Thursday, April 4, 2013

Vouchers and the Community School

Free market thinking suggests that the solution to poor school quality is school choice and competition. Align incentives, and schools will be forced to develop and promote their competitive advantage to earn  students, and therefore, their right to exist and perhaps, grow.

Democratic, humanitarian thinking suggests the solution to poor school quality requires investing in our public schools--not "throwing money" at them, but really investing the time, energy, thought and resources to identify their needs, address them, and by extension, address the needs of the community.

I posit today that we don't need to chose. In fact, both camps are right.

What if we did provide vouchers to not a few, but to all students? These vouchers could range from $500 to $15,000, depending on how far we want to go, but essentially they would be designed to give students and parents choice for where they wanted to pursue a vast array of academic and extracurricular learning. These vouchers could permit enrollment in a full-time college prep program, an after school music program, an outdoors adventure summer camp, or a specialized engineering course. With these vouchers, private providers, regulated by an accreditation board, compliance agencies or private ratings agencies, but most importantly, by the market, would compete for the business of students seeking the very best along an array of interests. Wouldn't that help produce a crop of new, excellent programs? Wouldn't that give new opportunities to kids?

Well sure. You really can't argue that it wouldn't produce some great new programs, and give some amount of choice. What you can argue, and the evidence bears it out, is that if vouchers replace public schools, they end up gutting schools as the center of a community, and leaving behind many students and families who are not "educated consumers." That's the cost of vouchers, and why, in this thought experience, I propose vouchers as one half of the solution. Now for the other half:

Imagine that the vouchers previously discussed were used to merely supplement investments in strong, community based schools. These schools would provide critical functions--counselors and academic advisors would support all local students in their academic and career planning, as well as their social and personal health and wellness concerns. In the lower grades, mandatory and excellent literary and math classes would give young children the foundational skills to advance to higher grades, regardless of what specialization they might choose down the line. Classes in civics and government would be taught for middle and high school (and adult) age students, because spreading this knowledge is a public good, and we should guarantee it for the well being of all members of the community.

The community school would house a medical clinic, apprenticeship classes, a library, a media center, tutoring and babysitting. It might have computer labs where students could do distance learning provided by institutions from around the world, and it might have an auditorium where visitors and presenters could educate large audiences.

The community school would provide the home for local sports teams and clubs, to help build local pride and relationships between neighbors. The community school might grant diplomas, or it might simply facilitate students earning diplomas elsewhere. Either way, the community school would serve primarily to support the children and families of its local community, preparing them to contribute to the social good and to achieve their dreams.

Imagine a school system where learning doesn't need to occur in the local school, but it where it absolutely can. That seems like a system that leverages the best of American freedom and democracy, and provides the best model to ensure these national treasures persist for generations into the future. 

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