Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Voucher" Fantasy

I saw this op-ed in the Baltimore Sun yesterday by by George Liebmann. To be honest, it is hard to figure out what Leibmann is advocating, but I think he thinks Maryland conservatives and free-marketers should consider focusing on three different "scapel" reforms rather than the "sledgehammer" of vouchers.
It would be nice if conservatives ceased dreaming Milton Friedman's dreams of a more privatized system and got down to brass tacks. Our public schools need three major reforms: building-level governance (like that provided by the 1988 Education Act of the Thatcher government in England); a reduction of certification requirements to not more than one term of education courses; and differential pay for teachers in scarce disciplines.

Each of these reforms has a potential constituency: parents and teachers frustrated by bureaucracies for the first; liberal arts graduates and retiring military and civil servants for the second; and the business, scientific, medical and higher-education community for the third.

The energy applied to statewide voucher schemes should be directed to these reforms.

If teachers unions resist them as obstinately as in the past, the public arguments over them will make the case for vouchers more obvious.
Okay, let's talk brass tacks.

Buidling level management. Sounds great on paper and I would like to see it happen. But let us think through some potential consequences. Not every principal is ready, willing or capable of such management structures unless they are given a great bit more freedom from all the regulations, requirements and laws that are imposed on them. That includes, among others, teh ability to hire and fire (which the unions will oppose), the ability to determine budgets and other resource allocations (which the county is unlikely to relinquish). In short, building level management is just as much a sledge hammer as vouchers.

Reduction in the Need for Education Course. I actually like this one idea a great bit. There is no rule that says to be a good teacher you have to have education courses in college or post graduate study. But I would rather see emphasis placed on teacher mentoring and real, useful professional development, preferably peer led development.

Differntial Pay for High Needs Subject Matter. Again, a sensible idea. But given that there are only so many dollars in the education pie, how do we pay for it? Also, this would be classic Friedman, let the market decide what the appropriate level of pay is for such teachers. Let's face it, if you need to staff hard to fill teaching positions with science professionals, the differential is going to have to be significant. While these professionals might take a pay cut, they are not martyrs or taking a vow of poverty to come teacher. Finally, how do differentiate between a hard to staff physics teacher and a hard to staff art teaching posistion? Should you? Can you do so with a straight face?

Leibmann is right, if teachers oppose these reforms (and they will, particularly the first and last) then making the argument for vouchers becomes stronger. However, why does the reform efforts have to be one or the other. Scapels are great tools and delicate instruments, but sledgehammers carrey a powerful message. It may be that sledgehammers are needed in our schools more than scapels.

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