Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Common Sense Approach to Funding Education

3 members of a recent panel discussion on the tuition crises (Jewish Link)
I read with interest an article lamenting the cost of educating our children Jewishly. Especially in Modern Orthodox circles where tuition is very high. This phenomenon it seems is the number one concern of Modern Orthodox parents.

There was a panel discussion about that recently in New Jersey in which several educators participated. Various solutions were discussed. Some of them quite innovative. One idea was to get the New Jersey State legislature to pass tuition tax credits. Similar to one that was just passed in Illinois.

In Illinois, taxpayers can write of 75% of the tax dollars they owe by contributing to a state scholarship fund that will be distributed to qualifying parents who apply for it. The consensus among panelists that was that the New Jersey legislature is not going to do that.

Other than the fact that teachers unions probably oppose it there is no good reason not to try doing that in every state. Why New Jersey legislators would oppose it escapes me. Unless they are  afraid of losing union support for their re-election.

In fact here is no reason that an actual voucher system wouldn’t work. I know there are studies that show it doesn’t. But I cannot understand why. Let us examine the issues.

The United States has a compulsory public education policy. Today, virtually every child in America is required to attend a public, private, or parochial school that teaches the basics. The public school system is fully funded by federal, state, and local governments with confiscatory tax policies.

Private and parochial schools are privately funded. This means that parents mostly foot the bill. The rest of their funding comes from philanthropic donations via a variety of fundraising efforts.

I have always questioned why a government that requires all students to be educated in basic subjects and committed to funding it, denies those funds to private and parochial schools parents.  It seems to me that this is a form of discrimination.  The decision to choose where to send your child should not be penalized. Wherever a student gets their basic secular education, it should be paid for by a government that has committed to paying for the education they mandate. That should therefore include funding that portion of a school’s budget that teaches those mandated subjects. Regardless of whether it is a public, private or parochial school.

Those who argue against doing so for parochial schools say it would violate the establishment clause of the first amendment - separating church from state. Parochial schools teach religion. End of story.

But is it?! No one is asking that any of their religious subjects be paid for by the government. But surely the required secular subjects should be. Why should parochial school parents be denied the same benefit public school parents have?  

The government mandate to teach basic secular subjects combined with its commitment to fund it demands that all schools be treated equally. In my view it is unethical to deny private and parochial schools funding to teach same required courses they pay public schools to do.

I never understood those that oppose it on constitutional grounds.  I see no violation of the first amendment.

Neither do states like Indiana that have instituted voucher programs. Vouchers allow parents to send their children to the schools of their choice - as long as the money is used for the educational purposes the government mandates

In a parochial school - vouchers of course do not pay for the expenses involved with the religious portion of a child’s education. Nor should they. But they would substantially reduce the tuition load parochial school parents are so heavily burdened with these days.

I see no valid constitutional argument against vouchers if used this way. I see only a universal, moral and ethical  application of the nation’s commitment to fund the education of all of its children.

So why isn’t the Indiana model applied nationally? I think the answer is the usual one:  Follow the money. Taxpayer dollars are not even enough to fund the public schools. Adding private and parochial schools into the mix would mean operating at an even greater deficit or raising taxes through the roof. Either that or funding education at a much lower level per student than it is now. Which would mean lower salaries for teachers. Or fewer of them by increasing class size. Which is not an educationally sound policy. 

This is why teachers’ unions are so opposed to vouchers.  The claim is that it will hurt students. But I think the real motivation is that it will hurt teachers. That may be true. But teachers should not come first. Students should.

Parents in parochial schools argue that without vouchers,  tax dollars they spend on public schools do benefit their children at all. The counter to that is twofold. One: send your children to public school. Two: those tax dollars do benefit parochial school parents the way they do everyone living in a society that mandates its children to have a basic secular education. Even though they do not necessarily have any children in school.

Option one is not realistic. The greater benefit by far which is denied to private and parochial students - is to parents that actually utilize the public schools for their children.

There is also the claim that poor students will be short changed by vouchers. That never made any sense to me. Unlike the present where a public school parent must send their child to the neighborhood school - with vouchers any parent, no matter how poor will have the opportunity to send their children to a better public school. How does that short change them?

What might happen - which is what teachers unions are really afraid of - is that certain neighborhood schools will have to close their doors. They argue that many poor young people will no longer have a neighborhood school to go to.  How does that make it better for them?

This is untrue. A bad school that closes is a good thing. A public school teacher I know that works in the inner city told me that many of the teachers end up just babysitting. Their students are not interested in school. Many students are passed through the system - graduating high school as functional illiterates. It is also true that many of these young people end up in the street with all the attendant negative influences in those neighborhoods. Some of which are crime infested!

I am not going to go into the sociological reasons for this. Other than to say that the culture in those communities is not one that values education for a variety of reasons. Some of which are not their fault. But that does not change the facts. Which are that a lot of taxpayer dollars intended to educate inner city children are being wasted. Although there are some students that rise above their adverse backgrounds, far too many don’t. Which is why some of those neighborhoods are high crime areas.

Those who argue to keep funding those inner city schools have good intentions. They will say that taking money out of the system and placing elsewhere is the opposite of what those communities need.

Throwing good money after bad is not the solution. It has been tried for decades without any real success. Although there are some schools that have somehow turned things around, it should be obvious to anyone paying attention that a lot of the money spent on those schools is wasted. Many of the teachers there are being paid just to ‘babysit’.

Why not divert the money to where it will be spent the way it was intended to be? On students that will actually be educated the way the government says they should. Whether they are in public, private or parochial schools.

What about the poor inner city students that will be left behind? They do not have to be. You cannot change that culture overnight. But you can change the kind of education they get to one that will be more beneficial to them.  

There ought to be different focus for a neighborhood where the culture does not value or cannot value even a basic secular education. The focus should instead be primarily on literacy and vocation. Those who want more for their children can take advantage of vouchers. Those that want to escape the life of the street that their neighborhood offers them will I believe benefit greatly from vocational schools. It is a different type of learning. One that will give them motivation to succeed by giving them a marketable skill. Vocational schools will surely be more productive than those currently in the  inner city. And I’ll bet that they would require a lot less taxpayer money

What about the inner city teachers who lose their jobs because of school closings? Frankly teachers come second. Students come first. Perhaps those teachers that can be retrained to teach in vocational schools. This way they can actually earn their pay as teachers instead of being paid to babysit. That would be a win for everybody.