Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Children's Crusade

... the phrase being formed in the same way as the Albigensian Crusade, that is, a crusade against children.

The other day Homo Superior Curates the Web had a link to an article at the Huffington Post by Arianna Huffington herself, calling for "single payer for education." Vouchers, in other words. She never uses the word "voucher" in the article, which has the amazingly stupid title "So We Can't Have Single Payer for Health Care, But How About Single Payer for Education?" (The answer to that question would presumably be, "You can't have that either.") I wonder if she avoids the word because vouchers are so unpopular, or if she just doesn't realize what she's advocating?

But then, the whole article is amazingly stupid. At one point Huffington says, "Time after time, when the choice has come down to books versus bars, our political leaders have chosen to build bigger prisons rather than figuring out how to have fewer kids in them." Hm. Why not just have single-payer prisons, then? It would save money, and give communities choice in where to send their kids, and teach dropouts to make license plates; why not see prisons as an adjunct to our educational system?

Huffington's commenters recognize what she's talking about, though, and several are big defenders of vouchers. Others are not, like HuffPost blogger Anne Hill, who writes,
Yes, a single-payer education program would be what is now known as a voucher program. And that overwhelmingly contributes to the resegregation of schools, and the impoverishment of our public education system. To say nothing of the dubious, often religiously biased education that the children of those who opt for vouchers receive.
The trouble with vouchers is that they do not bring all the benefits that their advocates promise. You don't need to leave the Huffington Post to learn this; the psychologist Gerald Bracey, who's been refuting nonsense about American education for decades, also is a contributor there, and he has a few posts about the failure of vouchers. Like this one, "Vouchers Strike Out Again":
New York, Dayton, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Milwaukee, Florida, and now Washington again. Kids who use publicly or privately funded vouchers to attend private schools don't do any better in school than matched groups of public school children. You wonder how many at bats these guys are going to get. I guess when the club owners are people like George W. Bush, John Boehner, and James Leininger the answer is "infinite."
Or this one, "Sol Stern to Vouchers: Drop Dead":

Over the years, Manhattan Institute conservative contrarian, Sol Stern, has written many essays, usually in the New York Post supporting the use of taxpayer money to provide students in "failing" public schools with vouchers so they can attend private schools. Now, he says in City Journal the Institute's magazine, vouchers haven't worked and it's time for Plan B, notably a focus on curriculum and instruction (what an idea!).

Some of Stern's arguments are purely practical--most voucher-using kids go to Catholic schools (the only ones with sufficiently low tuition) and Catholic schools are closing at a record pace so where will the kids go?

His major argument, though, is more substantive. Vouchers are supposed to accomplish two things: Improve the achievement of those who use them and improve the achievement of public schools because of the competition from the voucher schools. Stern argues they have accomplished neither.

Bracey isn't the only critic of "school choice" as a policy; there's a large literature on the subject, some of which I've looked at, and Bracey's arguments aren't idiosyncratic; they're standard.

I guess we can now add Arianna Huffington to the list of people who can keep going to bat for a bad idea. Which makes me wonder if I shouldn't take a closer, more jaundiced look at single-payer health care plans. Maybe it's just a poor substitute for a government health service, like our government education service, which despite its many serious faults does a remarkably good job, in the face of all those who want to destroy it.