School Choice & Charters Opinion

Still Disagreeing With Uncle Mike

By Burt Saxon — January 17, 2001 7 min read
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I believe educational vouchers are a bad idea. But those of us who oppose them have failed to correct the conditions that have given rise to their current vogue.

Every Saturday afternoon in 1962, my father would drive me from Plainfield, Ill., to nearby Oswego, where my Uncle Mike was the town’s only doctor. After Uncle Mike gave me an allergy shot, the three of us would retreat to his house for a serious discussion of social and political issues.

I never saw Uncle Mike more animated than the day he held forth on Capitalism and Freedom, the book by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. “Look what it says about schools!” my uncle exclaimed. “Professor Friedman proposes giving every parent a voucher, so they can choose where their child goes to school. This is a great idea.”

My reply was what one might expect from a 15-year-old: “Why don’t they just give the schools some more money—and why don’t they fire Mr. Anderson?” Mr. Anderson was the worst teacher I had ever had. He read in a dull monotone from the textbook for the whole class period.

“Don’t you get it?” Uncle Mike replied. “Mr. Anderson has tenure. But with Friedman’s plan, he’ll have to either improve or be fired—just like he would in private industry.”

I took the book home and read it. The next week, I asked Uncle Mike how he felt about the Friedman plan to allow practically anyone to practice medicine. According to the professor, free-market forces would take care of the bad “doctors.” “There’s a problem with that,” I said. “If you weren’t here to give me my shot, some quack might kill me before the market drove him out of business.” Uncle Mike wasn’t sure what to say. My father seemed to agree with me.

Milton Friedman wasn’t the first person to propose a voucher plan for public education. Adam Smith said essentially the same thing in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations. So this idea has been percolating for a while. And its time may finally have come, if President-elect Bush’s campaign nod to vouchers is any indicator.

I still believe educational vouchers are a bad idea. But those of us who oppose them have failed to correct the conditions that have given rise to their current vogue. Let’s look, for example, at what are seen as some of the advantages of a market-driven, rather than a politically driven, education system:

The consumer is in charge. The consumer, in theory, is the parent, but in practice, this could mean the child. As in the business world, schools that respond to the needs of the consumer thrive; those that don’t, die out. This is basically a good thing.

Schools are forced to innovate. No public school system I know of innovates as effectively as, say, McDonald’s or other leading businesses. Educational innovation would be rapid, with successful innovation rewarded, ineffective innovation punished. Not only that, but successful innovation could be replicated across the country. High schools would probably start using a mix of large-group, small-group, and tutorial instruction, for example, instead of the batch-processing “25 kids in a classroom” approach we use now.

Money is spent more wisely and more quickly. Only a public bureaucracy could come up with the system of purchase orders used by school systems throughout the United States.

But these advantages might come with a very steep price tag.

The charter school movement has much more potential to ameliorate our problems than voucher plans.

It might be hard to prevent parents, for example, from taking under-the-table rebates for children who didn’t go to school. Suppose Mrs. Smith has an $8,000 voucher and her 16-year-old son, Johnny, rarely attends school. What is to stop an unscrupulous businessman from paying Mrs. Smith a few thousand dollars for the voucher? True libertarians, of course, would allow Mrs. Smith to sell her educational voucher for whatever the market would yield. But most Americans, myself included, would feel differently.

In a market-driven system, successful educational entrepreneurs would make millions, while teachers and school administrators would find their wages shrinking. In the words of Ada Mae Harrison, my best economics professor: “If you are going to criticize capitalism, don’t try to criticize it as a system of resource allocation— because it is the best system ever invented. Criticize it as a system of distribution.” In other words, free markets are quick and innovative, but they also can produce unjust results.

And what if financially strapped schools had to close in the middle of the year, without hope of a government bailout? Affected parents would find that the decision they thought was smart had turned out to be a big mistake. And the results would be a lot more serious than buying the wrong shoes or even the wrong car.

On balance, I believe a market-driven system of education would lose out to a public system every time, provided that the public system was able to do the following three things:

Provide sufficient choices for parents. The New Haven, Conn., school system is one of a number of urban systems nationwide that have done well here. In New Haven and some other cities, magnet schools serve as “public schools of choice.”

Offer an effective mechanism for getting rid of bad teachers. We need not go so far as to eliminate tenure, which offers protection not only against political firings, but also against such employment threats as age discrimination. We do, however, need some civil service component in hiring, as well as higher salaries and better support for new teachers, more selectivity in granting tenure, and an easier and less expensive process for school boards to follow in terminating teachers who are simply not doing the job anymore.

Not many teachers, by the way, fall into this last category. Mr. Anderson, for example, my classroom nemesis of 40 years ago, was transformed by a decision to make him the athletic director of my high school, thus putting his love of sports and organizational skills to good use—while retiring his teaching deficit.

Ensure adequate supplies and materials for every classroom. Personally, I would give each teacher in America discretionary money over and above what the school system provides to spend on supplies and materials for students.

Voucher advocates argue that restructuring education will lead to increased academic achievement, although most acknowledge that the gains may be be small. Most public school educators, especially those in urban public schools, simply do not believe that the causes of poor academic achievement are to be found in inert bureaucracies or lazy, incompetent teachers. Many blame their own students and their students’ parents. Others, like myself, believe that eliminating poverty—instead of starting another round of poorly conceived school reforms—would be the best way to boost academic achievement.

So here’s a simple idea. Have the board of education of a medium- to large-size city undertake a full-scale experimental voucher plan for several years. Have the school board in a city of comparable size with a similar demographic makeup pledge not to implement a voucher plan for the same period. Educational researchers could carefully monitor and measure academic progress in both cities to determine whether or not vouchers really do increase academic achievement.

The very existence of voucher plans may be their biggest contribution to school reform.

For me, however, the charter school movement has much more potential to ameliorate our problems than voucher plans. Charter schools typically must have the approval of either a local or a state board of education before they can begin operating. And these schools are monitored, which means that their charters can be revoked.

Lack of funding has plagued many charter efforts, though, and in most states, such as Connecticut, very few charters are granted. Wouldn’t correcting these two problems be a more judicious course than adopting a voucher plan?

Meanwhile, the very existence of voucher plans may be their biggest contribution to school reform. Consumers, after all, are convinced that the U.S. Postal Service was able to clean up its act only after it faced fierce competition from overnight-delivery concerns.

Without the threat of Milton Friedman’s idea, schools might be more rigid and bureaucratized than they are now. As it stands, they are more concerned about student achievement than at any other time during my 30 years as a teacher.

But if Uncle Mike were still alive, I would say to him, “On the whole, vouchers were a bad idea in 1962, and they are still a bad idea today.”

Burt Saxon has taught high school social studies in Milford, Conn., since 1980. He has also taught courses on educational reform at Yale University, Southern Connecticut State University, and the University of New Haven.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Still Disagreeing With Uncle Mike


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