A Radically Different Way of Looking at Education Vouchers

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[Note: I originally posted this on my Substack profile, but I am not sure I am cool with that platform or the folks posting on it now. I may write on that topic at some point. But as it stands, I do not want to lose the things I have written, so I am going to repost them here. Apologies to anyone who is getting bombarded with my content in their inbox. As you can see, my retirement from blogging is an abysmal failure.]

It is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.

– James Baldwin

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.

– Doris Lessing

Last week, I wrote about Media Caricatures of Private Education and how they distort discussions of education policy. This week, I am going to discuss why economic inequality is not an accident of the public-versus-private education divide, but a predictable and durable consequence of how public education in this country has been structured. The United States can push trillions of dollars into public education, and it will still arrive at similar results because the model itself is what is broken.

The current education system in the United States will always involve extreme inequality, but not for the reasons most people think. A politician will tell you the biggest problem in society is access to education – which was certainly true during the pandemic, when millions of children were literally being deprived of an education altogether. But the over-arching problem in education is the kind of education children receive. Rich kids and poor kids do not just receive different amounts of education; they receive dramatically different kinds of education. Both arguments are essentially about money and control, but not in the same way.

Historically, if you were part of the leisure class, the type of education you received was built on what I like to call “the governess model.” Your wealthy parents hired a governess or tutor that would spend the day with you from an early age and gently push you in the direction of culture and learning. You learned a second (and third) language alongside English. You lived in a house where the library was a bona fide status symbol, and you had regular access to excellent literature and non-fiction books. You did not have Common Core, you had Dante – and every word that came out of your mouth reflected that. You learned to play musical instruments, draw, and were hauled off to the theater and symphony. You learned logic and the art of conversation, which were regarded as crucial elements of being able to get along in the world and preserve the family’s reputation. The parents and the pupil exercised considerable control over the learning process, as learning was a highly personal endeavor.

The goal of this education was not a certificate, but a noble type of existence. You became the kind of person someone would put in charge of an army. The kind of person your peers would trust with investing their life savings or managing the corporation they built. You were sought after in marriage because of your “good breeding” and how you were “raised,” which were desirable traits to replicate across future generations. Because you were that kind of person, your status in the world was safe, and so was that of your heirs. It was never a mystery why this sort of education produced good results: Your education was your destiny.

Today, if your parents – whatever their cultural and economic background – are able to provide you with a private education, then you will still receive an education based on the governess model. It may look a little different in delivery, but it is still the same education based on the same values and expectations. Substantially all private education is heavy on one-on-one interaction, where the individuals in the teaching role have a personal interest in the success of the students. Teachers who are bad at thinking about education in this way are quickly weeded out and replaced with people who are not. Under the governess model, learning is not merely a series of hoops to jump through, but an entire environment that is manufactured by people who see being an educated person as a lifelong pursuit with both practical and intrinsic value. It is the path to a life well-lived.

But what kind of education do the masses in American society receive? They do not get the governess model, but “the Henry Ford model,” as educator and cultural critic John Taylor Gatto would say.

Students in American public schools – even highly ranked public schools – are treated like a widget on an assembly line. They go to Classroom One and a teacher who specializes in First Grade puts First Grade content into their head. Then they go to Classroom Two and a teacher who specializes in Second Grade puts Second Grade content into their head. It does not matter where the children are at intellectually or if they have special needs, that is the generic education they will receive. At various points along the assembly line, they are subjected to assessments purely for quality control purposes, checking to make sure the widgets are still operational at basic levels.

Unless the widgets live in a well-off suburb, one-on-one interaction with a teacher is virtually non-existent from the very beginning. If you look at what is taught to would-be teachers in schools of education at colleges across the country, most of it is not educational content but management techniques. How does one maintain control over a large number of kids? What is the most effective way to broadcast an assignment to a full room? How do you maintain a child’s attention through the long slog of a modern school day, which just gets longer and longer with each passing year? How many of your responsibilities can you offload onto new technology? The latter, of course, is the educational equivalent of replacing factory workers (teachers) with robots.

It is not much of a surprise that a sizable fraction of American children are taking mind-altering pharmaceuticals from an early age or that we have problems with school violence and bullying across public school systems. For the rich kid, education is one long conversation where they are treated as a dignified interlocutor. For the poor kid, sit still and shut up is their entire existence. One kid starts out in the corporate board room and one starts out in the warehouse. They gradually develop different psychologies and impressions about their places in the world that are reinforced in many different contexts over time. Their educations are their destinies.

So it all moves along well enough unless the children randomly spend a year in the company of a bad or disinterested teacher; are critically distracted by poor influences among their peers or cultural icons, which encourage them to make economically counterproductive decisions; or the government decides they want to stop the assembly line for a seasonal illness. Then the operator just shrugs and says, meh, maybe the next batch of widgets will turn out better.

From my conversations with dear friends who are public school teachers, I have the sense teachers loathe this system as much as the children. Much of their frustration seems to all come back to this simple point – that children in public schools are commodified, that the education they receive will never be about how to live a good life and flourish in their communities. It is based on a deeply nihilistic approach to preparing children for the world.

Even the increasing politicization of the classroom is ultimately about treating children as a commodity – a means to an end, not an end in themselves. What kind of software do we need to install in our widgets to produce a mindless army that talks and thinks and votes as the political machine desires? Working political indoctrination into the classroom is not just inappropriate. It is cheating children who are already in a system built on mediocre expectations out of what meaningful classroom time they do have to obtain the skills necessary to compete in a modern economy. It has the same net effect on outcomes as the pandemic, which is the kids are not being given practical skills at all.

The main reason this situation is treated as anything less than intolerable is politicians have successfully convinced the masses that the governess model does not scale up. The governess model works for one family, sure, but there are millions of children in the United States. Therefore, the only people who can have the governess model are the people who manage not to be financially dependent on the government for an education, either through personal wealth or crowdfunding by communities with shared values. Which, incidentally, turns out to be millions of people.

That government, however, is spending up to and beyond $20,000 a year – more money than most private schools cost – per pupil from pre-kindergarten through high school that in another context could be given to families directly to “hire a governess” for their kids, literally or metaphorically. That could put a computer in every home, buy a microscope, be used to build an enviable personal library, pay for piano and ballet, or finance a kid’s addiction for building robots.

Suppose you are a family that has three children. For the amount of money the government is already spending on their education, you could have a full-time teacher in-house, and that teacher would have a pretty sweet gig. One teacher who divides her time among six kids – a far more manageable “classroom” than 30 or 40 kids, which is typical in public school systems – is suddenly making six figures.

These are the direct and opportunity costs attached to having millions of middlemen who contribute little to no value in our education system. And that’s just classroom spending. We have not even touched upon the billions of dollars that are poured into maintaining facilities, etc.

There is no reason to think of education vouchers as necessarily taking taxpayer money away from public institutions and giving it to private schools. A better system would allow parents or guardians to obtain a stipend comparable to the per capita spending on education and be able to bring a professional teacher or tutor into their home, to purchase the curriculum they think is best for their kid – as there are many, many options available from publishers that are far superior to the curricula used in public schools – to pay for classroom equipment, field trips, etc.

Furthermore, if parents want an education that involves more in-depth and honest lessons on Black history than a kid would get out of a mass-market textbook or to give their kid a better background in STEM fields, they can go recruit someone specifically who will help them achieve that educational outcome. They would not need to wait decades for activism to make small inroads toward the kind of education their children should receive (at which point their kids will not even been kids anymore) – they could have it right now. We would not need to fight systems of tenure that allow lousy educators to park themselves in the classroom for decades without any serious accountability and then draw decades of benefits. There would be considerable demand for excellent teachers, and parents could pool their vouchers to bring top talent into their neighborhoods. It would help create jobs for men and women in their neighborhoods who want to be teachers. It would give every child a mentor.

Using vouchers under a governess model also cures one of the most significant issues that often gets conflated with education – child care. If a financially challenged family can use taxpayer education funding to bring a governess into the home to take care of their children during the work day, that opens up real economic opportunities for parents (single mothers especially) and can be a much-needed source of stability for the family. That would address a litany of other issues associated with poverty, too – pressures that push children and teenagers onto the streets, into drugs, into gangs, into sex trafficking operations. Without having layers of expenses connected to raising children piled on them, mothers would not be forced to work multiple jobs, which means they could spend more time with their children. Parents and siblings will have the space of mind to develop strong familial bonds.

I have no idea why the folks who call themselves Democratic Socialists are not all over vouchers as public policy to the same degree as Republicans or Libertarians, just from an ideological perspective, except that vouchers are perennially framed as a public school-versus-private school issue. If you want the fastest way to turn the power structure of American society upside down, allow poor and minority families to shop for their educations, and do it in a way that does not create auxiliary costs like transportation, uniforms, and so on. Allow them to purchase the one-on-one attention from educators that the children of cultural elites receive. Take the enormous amount of money that is being spent on a massive and largely ineffective bureaucracy and use it to make teaching a prestige profession.

The only thing that keeps the current system going is special interests are talented at convincing people their children should not be entitled to an “elite” education because they are not “elites.” That the sprawling-yet-fragile, Joseph Heller-esque education bureaucracy is essential to the actual business of education, even though we have centuries of empirical data showing education can thrive with far more efficiency. Raising a literate and numerate child is actually not that difficult, but a trillion-dollar industry exists to convince parents the opposite.

Because of our failure to grapple with these logistics, our country will keep pushing the lie that a kid from the inner city could work really hard alongside their overwhelmed Teach for America hero and live like the kid of a hedge fund manager. The quality of life and integrity of your household is not even important, right? “It takes a village to raise a child” – just turn your kid over to the “village” of publishers, consultants, lobbyists, and union brass.

The “anti-racist” training that is happening in schools is something of a pragmatic (and probably quite lucrative) extension of this worldview. The inner-city kid should not even want the trappings of an “elite” education, they claim, like excellent grammar or numeracy (what a comically low standard for elite-ness, too). In their own teachings, they are suggesting that elite-ness is whiteness. It’s a very convenient position for educators to take, if you think about it. Their equity theater pre-emptively absolves them from even the pretense of providing a quality education to entire demographics. The system was not going to give that to the kid anyway, statistically speaking, but now it is noble for them to not even attempt it.

They fully understand that a person who did not receive a quality education is not going to get a job as a computer scientist, as an civil engineer, or managing portfolios for high net worth clients at Goldman Sachs. To perform the highest-paying jobs in the country, you have to have actual skills. These companies can hire all the chief diversity officers they want, but that fact is not going to change. This was the same thing as the affirmative action policies that were pervasive in the 1990s, which did little to address economic inequality. As long as there is a real difference in the kind of education people receive, there will be a real skills gap, and there will be a real wage gap. The idea that this is now being portrayed as a desirable, somehow more racially “authentic” outcome in schools is obscene and unjust.

As long as the far-left keeps charging off the deep end and the far-right keeps responding with blah blah blah Marxism, there’s no one to stand up and say, you know what, this whole arrangement is morally sick as a practical matter. The kids deserve adults who are better than this in their lives.

There is not an identity politics-based training program that is going to fix being treated like a widget. At the end of the day, inequality in education is a boring mechanical problem. Until people start demanding an education system with a different and more equitable basic structure, the only things that are going to change are the buzzwords.

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