Saturday, July 28, 2012

Vouchers and schools and creationists, oh my!

I wrote last weekend about a school voucher program going on in Louisiana.  While I am against vouchers for several different reasons this is understandably a complicated issue with a lot of competing issues to consider.  NCSE published an article about it and I decided to revisit it in a bit detail.

Many people favor vouchers based upon an argument that says that people should have a right too choose.  I don't really see this as a solution to our problems in this area.  I think what I notice is that in politics there are two sides, one that argues that more government control will fix our issues and one that argues that less control will fix our problems.  Politics seems bereft of people, like myself, who wish that policies were made rationally instead of ideologically.  Sometimes more government control is good, sometimes less is, on a lot of issues the amount of government control seems to have nothing to do with the problem at all. 

In the school voucher debate, this seems to be much the same quandary, some people think by getting government out of education the problems we have will simply disappear.  I remain unconvinced of this.  It seems that our problems with education are more complex and require more thoughtful solutions than simply throwing up our hands and privatizing the whole thing.  After all, many other countries with public education seem to be doing just fine.  Further, I think that many politicians in favor of vouchers are simply using it as a smoke screen to promote their personal religion in schools.  Rep. Valarie Hodges that I wrote about in my earlier post basically admitted it was her goal when she backed out upon realizing that Muslim schools would receive money as well.  

Clear evidence that evolution is false...I guess.
For one thing, when the state starts giving money to the private schools now the state starts enforcing more limits and controls on those private schools, so it ends up in many ways not really different than the current system.  There are a few questions that are not answered though.  For instance, under the current law, teachers are unable to lead students in prayer in a public school, but they can in a private school, and the majority of private schools are religious.  Does the government step in and say no school organized prayers?  This would not go over well with the religious right, but if the state is providing funds to these schools allows these school organized prayers to continue are they not allowing states funds to be used to promote religion?  Do we want to allow that? What about creationists text books that teach the Loch Ness monster disproves evolution?  Yes, those books from ACE are, in fact, in use in some of the private schools in Louisiana.

However, some may say, what about the standardized test scores.  It is true that scores on standardized tests are usually higher in private schools, doesn't that prove that moving kids to the voucher system will improve their grades too?  Well, maybe, but then again maybe not.  Let's examine this a bit more closely.

I found a good break down of various statistics about private schools here: 

The statistics for their breakdown comes from the national center for education statistics so I think we can assume they are pretty reliable, a read though the statistics reveals that scores in private schools are indeed better, but this does not automatically mean that the voucher system will improve education.  There are a few things that need to be considered.  The question to be asking is why exactly do people in private schools do better.  I know people of the libertarian mind set seem to believe that the explanation lies in the natural checks and balances that exist in private enterprise which have no analog in government.  Lets just say I do not find that explanation very satisfying.  They may turn out to be right, but both government and private enterprise are run by humans, I have seen no evidence to convince me that private enterprise is less prone to corruption than government or that the reality checks in it are more effective.

First, I am going to point out something obvious.  Correlation does not equal causation.  I know we have all heard that before, but it is an important concept, there are other possible explanations for private school students doing better on tests than private schools are all better and education.  Don't misunderstand, many private schools probably are better in certain respects, but consider a few other hypothetical causes for this.  
  1. There is also evidence that students do better when their parents take an interest in their education.  Statistically speaking I would bet that parents willing to spend money educating their children take a more active role in it.  
  2. Another observation is that children who eat better diets growing up tend to have higher IQ's.  People who can afford private school are going to be more wealthy and therefore more likely to eat better. 
I could probably think of others if I tried but I came up with these two just setting around between calls at work.  Do they totally account for the difference? Probably not, but they do need to be considered before just assuming that vouchers will fix the problems facing education in this country.

There is one other thing I think needs to be considered.  Near the top of CAPE's page they give a breakdown of the tuition costs of private schools.  The numbers are from 2007-2008, but that is the most recent numbers I found online.  

The big thing I noticed here was that religious ($7,073) schools are much cheaper to attend than the non-sectarian variety ($16,247).  Cheaper by more than half in every case.  They give no reason for this, but I suspect that they are cheaper due to being supported in part by churches or other religious organizations.  The reason this is important is because of a piece of information I only discovered a few weeks ago in a conversation I had at TAM.  The amount that the state will pay in your voucher will not exceed the amount that the state spends per student in the public school.  In my state of Arizona this is 7,608 dollars, in Louisiana it is 10,684 dollars per student.  (Yes, Louisiana outspends my state)  

Combining these two figures together should paint an interesting picture.  If you are poor, having 10k of your child's tuition paid is still not likely to get them into a non-religious private school, instead you are left with the religious schools, some of which are (at least in Louisiana) painfully bad.  On top of that, the statistics gathered on this topic may mislead people into thinking that by merely moving their child to a private school they will fix their performance problems and increase their grades.  Which, as I pointed out earlier, may not be the case.

I am sure that there are solutions to the current education woes in our country, but they will not be as simple as moving students to private schools.  Doubly so when you consider that the voucher programs are often a thinly veiled way for fundamentalist Christians violate church state separation, by pushing inaccurate and biased versions of science, and history on U.S. children.  Thanks to people like Don McLeroy we already have enough of that to fight in the public school system, but at least we have the ability to fight it there.

No comments:

Post a Comment