Hyper-Vouchers: A Radical Solution for American Education
Both New York City schools and Washington, DC schools have pilot programs that pay students to learn. Mexico and Brazil have programs that pay families whose kids go to school. This is, by far, the most radical, and the most promising solution to the educational underperformance of American kids. In my view, these programs are not radical enough, because the sums paid to kids are nowhere near to what the public spends on education.
In the fiscal year 2006, school districts in the United States spent an average of $9,138 per student. New York State’s average is almost $15,000, although the City’s expenditures are a little lower, at about $12,000 in the 2004/2005 academic year (the last available year). We’re talking very serious money. Just imagine that the money would be paid not to schools but to the families directly, if the children can demonstrate learning. If the family has the skills and motivation to teach their own kids, they pocket the whole $15,000 a year. If they cannot, they may hire a tutor or sign up with a school of some sort, and share the learning income with those schools or tutors. Pass a test – get paid.
This would put the incentives to where they belong – with students themselves. We can provide all kinds of incentives to teachers, but if children are not motivated, it is not going to work. Education is not consumption; it is hard work, and it benefits us all more than it benefits about half of all K-12 students. This is why we’re subsidizing it in the first place. We should treat learning as any other job: if the society as a whole benefits from basic education, and is willing to pay money for it, why not pay directly to those people who actually need to learn? For the educational system to become more efficient, we must stop paying for attempting to teach, and start paying for proven learning.
Is it possible to implement? You bet. ETS and other testing agencies have decades of experience in administering tests on mass scale. Those tests do not need to be primitive testing of facts; they can include sophisticated measures of thinking, writing, and computational skills. Testing centers can be cheaply set up wherever there is internet access; each kid can have an account that keeps track of tests and of money paid to the student.
Will it leave behind poor children? Not at all; in fact, it will put resources into the hands of poor parents, and allow them to find the best educational solutions – with or without schools. We can also index payments in such a way that children with disadvantages such as poverty, non-native speakers, or with disabilities – receive higher payments than those kids with advantages. That will attract more talented teachers and tutors to poorer neighborhood, and create incentives for better specialized services for kids with learning disabilities.
Hyper-vouchers are the way to go. America has a history of radical, bold innovations. It has not been a part of our educational system for a while, but perhaps now is the time.
Bob Schoolfield’s Analysis and Comparison to other Proposed Solutions
I am surprised the no one has commented on your radical (hyper-voucher) solution to the education mess. Maybe they thought it was too preposterous (but I don’t) to comment on. So I will bless you with a comment on your plan.
First, I will describe what I think are the differences between your plan and a traditional voucher plan. I also want to compare your plan with the education tax credit plan advocated by the Cato Institute. Then, I will give what I see are the advantages and disadvantages to each plan.
1. Hyper-voucher: The family is “paid” only if the child makes progress on an achievement test.
Traditional voucher: The family gets their voucher regardless of academic achievement.
Tax Credit: The family gets a “private scholarship” from a Scholarship Organization, which may or may not put some academic progress requirement on the scholarship. The Scholarship Organization is funded by a dollar for dollar tax credit on the “ISD tax”.
2. HV: The family gets hard cash.
TV: The family gets an “education stamp” (like a food stamp) that can only be spent for school tuition and may need to provide proof of attendance.
TC: The family must provide receipts or proof of attendance to get from the Scholarship Organization reimbursements for family educational expenses or monthly payments directly to the school.
3. HV: Money comes directly from government. (public money)
TV: Also, money comes directly from government. (public money)
TC: Money comes indirectly through tax credits. (private money)
Next, the advantages and disadvantages of each system.
A. There is a clear financial motivation for the student in partnership with the parents to work hard to meet the achievement test goal.
B. The family has the freedom to choose whatever means is best to achieve the test goal (no strings).
C. Because the state is providing the funds, the program can start in full force after passage.
A. How does the family finance the student’s education the first year?
a. No government provision, i.e. attend public school or finance from family’s current resources.
b. First year the family gets “full pay” unconditionally.
B. How does the state avoid paying double? If the state pays to educate student in public school, and the family gets paid when student passes the exam, then state has paid double.
a. Attending public school disqualifies the family from being paid. This is a strong disincentive for
attending public school and the exodus from public school will be more rapid.
C. There is a strong incentive for the state to make the achievement test very difficult so that they only pay a few families and force the rest back into the public schools.
D. If a student flunks the achievement test, what happens to the student?
a. Family gets no pay and student must return to public school or be financed from family’s current
b. Rather than a pass/fail test, it could be a 0% – 100% test and the family gets the students percentage
grade of the “full pay” hyper-voucher.
E. Who designs the test? Since the stakes of passing the test are so high, you have a temptation to “teach to the test” or even cheat, e.g. tester sells half the answers via a kickback. Is only one test adequate in high school? How about a “white collar” test and a “blue collar” test.
F. Will the teachers unions let it pass? I think not. If they won’t let vouchers be passed, to which they can attach all types of government strings, they are not going to let unrestricted hard cash out of their bank account with no strings attached. They will hate it even more when they realize that families have a disincentive to stay in the public school system. Either traditional voucher or tuition tax credits have a much better chance of passing.
G. The money come directly from a government account so it is “government money”. Although U.S.Supreme Court has ruled favorably for government money to be used in a voucher system, there are still problems in state courts. Many states have very restrictive language in their constitutions prohibiting any state funds going to any sectarian school. These are called “Blaine amendment” after the senator that promoted them in the 1800’s. Google “Blaine amendment” and you can study the historical context under which they were passed. Texas has a Blaine amendment, although it is not as restrictive as most of the amendments. Voucher programs in Florida, Colorado and two in Arizona have been struck down in state courts because of the Blaine amendments.
2. Traditional Voucher
A. Because the state is providing the funds, the program can start in full force after passage.
A. The family doesn’t have a clear financial motive to do well in school. The traditional voucher has no academic restrictions. Although this is an advantage to the HV, I think it is much less than Mr. Sidorkin believes. I believe that the primary reason that parents are not involved in their child’s education is because they see themselves as powerless to have any control or ownership of their child’s education. When the great majority of parents see that they can choose their child’s school, they will take ownership of their child’s education, become more involved, and make sure they get a good education for their voucher. I believe that most parents don’t want an easy road for their kids such that the kids can’t take care of themselves.
B. The TV is much more likely to have “bureaucratic strings” attached to its redemption by a private school. This would restrict the use of the TV money much more than the HV. The HV has only one powerful “academic achievement string” making it less likely to get any other strings.
C. Will the teachers unions let it pass? It’s much more likely to pass than the HV, especially if the unions can attach a lot of strings in the effort to get their tentacles into the private school industry.
D. The TV has the same “government money” problem that the HV does.
3. Educational Tax Credit
A. The most important advantage of the TC program is that the money comes from private donors, who receive tax credits for their donations. This money is NOT PUBLIC MONEY. It is clearly private money and is free from any attack based on the money being public money. So far every tax credit program in existence has withstood every lawsuit raised against it.
B. The organizations distributing the scholarship money are a private charities, Scholarship Organizations. Because there can be many such Scholarship Organizations, each can develop their own academic and/or attendance requirements using whichever test they choose.
C. Since the state is not distributing the scholarships, the families are more likely to have plenty of freedom to choose whatever means is best to achieve a quality education for their children. Private schools will be much more comfortable receiving scholarships from a private charity than from the government.
D. Will the teachers unions let it pass? Although any of these reforms will meet with teachers union resistance, I believe the TC program has the best chance of passing. Why?
a. Because tax credits are a well established public policy vehicle.
b. The state doesn’t have to write a check to a family or private school. It’s much more painful to give
up money that you already possess than to not get money that you anticipated getting. That is why
payroll deduction works so well for collecting taxes.
A. Because the state is not providing the funds, the program will start slowly and gain momentum over time. The program has to be sold to donors and scholarship organizations have to be created.
(Advantage E.) Actually the slow start has an advantage in overcoming teachers union resistance. They also know that the program will start slowly and may or may not get real traction. This slow start lowers the threat level of the TC program over the HV or TV.
In summary, I believe that the education tax credit program is the clear winner. I would give second place to the hyper-voucher with the huge disadvantage being that the teachers unions would NEVER let a hyper-voucher program pass the state legislature. The traditional voucher comes in last.