Is Public Education a Returnable Good?

Should the state of Florida write a check to parents who pull their children out of public schools–one worth 85 percent of what the public cost of educating that child would have been?

While catching up on some reading, I ran across Reihan Salam's very interesting blog post extolling and expanding upon this idea, which is being seriously floated by Rick Scott, the new Republican governor of Florida (who is being advised by Michelle Rhee). Here's how it would work: Parents whose kids aren't in the public schools could use the funds–which would be equal to about $7,700 in the typical Florida school district–to subsidize homeschooling costs, tutoring, private or parochial school tuition, virtual learning courses, or college savings. The remaining 15 percent would flow back into the public system. 

There are a few major problems with this proposal. First of all–like many of today's popular school reform strategies–it would have the effect of leeching some of the most informed and involved parents away from a public system that benefits greatly from their engagement. Taking advantage of this program would require significant knowledge on the part of parents with regard to the various private educational opportunities available in their area. This sort of knowledge is not, of course, equally distributed across neighborhoods and ethnic/racial/linguistic groups. 

Reihan is right to point out that the policy could be improved tweaked by making the subsidy available only to families below a certain income threshold. But even if the program were open only to poor or working class families, it is still terribly flawed. We know from a large voucher experiment in Milwaukee that the types of private educational opportunities available to poor families wholly reliant upon public subsidies to pay tuition–inner city parochial schools–do not typically produce academic outcomes better than those of inner city public schools. What's more, those parochial schools often do not have the necessary programs and staffing in place to effectively educate special education and English language learner students; those families, therefore, can't take advantage of the subsidy. 

And what if, as Reihan suggests, a subsidy could be available to public school students, too–say those who attend a traditional school for 80 percent of their day, and then use the extra cash to enroll in a meaningful afterschool experience, whether tutoring through Kumon or a course at a local community college?

We do know that extended learning time and "early college" are two of the most effective tools in the school reform playbook. But the problem with expanding access to those programs through "refunds" on the costs of public education–as opposed to directly funding public access to them–is that the neediest kids will be left out, those who do not have the information and adult support they need to find out about, enroll in, and regularly attend such programs. Only by locating those experiences within the public school system–and paying for them with public dollars–can we guarantee equity in access.  

Public education should not be a returnable good in a society that guarantees equal access to such an education to all children. 

2 thoughts on “Is Public Education a Returnable Good?

  1. Reihan

    I definitely don’t think the ESA policy would be improved by limiting its availability. Rather, I suggested it would address one potential political objection — a political objection I consider unsound on the merits.

    And with respect to Milwaukee, it’s worth noting that the choice schools (a) had higher rates of parental satisfaction and (b) spent far less money to achieve the same reading and math scores. This seems salient.

    Re: special education, etc.: one of the aims of ESA is to increase the number and quality of specialized providers. In New York city, parents of autistic children have to sue the system to gain access to resources for high-quality instruction. Suffice it to say, this arrangement works for savvy parents and not for less-savvy parents. Something like ESA would give all parents the option of accessing a wider array of instructional providers, and not just those with the means and cultural capital needed to hire an attorney.

    I can’t see how poor students are disadvantaged by giving some parents, including poor parents, the option of choosing instructional methods other than those offered in conventional public schools.


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