Education Opinion

Gimme That Backpack Full O’ Cash!

By Justin Reich — October 25, 2012 2 min read
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I just want to take a moment, in public, to congratulate the communications savvy of the free-market reformers.

For years, they talked about “school vouchers.” When I think of vouchers, I think of getting stranded, late at night, in some terrible airport, and having the harried, unhappy person behind the airline counter give me a hotel “voucher” that covers approximately 4% of the cost of a terrible hotel room. Vouchers do not make me feel good; I don’t think they make you feel good.

So, vouchers are gone from public discourse. In the health care debate, they have been replaced by “premium support.” To me, “premium support” sounds pretty good. For instance, I really like premium ice cream. Premium support? Probably equally good.

But the free-marketeers in education have definitely one-upped the health care folks with their new metaphor: the backpack full of cash! (Well, the “backpack full of cash” is formally called “Student-based backpack funding.”) Here’s the twofer: the government is going to give your student her very own duffle of dough, satchel of scratch, briefcase of bills, rucksack of riches. And since every family will be fully-informed about their market choices (marketed by people who will advertise learning opportunities with utmost candor and concern for students’ interests), all of those funds will be wisely spent on educational consumer products, and our schooling system will dramatically improve and become more equitable. What’s not to like?!?

I mean, look at this picture. It’s a kid with a stack of bills the size of his head poking out of his backpack (though I should say, when my daughter walks around with a backpack full of money, I always require her to keep it zipped). Who among us does not want our child to have a backpack full of cash?

The problem with this picture, of course, is that the bills are all ones. C’mon voucheristas, you can do better than that! Therefore, I called down to the art department in my blogging shop, and had the boys generate this much-improved image. If you are going to have a backpack full of cash, my friends, then it has to be all about the Benjamins.

OK, final serious conclusion: there is an important substantive point in the metaphor change. Originally conceived, vouchers were to be used to buy an entire school experience. With the availability of a variety of online learning options, the backpack full of cash is meant to allow students (and their families) to purchase online learning experiences—courses, tutors, special education support services, extracurriculars, etc.— a la carte. You don’t give the voucher to a holistic school provider; you spend your backpack of funds on whatever you want, and networked learning allows the world to be your marketplace.

Folks backing vouchers have my full support in making their case in as compelling a manner as possible. But in analyzing any argument, we should be broadly aware of the rhetorical moves that partisans make. In someways, the vivid metaphor helps clarify the debate taking place between those who want education to become a consumer good, and those who believe that educational materials and opportunities are the public infrastructure of our culture.

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