Opinion and Forefront

MARCUS: Vouchers are fine, but about those details...

April 14, 2012

Morton J. MarcusI have no inherent opposition to school vouchers. The idea that parents should be able to choose what schools their children attend is fine with me, within limits. That the state should pay for education stirs no primitive animosity in my soul.

In some places, existing school corporations are failing their students, although they may allow them to earn certificates for endurance. In these cases, competition from charter or private schools may be beneficial. The student’s formal school district is expected to pay the charter or private school for the education it provides.

It’s a really simple idea that becomes very complex in practice. Who is to decide which charter or private schools are acceptable to educate our children? The parents? That would be an open invitation to fraud that would make Medicare fraud look pristine. Or, look how many homebuyers were bilked in the past decade.

We must require schools to meet basic standards of inputs (teachers, facilities, etc.), of procedures (teaching, discipline, safety, etc.), and of outputs (test scores, for example). Without standards of performance, taxpayers sign blank checks while children are set up for future failures.

What persons or organizations are to be trusted with this serious and difficult task? Somehow, the Legislature was convinced that Ball State University and the mayor of Indianapolis, acting separately, were qualified. Why not the State Board of Education or the superintendent of public instruction?

If bureaucracy is one of the problems in education, how does the existing charter school setup reduce that evil?

Then there is the problem with private schools. Who is capable of picking and choosing among the many options? There are companies that educate for profit, which is no less noble than paving roads for profit. Plus, there are not-for-profit entities (often with religious ties) that offer educational programs.

Should parents be allowed to send their children to schools where religion is taught or practiced? Can a Christian child learn if fed kosher food at lunch? Can a Hindu be educated under the sign of the cross? The simple answer is yes, but we are underwriting religion with taxpayer money if we allow students to be taught in explicitly religious institutions.

“Ah,” you say, “but we let patients be treated at religious institutions that double as hospitals. St. Mary’s can still bill Medicare or Medicaid. It doesn’t seem to matter as long as a rabbi doesn’t pray over the pregnant woman at Jewish Hospital.”

How much money should each voucher be worth? The simple answer is “an amount equal to what would have been spent on that child if she or he had remained in public school.” But what makes that the right amount in the first place?

Hoosiers have put into place an extraordinarily complex school financing formula to equalize payments by the state to the public schools. Perhaps we need to go a further step and ask, “How prepared is this student for the curriculum of its class?” Ideally, the better prepared the student, the lower the payment to the school because it has fewer impediments in teaching the child.

Currently, we adjust for the income level of the parents, but that is a crude proxy for educational preparation. Likewise, without pre-testing each student, achievement over the course of time cannot be assessed.

There is concern that schools will want to take only the students easiest to teach. If vouchers are based on incremental performance, student-by-student, then the “more difficult” students will be more attractive to school admissions officers.

And we have barely touched the surface of the voucher question in education.•

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of the university’s Indiana Business Research Center. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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