Government Schools

I thought this was a very illuminating bit from Obama on education:

TAPPER: But"¦proponents of school choice say that the best way to
change the status quo is to give parents, inner-city parents a choice.
Why not?

OBAMA: Well, the problem is, is that, you know, although it might
benefit some kids at the top, what you're going to do is leave a lot of
kids at the bottom. We don't have enough slots for every child to go
into a parochial school or a private school. And what you would see is
a huge drain of resources out of the public schools.

So what I've said is let's foster competition within the public
school system. Let's make sure that charter schools are up and running.
Let's make sure that kids who are in failing schools, in local school
districts, have an option to go to schools that are doing well.

But what I don't want to do is to see a diminished commitment to the
public schools to the point where all we have are the hardest-to-teach
kids with the least involved parents with the most disabilities in the
public schools. That's going to make things worse, and we're going to
lose the commitment to public schools that I think have been so
important to building this country.

Some responses:

  • I love it when my opponents make my argument for me.  One strong argument for school choice is that public schools put a governor on 80% of the kids' educations, forcing them to learn at the pace of the slowest students.  But Obama basically says this.  He acknowledges in paragraph three that most of the kids would take the private option (and the only reason they would do so is that they perceive it to be better) leaving only the "hardest-to-teach
    kids with the least involved parents with the most disabilities in the
    public schools."  I'm sorry Mrs. Smith, I know you want more for your kids, but we've decided that they should not have a better education than that demanded by the least involved parents.
  • If his fear in  paragraph #3 comes true, isn't that consistent with a leftish market failure model?  And if so, why wouldn't it be entirely appropriate for the government to focus only on this small segment not served by private schools?  Isn't that what the government does in, say, housing or transportation, providing services only to a small percentage of the market?
  • Obama parrots the "there are not enough private schools" objection.  Duh.  Of course there is not currently 20 million student-slots of excess private school capacity just waiting for school choice.  But capacity will increase over time if school choice is in place.  Or, if the capacity does not appear, then what's the problem for Obama?  Everyone will just stay in government schools.
  • The class warfare here is both tiresome and misplaced.  Most school voucher plans have explicitly focused on the poorest families and worst schools as a starting point
  • The statement that kids leaving public schools with vouchers would be costly is just wrong, at least from a monetary point of view.  I don't know of any voucher program where students are offered a voucher as large as the average per-pupil spending of that school district.  So, in fact, each student leaving public schools is a new financial gain, subtracting a $6,000 voucher but removing at the same time an $8,000 cost.
  • Finally, note the political mastery here.  Take the question of how many kids would leave government schools for private schools under a full school competition system.  Obama wants to be on both sides of this assumption, sometimes assuming the number is small (when discussing benefits) and then assuming the number is large (when discussing costs).  Obama is a master because he makes this switch back and forth from sentence to sentence.  First, the  number leaving public schools is low, since choice would just benefit "some kids" (Bad old rich ones at that) and leave our "a lot of kids."  He again in the next sentence implies the number switching must be low, because there are not many private school spots.  One sentence later, though, the number switching is high, since it would be a "huge drain of resources."  And then, in the third paragraph, the number switching is very high, since all that are left in public schools are a small core of the "hardest-to-teach kids."

Also note what was strategically left out of his answer:

  • "Even if school choice worked, I could never support it because my party depends too much on the teachers unions in this election."
  • "Just when I have a good chance to be the leader of this government, do you really think I want to abandon the government monopoly on the indoctrination of children and the power that brings to the government?"
  • Steve

    Why bother with vouchers, that just gives govt. control to the whole school system, why not just have school become voluntary and there be no subsidies at all, thus you have a true open market that educates in every way possible...

  • CRC

    Steve-

    Because government is about control, power and authority. If they can't be telling people what to do (or not do), they'd be out of a job!

  • Tim

    One point about school choice that sometimes gets left out.

    If I choose to utilize a public school system (and there are good ones), I can exercise school choice by simply moving into the district.

    The trade-off becomes housing expense (which is somewhat tax deductable) versus tuition expense for a private enrollment.

    In fact, this is reflected in the different prices that similar houses, in similar neighborhoods, can command. An often-used selling point is "good district schools".

  • Max Lybbert

    I do like the idea that there aren't enough private schools today, but there would be enough charter schools. Sorry, but that's not going to happen.

  • http://econ-artist.blogspot.com David

    As a public school teacher, I completely agree with you on all of the above points. However, I think with regards to the voucher arguments not taking away money from schools it's a bit more complicated than your example. In your example, I think you are mixing and matching marginal and average costs. On the margin, adding one more student to my classroom is relatively cheap. A new student costs a little less than a couple of thousand dollars when you include costs of new books, desks, additional liability insurance, and other expenses. The 8000 dollar number when I have seen it usually just calculates total costs and divides by the number of students. So in effect while this voucher example may seem like a 2000 dollar net gain for the district, it usually constitutes a sizable loss on the margin. Admittedly if public schools were a dynamic institution, schools would adjust their scale and fixed costs accordingly. But as you so obviously pointed out,,teachers' unions will not allow that to happen. Again, I support school choice.However, this aspect of the debate is relatively murky in my mind.

  • Kevin

    So, in fact, each student leaving public schools is a new financial gain, subtracting a $6,000 voucher but removing at the same time an $8,000 cost.

    I suspect that the opponents of vouchers fear, like I do, that the amount of that $8,000 per-pupil spending that's really "per-pupil" is less than $6000. In addition the salaries of people who aren't themselves teachers - even those administrators whose positions are required by law could, in theory, be cut - there's also maintenance and upkeep on the school buildings, which won't drop off linearly as the number of students does, and there's service on the school construction bonds.

  • tribal elder

    Public schools do have certain fixed costs, as other commenters observe. There may be market solutions.

    If the numbers of departing students are high enough, offer partial or entire now-surplus buildings to private school use on a sale or lease basis. Those new private schools have to be somewhere -- at least most of them.

    Lease the gym 2 nights a week to the homeschoolers athletic league.

    Bid for students from other districts ? If your district is better than the neighboring district and the trip isn't too long (We have ALL heard stories about the closest scholl not being the in-district school!), some public school students may flock to the closer and/or better than in-district school. And, since the out-of-district students are ones the school isn't obligated to take, you don't have to take the adjoining district's chapter of Junior Felons of America.

    Put teachers on some real incentives (I know there ARE good ones) instead of union-lock-step -pay plans, and some will take the difficult students or the bigger class workload.

  • Dr. T

    I agree that the voucher system is the next best thing to disbanding taxpayer financed public schools. However, one of the arguments is incorrect.

    So, in fact, each student leaving public schools is a new financial gain, subtracting a $6,000 voucher but removing at the same time an $8,000 cost.

    The average cost per student is far greater than the marginal cost per student. If one student leaves, the school district does not save $8,000. The number of school employees stays the same, the utility bills stay essentially the same except for a trivial reduction in water use, the interest payments on the bonds stay the same, etc. Most schools would lose money because state and federal grants are based on student enrollment. If large numbers of students leave, then some savings will occur because of staffing reductions and utility savings, but the savings still won't be close to the average cost per pupil (which will rise as the public school student population declines).

    Please note that I do not care that the public schools lose money as they lose students: most have done such a poor job that they should be closed altogether. I just don't want voucher proponents to use a faulty argument that would easily be shot down by public school advocates.

  • http://highwayx.wordpress.com Highway27

    But the average cost SHOULD be equal to the marginal cost of adding or subtracting a student in the long run. It has to be for the school receiving the voucher, so why shouldn't it be for the public school system as well. The staffing, physical plant, and capital costs should naturally adjust downward as students leave the public school system.

    And if it doesn't, then isn't that explicitly arguing that the public school system is inherently inefficient compared to the other schools that people are transferring their children to? And if so, then why are we putting up with such a badly inefficient system?

  • pino

    proponents of school choice say that the best way to change the status quo is to give parents, inner-city parents a choice

    I think that it is important to understand the difference between a “poor parent” and an “at risk parent”. One is a parent who has (or doesn’t have) some amount of money. The other is a parent who doesn’t care about education.

    Poor parents who value education will take advantage of this program. At risk parents will not.

    public schools put a governor on 80% of the kids' educations, forcing them to learn at the pace of the slowest students.

    If you buy into this argument, then it would hold true for any school. If you take 100 of the nations brightest, even they will be “governed” by the slowest 20% in their class, yes? Net/net, this is not failing of the public school.

    I'm sorry Mrs. Smith, I know you want more for your kids,

    Mrs. Smith has the option of “more” today. The government is just saying they are not going to subsidize it.

    But capacity will increase over time if school choice is in place.

    Agreed.

    the government monopoly on the indoctrination of children and the power that brings to the government?

    Do you really think the government sets out to “indoctrinate” kids? Is there data that suggests private schools do not indoctrinate? I think that many arguments are made (and I make them) that the govt. is incapable of managing “things”. If that is the case, how would they be able to successfully manage this indoctrination?

    In the end, I think that the role of public education has to be identified. Is that role to serve the needs of the top 20%? Or rather, is the role of public education to provide a basic level of education to all of our students to allow them to rise out of abject poverty?

    I admit that I don’t know the answer, but I tend to believe that public education is there to provide basic and minimal levels of education to “people”. The market still exists for private schools and you are still able to take advantage of them. The fact that the government is not giving you a voucher should not make that market invalid.

  • will

    Upper class families has school choice - they can afford to send them anywhere.
    Middle class families has school choice - they can afford to move into a neighborhood with a good public school, or send them to a parochial school or home school them.
    Lower class families has NO choice but to depend on unaccountable (for results) government run schools.

    Vouchers just "levels the playing field" for the lower class.

    BTW: The higher education system is basically a "voucher" based system. Students gets, loans and or grants and can choice to attend any college (there are some exceptions) whether private, public or religious. IE Harvard, Penn State, or Notre Dame.

  • http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121381148160885191.html?mod=Best+of+the+Web+Today J Graham

    This item from Best of the Web (WSJ) documents the level of hypocrisy on school choice in the Donkey Party

    Obama's Voucher
    Our item yesterday on Barack Obama's opposition to educational vouchers prompted an email from a reader at the University of Chicago, who tells us that Obama's daughters attend the Lab School, a private elementary school run by the university. Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times noted in July that Obama had acknowledged this during a Democratic debate:

    What he does not mention, curiously, is that his wife, Michelle, works at the U. of C. Many people affiliated with the U. of C. are eligible for tuition breaks.

    So the Obama girls are attending a private school and having part of their tuition paid for by a third party? Sounds like a voucher to us.

  • Tim

    Pino,

    Why is it that when the government pays for my kid to go to a private school its a "subsidy" but when the government pays for him to go to a public school is a "service"? I fail to recognize the distinction.

    The 80/20 rule as it applies to public schools IS in fact a failing of public schools. With school choice you could stratify students infinitely, having several tiers of schools (or classes inside one school), all applying the 80/20 rule, this would mean that best of the best schools would have the best of the best students and the 20% of students that were being "held back" by the other 80% would still be far better off than if they were in public schools with one strata, held at the mercy of the clowns in the lowest part of that 80%.

    Every school indoctrinates the children, the difference is that with school choice the people that will be choosing the level and type of indoctrination is the appropriate people, the parents, not the government.

  • Rob

    Tim,

    Yes, indoctrination happens. Another interesting thing to note about school choice (and subsequently choice of indoctrination) is that this choice of school is was should really be considered as serving the public. What do I mean? Well... I choose a school which teaches my kids in only French while your kids go to a Catholic school and my neighbor's kids go to a lightly structure creative environment to learn, and the next guy sends his kids to a highly disciplined military school. More choice serves the public interest and highlights the problem with controlling people from such a high level ---> one size does not fit all (one school and style of learning does not fit all ... not all students can be put into the same template).

    Pino,

    You are right between the difference of "poor" and "at risk" parents. My wife is a teacher and 90% of her parents are poor. Luckily for her, only 10% of those poor parents are considered "at risk". Those parents haven't instilled good values in their children and it is quite obvious that those kids do not have any idea of the value of an education.

    If those parents do not care enough to research what type of school to send their kid to, then I don't see how this would be any different from where they are now? Are you saying that it is not their responsibility to help their self or their child?

    For parents who do not choose (or can't be responsible for their own life), I assume that their kids will end up in some type of general/default government school. Ironically, those who end up in such a school will be going somewhere that they can receive an education which is perfectly tailored for students coming from "at risk" homes.

  • pino

    Why is it that when the government pays for my kid to go to a private school its a "subsidy" but when the government pays for him to go to a public school is a "service"? I fail to recognize the distinction.

    If you make that argument, then what we should do is stop the public education system totally. Quit taxing me to send your child to go to school. If you want to educate your child, then you should pay for it with your own money. If you are too poor or too uncaring, then your children get zero education.

    Of course the above is silly, we don’t wanna go there. That system works for nobody. In the end, we need to educate Everyman. The point is, the public schools are chartered to meet a minimum requirement; every other “Ought” should be contained within the market.

    Are you saying that it is not their responsibility to help their self or their child?

    It is their responsibility, and they fail at it. And, as a civilized society, we have said that we are willing to help those children. We are willing to give up our money, to a degree, to assist those in need.

    will be going somewhere that they can receive an education which is perfectly tailored for students coming from "at risk" homes.

    I disagree. Such schools can not retain teachers or staff. They are unable to provide safety. They are not able to gather the resources to have after school care or after school activities. Further, they lack the general backbone of all successful schools; active interested parents.

  • Rob

    I disagree. Such schools can not retain teachers or staff. They are unable to provide safety. They are not able to gather the resources to have after school care or after school activities. Further, they lack the general backbone of all successful schools; active interested parents.

    That is a very static view which fills a current system school full of "at-risk" students (which you are most likely correct in your conclusion). However, my assumption is that a school full of "at-risk" kids would be tailored appropriately. One would imagine that this would be a very strict military-esque style environment.

  • tim

    Pino,

    I still not understanding you.

    The point is, the public schools are chartered to meet a minimum requirement; every other “Ought” should be contained within the market.

    Public schools cost zero dollars at the point of delivery. That means they are a monopoly in the most coercive sense. They take your money, whether or not you want them to, and they deliver whatever level of service and quality they feel like, and when parents complain, they demand more money.

    Are you saying that public schools should be exempted from the "Market" while private schools should be part of the "Market"? Seems fair, to give me my tax dollars back then, so I don't have to pay twice for my kid to go to school. Once when I pay my taxes, and again when I pay my tuition.

    The point of vouchers is to open all schools to the "market".

  • pino

    I still not understanding you.

    My point is this: If you support open market (vouchers) then I am confused why you support the concept of taxation at all. We wouldn’t even need vouchers if we just went totally private.

    Of course, in this scenario, we would find a large portion of society that would be without schools and enter society un or under educated. We as that society have seen this as unacceptable, have built schools and intend to provide the basic level of education. Given that, I think that our schools are meeting this “minimum charter.

    So, is the charter of public schools a minimum or a maximum?

  • Tim

    Pino,

    We pay for education in my state because it is part of my state's constitution. I reject your assertion that if I support vouchers then I should reject taxation at all. The two are apples and oranges. My state has chosen to take on the obligation to educate kids until the age of 18, how we pay for it is the question, not IF we should pay for it. If we pay for it through vouchers, then parental choice creates a market. If we pay for it like we currently are, then I pay twice, once when I pay my taxes and once again when I pay tuition.

    This is a pretty basic concept. Either way society pays, the question is does your kid's tuition come with 3 bathrooms and granite countertops? The fact that you can't leave the school in your area creates the coercive monopoly. It basically allows everyone but poor people bail out of bad school districts.

    Imagine if we bought groceries the way we pay for education. All food is free at the point of delivery (at the store), you pay for it with your property taxes. If you want something special that is not on the shelves of your grocery store like sushi, organic soy milk or guava fruit you are screwed. You can't by law shop anywhere else. So the best you can hope for is to lobby the resident/grocer association who are your grocer elected officials to add it to the inventory.

    In a free market, you leave the store, you go down the street, you buy what you want. Done. I think you are getting hung up on this obligation that the states decided to pay for it. Fine, pay for it, just give me a choice, that's all I am asking.

  • pino

    I may have to apologize; I am unsure if you understood my taxation comments to be taxation for schools only or if you took it to mean taxation across the board. My implication was for the former, I did not mean to imply that you feel all taxation should cease. With that said, here goes.

    We pay for education in my state because it is part of my state's constitution. I reject your assertion that if I support vouchers then I should reject taxation at all. The two are apples and oranges. My state has chosen to take on the obligation to educate kids until the age of 18, how we pay for it is the question, not IF we should pay for it.

    If I have understood the above correctly, then I think that you are saying the state has agreed to educate all kids until 18. The missing emphasis (pardon me if that sounds funny) would be on the missing my . From the above, we are to say that the tax is being collected to educate all kids, not just yours. That is, the state has identified that the state suffers when its citizens do not have some form of minimum education.

    Then you say this:

    If we pay for it like we currently are, then I pay twice, once when I pay my taxes and once again when I pay tuition.

    That’s where I disagree with you. My take is that when you pay your taxes you are paying for:

    1. Education for Everykid.

    When you send your kids to private school, you are paying for:

    1. Education for YOUR kid.

    My point is this; you are not paying for it twice. You are paying for two different things once each. You are getting exactly what you are paying for; the product of educating all kids and then, the private education.

    I think of it this way. Assume that I have no children. I am paying taxes to educate the state’s kids through 18 years old. That is what I am paying for. Some agreed upon level of education for the state’s citizens. There is nothing in that relationship that speaks to my kids. Now, when I do decide to have kids, I may or may not want to purchase another product; private education. I don’t have to but I certainly don’t expect YOU to pay for my kid’s private education.

  • Anon E. Mouse

    pino wrote: "...I certainly don’t expect YOU to pay for my kid’s private education."

    Well, right now I pay for your kid's public education. And I'm not happy with the quality of service he's getting for my money.

  • pino

    And I'm not happy with the quality of service he's getting for my money.

    THAT I can agree with. However, it is different than claiming that I am being billed twice for private school. Or that I am not being offered choices. Or that I am forced to attend public school. Or that there exists some form of monopoly.

  • Solar Lad

    The public school system may not be monopolistic, strictly speaking, but it IS a cartel.

    I'm more than happy to help pay for Jane Everykid to learn the "three 'Rs'", plus national and world history, but there's no easy way to donate à la carte. I am also forced to pay for her cheerleading, and her vice assistant principal's generous retirement package.

    The only real option is to run for the school board, and attempt to get some like-minded people elected, but, like paying for private schooling, that too is an economic cost, no ?

  • giggling

    pino,

    I think you are missing at least one important point. The "choice" that I and most other school voucher proponents are talking about when we say under the current system we have NO choice, is the choice to determine where my tax money for the education of Everyman goes. That's the real issue, not whether or not there should be tax monies for Everyman's education.

    Right now, my tax money for Everyman's education is monopolized by the government-run public schools because it can go nowhere else. Why is this right?

    Lastly, you also do not address the lack of choice that develops if I am not rich. If I am poor, my lack of choice as to where Everyman may be educated is the lack of choice as to where MY kids may be educated. As a parent, that makes it even worse.

  • pino

    I think you are missing at least one important point.

    I agree with you. As individuals we have very little say in how the dollars are spent. However, I don’t think that the public school system is unique in that aspect. For example, try to get the pothole in front of your driveway fixed; quickly and well.

    Why is this right?

    Because that is why the tax has been collected. In an effort to prevent widespread abject poverty, the state will collect monies to be used to provide some level of education.

    Think of it this way, why do you feel that you have the right to receive a voucher to spend as you please simply because you have a school aged child? What if my childless neighbor expected that same right?

    the lack of choice as to where MY kids may be educated.

    To blame the system for lack of choice simply because you are poor, though I guess less rich is more accurate, is a bit of a stretch. Do you also feel that you should have some form of voucher system that would allow you to buy a new Lexus rather than the used Malibu? People with more money have more purchasing choices in many many markets.

  • Anon E. Mouse

    pino,

    In Arlington county, Virginia, we spend $23,000 (more or less, google it--200,000 people in the county, half a billion dollar school bill) per child on public education. The kids do get a pretty decent education, so I hear. Not that there's really anything to compare it against....

    But why not give every parent the *choice* where to educate their child? Give them, say, a $20k voucher and *subsidize* the public system with a $3k bonus for each kid they attract -- when the parents hand over that $20k.

    This isn't a voucher to buy a Lexus instead of a Malibu. This is taking the exact same money we spend today and giving the consumer of that service a choice of provider. That's all. If someone wants to kick in their own money on top of that, sure, fine, I don't care. I just want every poor kid in the county a chance at a $20k/year private education.

    Really, this is the same as we do with colleges/universities. In VA, we have UVA, George Mason, William and Mary (and others) -- all state (public) schools, each of those I'd line up against any private institution in the country.

    Why do they kick ass? Because they compete with private schools. End of story.

    (Yeah, GMU lost a Nobel prize winner recently, but they are still a world-class Econ institution.)