Last week, the state of Maryland released district-level scores for the PARCC test (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). The test includes English and mathematics, and sets out to determine college or career readiness. Every student in both grades three through eight and high school takes the exam. The Baltimore Sun reported that Baltimore City schools have twenty percent or fewer students passing in most grades, with an overall pass rate of about fifteen percent. This is less than half of the pass rate in Baltimore County. David Steiner, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy states, “we cannot but continue to call it tragic when some eighty-five percent of Baltimore City’s eighth-graders are not proficient in reading.” Although many consider the PARCC test more difficult than previously administered Maryland State Assessments, the underperformance of Baltimore City Public School students has a longer history. The Department of Education shows the City’s public school students performing worse on average than both Maryland public school students and large city public school students across the country.
Could the problem be as simple as underfunded schools? Based on the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics, of the hundred largest public school districts in the country, the Baltimore City Public School System spent the 4th most at $15,564 per pupil. On average, districts in the state of Maryland spent $14,003 per pupil while districts across the United States spent $11,009 on average per pupil. Furthermore, a report by Eric Hanushek of Stanford, Paul Peterson of Harvard, and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich refute the claim that additional spending on education will lead to increased student performance. The authors plotted test-score gains against increments in spending from 1990 to 2009 and found an inflation-adjusted increase of $1000 per-student was associated with a 0.12 percent of a standard deviation increase in performance. They call this a “trivial amount” that “is of no statistical or substantive significance.” Of course, throwing money at anything will improve it to some extent. However, that money needs to come from somewhere and ultimately will be taken out of either existing public works in Baltimore or come through taxes. Perhaps, one should examine how the City spends its funds versus how much is spent.
Typically, public schools function through the local government directly funding and managing the schools. However, an alternative system to direct management would be a voucher system. In a voucher system, each child would be given a yearly education “voucher”, redeemable at any school (public or private) of theirs or their parents’ choice. By offering students education vouchers as opposed to spending the same amount of money for them on failing public schools, students and parents would have power over the allocation of funds.
Well-off parents have long enjoyed the ability to send their children to quality schools. Unfortunately, Baltimore City Public School students do not have that luxury. About eighty-five percent of students in the City school system are low income and receive free or reduced lunch. Due to the tough economic situations and unique barriers to quality learning these children face, it is difficult for a one-size-fits-all traditional public school approach to fulfill their needs. With a voucher system, private organizations would compete for each student’s publicly provided education money. The schools that go into the City’s low-income neighborhoods and offer students an opportunity to succeed would be rewarded with profit. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was a passionate supporter of education vouchers in the state of California. He said, “if you go to Stanford Business School, they have a public policy track; they could start a school administrator track. You could get a bunch of people coming out of college tying up with someone out of the business school, they could be starting their own school. You could have twenty-five year old students out of college, very idealistic, full of energy, instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they’d start a school.” As the United States currently ranks number one in technology startups, imagine this kind of excellence in education—that is the power of school vouchers.
There remain several prominent and popular arguments that stand in the way of implementing a voucher system. One criticism of vouchers cites the many issues with charter schools, another form of publicly-funded private education (see John Oliver’s segment on this). However, many criticisms of charter education do not apply to a voucher system. For example, while there are well documented cases of charter school success in low-income areas, critics say the use of public funds for private charter schools drain resources away from public school students who were not selected for the charter school due to either lottery or competitive admission. A voucher system should not be subject to this criticism however, because each student receives equal access to voucher funding. This means the private schools must earn money directly from the parents and students. Schools in a voucher system benefit by serving students—not by lobbying for and securing a government charter.
Another argument against school vouchers comes from public school teachers unions. The National Education Association (NEA), the largest labor union in the United States, represents public school teachers as well as other education support personnel. On their website, they outline their case against school vouchers. Firstly, they claim to only support “direct efforts to improve public schools,” as there is “no need to set up new threats to schools for not performing”. To say that the only solution to America’s education crisis lies in throwing money at failing schools does injustice to students and taxpayers alike. The primary goal of any local educational policy, such as that of Baltimore City, should be to ensure that children have access to a quality education. Whether the City should implement either a traditional public system or private school vouchers can and should be debated, but to limit the discussion to only improving public schools deprives Baltimore city children of the potential benefits of a school voucher system.
The NEA also argues, “A pure voucher system would only encourage economic, racial, ethnic, and religious stratification in our society.” While the website gives no specific evidence to back up this statement, we should examine it in the context of the current state of Baltimore City Public Schools. For the 2015-2016 school year, about eighty-two percent of city school students are African American, with eight percent being White, and another eight percent being Hispanic/Latino. As stated above, nearly eighty-five percent of public school students in Baltimore City are low-income. In their current state, City schools do not provide a way for their overwhelmingly low-income and African-American children to succeed. This lack of opportunity ultimately leads to the civil unrest and increased economic and racial stratification we have witnessed in Baltimore and other American cities. The civil rights issue of our time should be to ensure that every child—not only in Baltimore, but across America—has access to an education that allows them the opportunity to succeed.
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