More on Public/Private Education
Jude Wanniski
September15, 1997

Memo To: Website fans, browsers, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Vouchers/School Choice

Our "Memo on the Margin" Wednesday, September 3, to former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, agreed with him in his arguments against school choice. The memo prompted a reaction from a student of Supply-Side University, Kevin Isbister, who has some interesting things to say about this aspect of the education issue. I have a comment that follows. The original September 3 memo to Cuomo is then appended, if you need refreshment. Please join in the discussion.

From Kevin: You are correct in pointing out that the makeup of the student body is what skews test scores, not the inherent advantages of private versus public education. If you draft a school built just with achievers, there should be little doubt that the numbers will favor them. Not simply because those kids take their intelligence with them and pool into a tuition-based program, but because you are also subtracting from the upper end of the curve that used to be in the public system. Duh. Those that insist that test scores by themselves are the end-all, be-all proof of private school superiority should go back to the classroom themselves and take some courses in statistical analysis. Or math.

However, you miss a point, too. By implying that good test scores are simply the balanced equation of parental involvement and money radically underestimates the capability of the human mind and the struggles of late 20th century life in America. Coming from a moderately conservative, reasonably wealthy and certainly white community in the Midwest, I could cite many examples of kind, compassionate, involved parents with the means to provide for their kids, and kids who just haven't been able to get motivated for one reason or another. I can cite many more examples of kids with virtually no parental care or monetary support who thrived because a teacher WAS able to show them at least one enjoyable path to a good education. Parents, certainly, are a key ingredient to education, but the math isn't that simple.

Education reform in its many incarnations over the past century has always revolved around one thing: exchanging one cookie-cutter method of educating for another. The problem is that for every kid who needs really needs whole language in order to find understanding in the classroom, there's another who needs really needs the phonics-based learning that preceded the reform. One teaching style based on stern discipline will find a few new recruits into the learning process, but a steady diet of that same rote approach will turn off many more prospective learners who crave a looser structure (maybe a change of pace from what they are getting at home). And vice versa.

I've talked to a number of teachers who have been around the game for a while, and there seems to be a consensus that communication is getting better between grades and between teachers. It is no longer the universal plan for a child with some behavioral difficulties in Grade Two to get pigeon-holed for the rest of his educational career into a tract of disciplinarian teachers, lower-level courses and mandatory trips to the principal's office. By allowing more than one kind of teaching style to be exposed to that kid, good or bad, the system as a whole can learn more about what turns that particular student on. And they can ultimately relay that information to the upper-level instructors the youngster will meet later.

I'm all for input and control from the local level. School boards wielding power tend to involve more of the community, usually through the financial impact of their decisions. This lets a school district in the Panhandle of Florida cater the curricula to their own kids rather than be subjected to specific mandates from a national body. That latter kind of heirarchy can't possibly master the communication necessary to learn about how specific kids learn.

However, national mandates of a less specific nature do have a powerful effect on the state of our country's schools. You say that you'd rather have the local communities pay for their own education, rather than having the bulk of the cost financed through national taxes. But this gives both the care of the curriculum AND the level of financing to the same segment of our nation. While good administrators and teachers can be imported into a school system to help a local school board care for student education, the same cannot be said for the money a good education takes. That SHOULD be the primary responsibility of the nation at large, because it takes the dollar out of the local citizen's vote. Their decisions, then, are based on the best interests of the child, rather than the best interests of their interest.

And don't underestimate the power of a large national budget as a way of better endorsing education. When politicians urge cutbacks in educational spending, they may have the taxpayers' financial interests at heart, but they essentially convey the very strong and effective message that education is not important. Not to spend money on, at least. You can argue a hundred thousand different ways about the foolish spending in any federally-financed program; but the solution in those cases is not to underfund that foolish spending. It is to take smart businessmen and accountants and use some ingenuity to get EVEN MORE out of every dollar. Spend your energy finding wise people to fill the purchasing department and there the value for each dollar will increase with the value of education plummeting.

I bristle at the argument you put forth, too, that the "solution" to our educational woes is to simply create enough wealth so every parent can pull their kids out of public schools, to the point where we don't need them at all. If that ever happens, God forbid, what we will be creating is an educational machine that produces segregated, narrow-minded communities. Probably each with a little toll gate at the entrance to keep all the wrong sort out. Public schools are about building a "public." You get good kids and bad ones. Separating the two at that level just means they'll continue to be separate after leaving the school system.

Instead of thinking of it as bringing a good student down by exposing him to a bad one, why not consider how much better that bad student can be if exposed to a good role model? Education, unlike a good sports jacket, is not something that should depend on the amount of wealth an American has been able to obtain. You can still keep your theories that call for an elimination of capital gains taxation without necessitating an elimination of a public school system or severely reducing federal financing for education. That's what the nation should be paying for, even over health care and welfare (although both are important to have, they benefit from a better investment in education).

It was a bit strange to go back and read your voucher memo again, realizing that we would be in agreement that school vouchers are more bad than good. The irony is that your motivation seems to be based on a belief that we'll all, ultimately, be better off getting whatever education we can pay for, while I am very afraid that vouchers will go a long way to achieving that end.


From Jude: I'm going to read your excellent memo again, carefully, when I have the time. I will say that my reductio ad absurdum, about such great wealth that there is no need for a public school, is meant in a Marxian way the withering away of the state. I suppose you are more Hegelian, less materialistic in your dialectic, but I really don't see any particular need to have a public school when all private schools are open to the public. If you can persuade me there is a reason, I will amend my argument, because the only reason I hold it is that I can imagine a perfectly functioning education system without government bureaucracies in control of the finances. If you wish the state to be in charge in order to inculcate statist ideas in the masses of children, we might have to have a separate discussion on that score.