the voucher/tax credit. Moreover, it’s not as if the number of private schools is a fixed thing – new private schools can and will be built to keep pace with increased demand.

    2. I am a broken record on this, but it makes me want to poke my eyes out whenever I see the argument that vouchers mean less money for students in public schools. In absolute numbers, this is true. In meaningful numbers, however, it is not remotely true – in fact, under any private school eligible voucher setup of which I’m amare, per pupil spending in public schools actually increases. Why? Because the voucher/tax credit is just about always less than existing per pupil spending. Only if you see local populations pushing through tax cuts in response to the smaller number of students will you see a decrease in per pupil spending. There’s no evidence of which I’m aware that this would actually happen, and if it does, then the people responsible for it are the very same local populations that you argue are best suited to make decisions about local education.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson
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      says:

      Mark, maybe you know that what you describe is exactly the way it happens, but it sounds more like you’re reasoning it through. Let me offer another plausible process. In my recollection, the money for vouchers will come not from general public school revenues, but rather will be taken from a fund created for the purpose specially. For each kid that does not enroll in public school as a result, public education funding in that district will decrease by whatever the usual rate would be when enrollment goes down by one pupil, because the total public educational job has been reduced by that amount of work (one pupil-year or pupil-semester, whatever the time measure used). If the amount of the voucher is less than the amount of usual decrease in funding resulting from one less student enrolled in public school, the net result is simply less overall funding for education in that community that year. If this becomes a trend, it is a near guarantee that those savings will be converted into tax relief over time — pressure in that direction is ubiquitous in almost all communities.

      What I am quite sure of is that the usual effect of lessened enrollment will not be offset by savings from vouchers that are cheaper on a per-student basis.Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        In theory one could simply appropriate compensatory funds as if the voucher taking student were still enrolled in the district/school, at least until a funding requirements and spending can be better assessed. Still your point about attendance based spending makes sense.

        Where I’m skeptical is in saying, “If this becomes a trend, it is a near guarantee that those savings will be converted into tax relief over time — pressure in that direction is ubiquitous in almost all communities.”

        In my experience and studies, I’ve never encountered educational savings resulting in tax relief – presumably through a reduction in property taxes. Far more common – of course – is that the elderly stridently oppose increases in property taxes. Closer to what you’re suggesting Michael, are districts – here in California – that under certain equity arrangements would stand to receive less funding from the state based on the level of property tax revenue raised. What happened/happens here, however, is that the community tends to create educational foundations, so they can simply funnel their tax-deductible contributions directly to their local school rather than their money being sent to other, more needy districts. I don’t doubt the pressure is there, but until I see someplace actually reduce their property taxes because of enrollment/cost declines, I’m skeptical that such pressure will actually result in codified tax relief.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kyle
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          says:

          I mean, it’s not about what could be done in theory — in theory Mark’s view of how it could (and maybe does) work is great. The question is what is done. I’m also speculating. But I’m skeptical that voucher programs are set up in a way that alters existing per-pupil funding formulas. But I’m guessing too.

          This blog comments-section needs some research interns, yo.Report

          • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Michael Drew
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            says:

            We’ll get right on it.

            I’ll admit that to some extent I’m speculating, but not entirely. In my (admittedly limited, but nonetheless somewhat unique) experience dealing with school expenditures, one thing that has been repeatedly emphasized to me is that, absent declines in revenue due to economic conditions, schools typically only lose money if they don’t spend it (and if they don’t spend it, they will almost definitely lose it from their budget). That’s largely anecdotal, but it’s from an awful lot of anecdotes. Still, I am fully aware that the plural of anecdote is not data, etc.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson
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              says:

              I’ve heard the same thing, but I think that generally applies to funding for additive programs such as after-school funding, expanding computer access, what have you — if you get the money and don’t do it for some reason, it’ll be gone. However, if you have twenty fewer kids one year for some reason (admittedly an inflated example for illustration, but it operates the same in aggregate scross schools and over time) you will have one fewer teacher, at least in the places where I have been. Those matters are rather sensitively tied to enrollment.

              Even still, it’s entirely fair for you to point out that that rate of decrease is at most only at the same rate that would be experienced with a decline in enrollment for any other reason. That’s why I say it’s really a question of the scale at which you want to do the reform. If the overall result is to shrink public education significantly, then likely over time that will (I believe) lead to declining public commitment and support for the institution. Others believe it will (or maybe they just believe it should) lead to better efforts to compete. My experience of public educators is that they are not conditioned to compete for enrollment. In some people’s ears that is a damning condemnation. My experience with them is just that they are instead primed to apply their skills as best they can to educating those children they are given to educate. It’s an entirely different outlook, and only from a particular perspective clearly a deficient one. But expecting the public school culture to respond with vigorous competition to a serious challenge to their presumed major role in educating America’s kids is I think a quite optimistic hope.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew
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                says:

                (I’d be delighted to hear outraged protests from any public educators reading, though ultimately I’d rather they not be placed in a position where they feel their job is to compete for the right to educate children, rather that they simply focus on doing the job the best way they know how.)Report

              • Avatar Kyle in reply to Michael Drew
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                says:

                I actually agree with this, “My experience of public educators is that they are not conditioned to compete for enrollment.”

                If Mark takes an unorthodox approach to his support for vouchers, I take an unorthodox one in my support for “market” principles. I actually don’t think the commercialization of education is a good thing, insofar as a for-profit school system would be undesirable. I do, however, think specialization would in turn result in more educational options that will satisfy more people than the current system.

                So public school educators at Hillsdale Elementary decide to focus on ESL support throughout the school and really focus on language acquisition. They higher fully bilingual teachers and staff and support language acquisition in every subject and grade. Whereas educators at Valleydale Elementary are next to a science park and want to focus on science education. They regularly go on field trips and conduct experiments.

                I think it’s misleading to suggest that those teachers are competing for students, they’re offering different things that different parents and students will value differently and choose accordingly. Eventually, I imagine there will be competition between similar schools, but I can’t imagine that’d be much different from current levels of competition where schools do compete for athletic and smart kids to go to their high school or middle school. In that it may exist but isn’t a dominating characteristic.

                We do a decent job of achieving this through charters, often better through magnets, that’s true, I just think vouchers are yet another tool to use and not particularly more likely to the commercializing of education if they’re used at non-profit schools.Report

          • Avatar Kyle in reply to Michael Drew
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            says:

            Hah, that’d be great, the league’s version of the CRS.

            You’re right we’re throwing around ideas here, so that wasn’t a terribly useful response.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kyle
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          says:

          …as to your second graf — actual reductions may be unlikely (though certainly the issue of property tax relief is a major political hot button where I live, whether taxes actually go down or not), but overall a declining or more slowly growing enrollment will certainly translate into less overall assessed need and hence less funding at whatever the usual per-pupil rate. Perhaps that funding goes into other municipal needs, or perhaps it simply goes to slow future tax increases. The issue is whether the difference between the average voucher amount and the existing per-pupil spending rate in the public system is retained in the public system. Of that I am quite skeptical — I find it far more likely that the usual per-pupil formulas continue to govern the rate at which funds are drawn for schools from the levy. But I’m very open to documentation.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        So then the question here is where the “savings” goes. I would expect that to vary from place to place. Some locations have “Independent School Districts” wherein revenue is obtained based on property values regardless of how many students are enrolled. In those cases, it’s hard to see how anyone other than the public school system pockets the money.

        But what about places that have country-run schools? Does the county pocket the voucher-generated savings or does it pay the school and let the school handle the vouchers and pocket the savings? I really don’t know which is the case. Does anyone have some real-world examples one way or the other?Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Trumwill
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          says:

          Can you tell us what communities levy a flat percent of property exclusively for schools regardless of enrollment? Does it seem likely those communities are in need of means-tested voucher options?Report

          • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Michael Drew
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            says:

            It was the case where I grew up, though admittedly that was not an area in which vouchers were needed. My understanding is that’s what the entire state of Texas does (any Texans care to comment?). I would figure that to be the case in any place where school districts levy their own tax (instead of collecting from the city or county or whatnot) as it would be extremely difficult and contentious to raise or lower the property tax each year based on enrollment.Report

  3. Avatar PatrickKelley
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    says:

    “Whereas public schools let anyone sign up and attend for free”

    You make it sound like they have a choice. Usually, they have to sign up and attend, and they are usually forced to attend a specific school on top of that. Seems pretty heavy-handed to me. Why not allow them to attend schools more to their, or rather their parents preference. If vouchers can help in that regard, I’m all for it.Report

  4. Avatar Kyle
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    says:

    At the risk of sounding overly combative here because I don’t intend to, I don’t see how you’re reconciling your agreement with Bramwell’s point that the price value of education is priced into where you live with stating now that public schools are free and have no barrier to entry.

    It seems to me that communities and districts are exclusive and just use opposition to inter-district busing, high property taxes, and resistance to amalgamation to keep out undesirables. If zipcode is a reliable correlative factor to SAT performance, it stands to reason that the effect is every bit as discriminatory as college admissions.Report

  5. Avatar trumwill
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    says:

    To further Kyle’s point, not only do you “get what you pay for” when it comes to public schools, but you’re actually bundling expenses to further exacerbate the issue. The quality of your school is now tied to the size of your home/property, the property taxes you pay for other services, the amount you pay to commute longer to work, and so on. If we simply acknowledged that we were paying for better schools, you might get people actually paying for what they want rather than paying for all of these other things just to get access to it.

    I also want to second Mark’s comments about the number of private schools. I would expect that schools will open to operate as closely to the price of a voucher as possible.

    All of that being said, I don’t think I favor a completely open voucher program. I think that schools that choose to participate should have to adhere to certain guidelined. Schools that are worried about the government getting too intrusive could then opt out and those that due participate could not take only those students most likely to succeed wherever they go. I support tracking and GT schools, but for reasons I cannot quite articulate at this point, I want them to be state-run.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to trumwill
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      says:

      I think you and Mark touch on some of the more verifiable issues with vouchers. Scalability, community rating/guaranteed issue. The big one for me is consistency of funding. I think the potential problems of the mechanics of any voucher program warrant more skepticism of their usage than generalized concern that they’ll take money away from Medicare and seniors “the schools”

      Still, I think tracking and self-selection have important roles in really making teaching more effective. If you have students of similar ability grouped together, it’s easier for teachers and students to really focus on learning rather than classroom management. With respect to Erik’s concerns, I think therein lies the value of electives and comprehensive high schools with magnet programs. To combine the benefits larger, diverse community with those of a smaller learning community.

      To be more positive, if I were to propose changes to public education, I’d suggest the following.

      First and most obviously would be means-tested opportunity scholarships, contingent upon scholastic maintenance or improvement compared to public school performance.

      Two, more stringent charter school requirements, I like them but the variance in quality is problematic.

      Three, the establishment of a national school system, to be run by a quasi-independent board ala the Fed.

      Four, higher, tax-free salaries for career teachers, contingent upon passing stringent professional exams, an alternative credential and merit-based pay scale for more temporary teachers (post-college and newly retired).

      Five, a required post-secondary year of service mandatory for all non-college bound students but potentially optional for those attending college, who can defer. Not that I have data on this but I don’t think it’s coincidental that many of the countries we routinely cite as having “better” educational systems also still have conscription or some kind of alternative civil service requirement.

      Leverage ED to support under-resourced rural and urban districts through some combination of grants and concierge-type service.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Kyle
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        says:

        I’ve actually been thinking of a federally run school system and the possibilities that could present. However, my thought was that it would run in parallel with local schools. Sort of. It’s a little too involved for a blog comment (even a TLOOG one). So my question to you is… were you thinking along those lines or were you thinking the federal government would simply gobble up our hodgepodge of local districts?

        I’m reluctant to tighten up regulation on charter schools. Since they’re entirely voluntary, I’m inclined to give them as wide a berth as possible.

        Would the salary bump be contingent on professional exams or would their ability to teach? What would the exams look like? Would they be based more on subject-matter or instructional psychology?Report

        • Avatar Kyle in reply to Trumwill
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          says:

          Heh, I’ve been meaning to flesh out the ideas somewhat in a fuller post, but along your lines. A parallel option. It’d be great for mobility, provides options and between public schools from different sovereign points. Though in some low-density areas, where it’d be impractical to build separate facilities, I imagine the federal school would operate in the same physical space as the local school – share facilities – and just operate off of a different curriculum.

          The salary bump mechanism isn’t a fully formed thought, sorry to disappoint, but basically, I think career professionals should go through a process more akin to medicine or law, though I have no problem with making teacher salaries tax-free as it stands now. Basically, I think it should be comparatively harder to become permanent teacher. You couldn’t see a bigger contrast than between the difficulty of the CBEST and the California Bar Exam. I’m not sure what form the licensing/credentialing process should take exactly but I lean more towards instructional psychology, analytical reasoning, reading comprehension and the like than subject-matter.Report

          • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Kyle
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            says:

            On the first paragraph, we are strikingly of a single mind. I’m not sure we could be further apart on the second paragraph, though.Report

            • Avatar Kyle in reply to Trumwill
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              says:

              Fair enough.

              I think it’s striking that I know smart teachers but only after they’ve become teachers or who are only planning on doing it temporarily.

              Whereas, I know a surprisingly large number of people from (my halfway decent public high school) who are not at all that bright, had no problem becoming teachers, and want to the job because, “kids are so cute and it’s fun to ‘teach’ them.” Yet, like I said, I don’t know that many ambitious, intelligent people who have seriously considered teaching for the long haul.

              While yes, anecdote isn’t data, it is interesting to see what kinds of students we attract to be teachers has been an interesting question to explore.

              Yglesias posted on Finnish attitudes a while back and I think money is certainly a part of the equation. I also think, despite the difficulty of actually teaching well (as opposed to showing up), it’s relatively easy to become teacher in America. If it were relatively more difficult, I think we’d see a rise in average quality/attract more people from more lucrative/prestigious occupations.

              I also think there ought to be room for alternative credentialing and performance based pay so we’re attracting qualified people for both the long term and the short term.

              For fun, check out this practice test.Report

  6. Avatar trumwill
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    says:

    I’m sure I’m overstating our differences. I took the coursework for an education minor (long story) and I don’t know if I can convey how depressing I found the College of Education. It radicalized me on the subject. Even if Inow know the average teacher truly can’t be as bad as so many of my classmates were (I have to assume that the smarter kids just kept their mouth shut as I did), I got an A in adolescent psychology without having the textbook (another long story), while future teachers of America complained about the difficulty. Depressing.

    So I completely hear what you’re saying on that.

    I think I am mostly skeptical of a reliance on super teachers because I believe that they are rare and hard to identify. I mean, the number of teachers we need dwarfs the number of lawyers we need so one can be more selective than the other and with credentialism I fear (a) requirements will drop to accommodate the number we need and we will be paying mediocrities the excessive salaries I don’t mind paying the best (if they can be identified) and (b) expecting people to undergo that level of training for something as love-it-or-hate-it as teaching is a tough sell. If we can get past those things, I am not as uniformly as opposed as my comment suggested. I have some thoughts, but being that I don’t have Internet access and am relegated to my cell phone until Monday, I can’t write anything more substantive than this until then.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to trumwill
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      says:

      Hmm…the numbers thing is interesting, there are IIRC about 3.6 million teachers but fewer than a million doctors and about 1.1 million lawyers.

      My gut reaction is that we don’t need an equal distribution of high-quality teachers and that they’re far more crucial at certain junctures in the system which leaves room for teachers with alternative credentials and/or different/less strenuous licensing requirements to fill out the remainder of the numerical need. Still things to think about..Report

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