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Thursday, June 24, 2004

Battle School Vouchers - Challenger - Second Rebuttal

The honorable and luminous Iron Blogger Democrat has sallied forth into the fray with bold language and firm arguments. The only problem is that his rebuttal arguments have only a tenuous relationship with what I actually said.

Jay begins his rebuttal by saying that "in theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice they are not." Very true. As Murphy says, "no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” However, just because a theory does not meet 100% of its expectations does not necessarily invalidate the theory. Jay continues to a second point where he says, "His whole philosophy of vouchers seems to be, "why not?" A fair amount of effort is then spent by Jay in picking apart the "why not?" argument. The only problem is that I did not assert the argument that he contends that I asserted. Here is what I actually said in my opening:

In summary, the State, as properly directed by The People, must provide the suitable means to each child for the purpose of education. That education may come in any appropriate form, whether private or public, as prescribed by the child’s parents, which they are within their rights to prescribe.


I have not argued that the State should issue school vouchers because there isn't a good reason not to. Rather, I have argued that it is the State's duty to issue school vouchers in order to meet its obligations to our children’s education.

That is not to say that the "why not?" argument does not have some merit. It is just not the argument that I waged. The "why not?" argument is basically this: if the State has multiple methods to accomplish the same goal, then why not go with the least expensive option. I did not use it because 1) the State should never enact policy just for the heck of it, and 2) the argument is not suitable to an issue like school vouchers because of the numerous ancillary issues involved.

In the second paragraph, Jay uses a sentence from my opening statement to support his opinion that I have brought forth the "why not?" argument. I said, "If a private institution can provide an equal or better education for less money, then I think it is acceptable for the State only to dispense that amount of money." The problem is that I was asserting my opinion that the only situation in which I think that the State shouldn't dispense ALL of the money that it deems necessary to educate a child is when the private school costs less. This was not my argument for vouchers, but merely a concession that would allow the State to keep some of the education dollars intended for the child without providing any services for the child. So it seems that Jay has managed to waste a fair amount of his rebuttal on an argument that I never made. Pity.

I thank the Iron Blogger for commending my opening statement. I think that one thing that we can all agree on is that education is vital to the State's interests. That is why The People have given their respective governments the duty of providing that education. Jay then brings up the other side of this duty when he says, "the State also has an obligation to ensure that the education so provided is a quality one, and meets the standards deemed appropriate by the State." I, like many of my fellow supporters of school vouchers, completely agree. Reasonable people can disagree on what form those standards should take.

The Iron Blogger Democrat then contradicts himself. First he says, “As to the first, that parents can use the power of their shoe leather to moderate problematic schools, this has happened in Milwaukee to an extent--but only to a very, very small extent.” Then he says, “Every year there is significant turnover in the number of students participating in the choice program; in the past five years that number has been around 25% (.pdf link)--meaning about 2500 parents believed that the program was not working for their children. That's a huge number.” Indeed it is a huge number. In fact, it is a huge number that indicates to me that parents are doing exactly what the Iron Blogger has said that they are not doing – using the power of their shoe leather. Parents are choosing to return to the public schools after finding that the voucher schools were not working for their children. I would think that the public school would be delighted at this. The other side of that number, of course, is that 75% of the kids using school vouchers are finding that the voucher schools are working for them. I suspect that even if vouchers were implemented to the degree that I would like, 70% or more of the kids would remain in the public school system. That is a credit to the quality of education that some public schools provide.

The Washington Post editorial that the Iron Blogger cites does indeed say what the Iron Blogger has quoted. It also says, “The Milwaukee public schools have not responded to competition from the voucher programs either, largely because local officials have insulated public schools from the financial effects of competition.” Here is what the study that the editorial cited suggests:



What is needed, they argue, is not necessarily a system of special standardized tests or inspections, which might compromise the independence of the private schools in the program, but rules that require schools to publish and regularly update relevant information. For example, participating schools might be asked to publish the qualifications of teachers and administrators; the results of an annual financial audit; the curriculum; attendance, suspension and graduation rates; teacher turnover rates; class size; and the results of standardized tests, just for a start. In addition, officials have to make sure the market mechanism works: that both public and private schools failing to attract students suffer some financial consequences.


I agree. I don’t have any problem with forcing schools to publish readily available statistics like teacher qualifications, attendance, graduation rates, etc. Most, if not all, private schools already gather these statistics because they use them to advertise to parents. I would also hope that if the private schools offer up their data and are held accountable for it that the public schools would stop shielding their bad apples and let them fall off the tree. Tell you what, Jay, if we get some accountability from the voucher schools, will you support school vouchers?

The Iron Blogger then laments the fact that a voucher school could receive vast amounts of tax dollars and yet the State would “not have the ability to tell it what to do or how to do it.” This is true and my answer is “so what?” If we can hold voucher schools accountable, as I support a few paragraphs up, then why does the State need to have control? Isn’t the reason that most people use a school voucher because the State run education system is not serving their children’s needs? If the kids coming out of the voucher schools are well educated, then does the State have an interest in controlling the educational methodology? Is it possible that different educational methods work better or worse on different kids? Are you really proposing that one size fits all?

Jay then goes on to make a leap in logic that by supporting the right of a private school to operate according to its own admissions standards, that I support them breaking the law. That is not the case. If the State wants to require certain admissions standards in order for a private school to receive voucher dollars, then the State is wrong. That does not, however, mean that the private school can break the law. They should forgo the voucher money instead. If all of the private schools refused all voucher kids, the public pressure to change the law would be irresistible.

My fictional “why not?” argument is further refuted by Jay when he reasons that private schools artificially keep their costs lower by “not providing special education service, by not hiring certified teachers, by not wasting time or money on state testing, by not accepting low-performing students” etc. This, according to Jay, creates an uneven playing field between public and private schools. Quite the contrary, public schools artificially raise their costs by a burdensome certification process, overblown bureaucracy, lavish benefits, and other wasteful spending. In fact, the school choice program in Milwaukee is saving MPS $100,000,000. The private schools are already subject to market forces. I guarantee you that a parent who forks over a few thousand dollars per kid to have them educated is far more demanding that the money be spent efficiently, and the school officials are far more responsive to a paying customer.

The Iron Blogger Democrat next moves into the religious debate with a red herring Establishment Clause fear. I think that both Jay and I have done a respectable job of not getting into the religious question too deeply, because it is a completely separate issue. We could have a school voucher system that does not include religion-run schools. In any case, I think that a properly administered system of accountability could be effective without infringing on anyone’s private property rights or religious freedom. This is a bridge that we will have to cross after we’ve decided whether or not we should implement school vouchers.

My challenge to the Iron Blogger Democrat to move his argument beyond Milwaukee’s experience into the broader world is accepted by him in the final few paragraphs. While he is correct that, “Beyond Milwaukee, though, those other programs in other cities or countries have shown little if any good reason to hope that vouchers can ever live up to the promise of ‘theory.’” Very true, but I would point out three things. First, both sides of this debate have engaged in overheated rhetoric and outlandish claims. If you compare the results of any voucher program with the predictions of either side, you will find the results wanting. Second, none of the voucher programs that have been implemented are implemented in a way that matches the theories (save, perhaps, New Zealand). The programs have been watered down and subjected to the necessary compromises of bi-partisan legislation. One cannot hold a program to the promises of a theory of which the program is a hazy reflection. Third, none of the studies have shown that school vouchers hurt. That is not to advance a “why not?” argument, but merely to point out that the dire predictions of the opposition have failed to materialize. Every policy has to be taken on balance because every policy has costs and benefits. Taken as a whole, it seems that the voucher programs, even as poorly implemented as they are, have at least some benefit and minimal costs.

The Iron Blogger notices that a study that I cited said that African-American students benefited from school vouchers in New York. He goes on to complain that, “While that's good for the African American students involved, it was no better a result, the researchers note, than reducing class sizes--a change in policy that benefits all students in the classroom, with lasting positive effects.” This is a classic misdirection. The issue of class size has nothing to do with school vouchers. A school district could have a school voucher program and a class reduction program and never the two would meet. I’ll bet that those African-American students who are getting a better education and seeing a brighter future would fail to find Jay’s argument convincing.

The Iron Blogger closes out his rebuttal with a cautionary tale of problems in New Zealand’s program. I cited New Zealand as an example of a foreign country engaging in a form of free-market education. I don’t think that anyone here is advocating New Zealand’s approach. I agree that we can learn some lessons from them, much like we can learn lessons from Milwaukee, New York, Dayton, and all of the other places that have launched free market initiatives into their education system.

In the end, I have still not seen an argument against school vouchers from the Iron Blogger Democrat. He has argued that we need more accountability from voucher schools. I agree. He has argued that some voucher systems have not lived up to some expectations. I agree. He has argued that we need to be cautious about trampling on schools’ religious and secular freedoms. I agree. He has not, however, argued against school vouchers. If we could come up with compromises on each of his objections, would he support school vouchers? If so, then he does not oppose school vouchers, he opposes how they have been implemented up until now. If not, then I suspect that all of the objections regarding accountability and results are merely a smokescreen for a less attractive, more basic objection.

I support school vouchers because we, The People, have tasked the State with providing our children a quality education. Given that individual parents retain the right to choose the education path for our children and the State should provide the means of education to all children equally, the State should issue vouchers for parents to educate their children in the quality school of their choice.

Why do you oppose them, Jay?

Respectfully submitted,

Owen
The Challenger


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