January 7, 2006

Tierney on the Florida vouchers case.

John Tierney writes (from behind the TimesSelect wall) about the Florida voucher case (which we were talking about here yesterday):
Democrats once went to court to desegregate schools. But in Florida they've been fighting to kick black students out of integrated schools, and they've succeeded, thanks to the Democratic majority on the State Supreme Court.

The court's decision on Thursday was a legally incoherent but politically creative solution to a delicate problem. Ever since Florida's pioneering statewide voucher program began, Democrats have been struggling to deal with the program's success.
Tierney draws attention to the way the Florida Supreme Court avoided deciding the case on the ground the lower court used, a provision of the state constitution saying "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

He notes that to have decided the case on that ground would have endangered popular expenditures of public money to "hospitals, colleges and preschool programs run by religious institutions." The court relied on this clause: "Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools." In Tierney's view, the court chose the clause it did because it is a partisan court, and it wanted to give Democratic constituents -- including "Democratic teachers' unions" -- all the things they want.

What you're missing by not reading the whole column: stories about individual black children who were helped by the voucher program.

19 comments:

David said...

I had the misfortune of being in the BelAir/Beverly Hills, California, area near North Hollywood on Halloween last. This area is a bastion of Hollywood Democrats and closet Republicans.

At around 6 p.m. the local police placed barricades at the entrances to these two fine cities and would not allow anyone in except people who lived there.

So much for the 'Rainbow Coalition' that exists outside the gated communities!

By the way, they are selective in who they let buy into these areas. It is strictly 'old money' versus 'new money'. The rest of us with 'very little money' need not apply!

So much for Godiva chocolates in our Halloween bag! They did have some wonderful costumes though!

Speaking of costumes. Remember Hillary in the White House wouldn't let the military wear uniforms while on duty there?!

HMMMM! I think I am seeing a pattern here.

brylin said...

Five justices of the Florida Supreme Court, Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente, and Justices Charles Talley Wells, Harry Lee Anstead, R. Fred Lewis, and Peggy A. Quince, were appointed by Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles.

Two justices, Justices Raoul G. Cantero, III and Kenneth B. Bell, were appointed by Republican Governor Jeb Bush.

Notice that the Court's decision in Bush v. Holmes was 5-2. The 5 Democratic appointees voted to reject vouchers, while the 2 Republican appointees dissented.

Another way to look at this case is that by enacting the Opportunity Scholarship Program, codified at Section 1002.38, Florida Statutes (2005), the people have spoken through their elected representatives in the Florida Legislature. The unelected Democratic majority on the Florida Supreme Court has usurped legislative authority and taken an activist position to invalidate the will of the people of Florida.

Do you really need to read the opinions of the Florida Supreme Court on issues that have become politicized?

I submit that the answer is no - you needn't read the opinions, just look at the politics and you will have an extremely powerful predictor of the outcome of these cases.

I don't have access to TimesSelect but my guess is Tierney and I are on the same wavelength on this issue.

P. Froward said...

"...the people have spoken through their elected representatives in the Florida Legislature."

Yeah, and the court has spoken about whether what the legistators said was allowed by the constitution of the state of Florida, which is what state supreme courts are supposed to do.

Whether it was a dumb and/or politicized decision is a different matter. It seems pretty clear to me that voucher programs are more likely to improve the quality of "free public schools" than otherwise, by providing them with an incentive to improve. But there's room for argument.

Both of the quoted bits from the Florida constitution seem goofy to me: The public schools one doesn't say "see that kids are educated"; instead it prescribes a single specific solution, without much apparent interest in results (hmm, that section was last revised in 2002). And the "no revenue..." bit seems more hostile to religion than indifferent to it.

knoxgirl said...

"Democrats have been struggling to deal with the program's success"

this speaks volumes

Ross said...

I'm all for vouchers, so obviously I'd like to see the court go the other way, but is there some history of the Florida Supreme court with which I'm unfamiliar?

"You don't even need to read the opinion to know ... " is the worst sort of know-nothing-ism.

Jake said...

You want to cry your eyes out?

Go to the Kid's First office in Minneapolis where they give private vouchers to inner city kids so they can attend private elementary schools. There are 1000 inner city children who are attending private schools because of Kid's First.

Read the thousands of letters from kids telling how those vouchers changed their lives and how they now have hope for the future. Then read the parents' letters on how grateful their children have a chance to succeed in life and how proud they are of their children.

I defy any Democrat politician, any union boss or any judge to continue to deny vouchers to these children after reading those letters.

knoxgirl said...

Jake said: "I defy any Democrat politician, any union boss or any judge to continue to deny vouchers to these children after reading those letters."

You would think... but success for the children isn't the ultimate goal for most of them, unfortunately. Instead, it's some idealized image of how the public school system "should" work in theory. They'll sacrifice kids living in the real world for that romantic goal.

peter hoh said...

Well, I can't believe that I am defending public schools, but I want to make this point in response to Jake. The Minneapolis Public School District serves 49,000 students. While I'm glad that some organization offers a way out for 1,000 kids, it does not point to a way to a solution for the rest of the kids.

The transition from the current system to a voucher system will be chaotic, and I doubt that politicians (and the public) will have the stomach for the transition.

Once in place, I suspect that most top private schools will not participate in voucher programs.

I'd like to see something like a voucher system work, actually, but experience tells me that in the end, it won't live up to its promise.

brylin said...

While I was out and about today I actually purchased the Times to read Tierney's column. He makes the point that the lower court based its decision on the Blaine amendment and for the Supreme Court to use that as a basis would have caused many other problems.

But is there any doubt that this is a political decision?

And in that light, does anyone remember the Florida Supreme Court's actions in the 2000 Bush v. Gore case?

Jake said...

Peter Hoh:

The true purpose of vouchers and of Kid's First (as it was started by a group of Republicans) is to force the public schools to compete for students by becoming as good as private schools.

Remember, it is not a question on money. These private elementary schools are spending 75% less per student than the public school system.

Once there is equality between public and private schools, vouchers and Kid's First would disappear. In the meantime, we have to rescue as many children as we can.

P. Froward said...

Jake,

The true purpose ... is to force the public schools to compete for students by becoming as good as private schools.

That's not what markets do.

Markets let customers allocate resources to vendors directly. This is good because in the aggregate, customers consistently make far better choices for themselves than government bureaucrats make for them.

Therefore, markets tend to direct resources away from people who waste them, and towards people who use them productively.

Losers may respond to that environment by improving, but more often they respond by whining about how life isn't fair.

If the public schools are not teaching kids, they can go to hell for all I care.


Yes, governements do interfere in markets, and if it's not overdone it may be a good thing, or not a very bad thing (e.g. the SEC). It's when they replace markets that you get phenomena like Soviet shoe-factories and the US public school system.


Peter Hoh:

The Minneapolis Public School District serves 49,000 students. While I'm glad that some organization offers a way out for 1,000 kids, it does not point to a way to a solution for the rest of the kids.

How many kids were turned down? Is 1,000 simply the number who signed up?

If the private schools can increase their capacity to match demand, there's a solution right there for everybody who wants it.


The transition from the current system to a voucher system will be chaotic

Why? What sort of chaos accompanied that program in Minneapolis? Was it worse than the general chaos we see now in poor neighborhoods with worthless schools?

P. Froward said...

The point about markets can be explained more simply:

It is very difficult to make people improve.

It is very easy (and very cheap) to find out who does something best.

MadisonMan said...

These private elementary schools are spending 75% less per student than the public school system.

This is true of the public school my kid attends vs. the private (Catholic) school they could attend. However, the public school is where all the children that are the most difficult to teach -- for various reasons ranging from physical/emotional issues to family turbulence. I don't think it's fair to make the comparison in cost per student for schools that teach radically different populations.

(I'm not sure the %age difference is 75%, however -- probably less)

Stiles said...

The fact remains that the Florida Constitution states in article IX, section 1A, "that It is .
. . a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all
children residing within its borders.” Using the same term, “adequate provision,”
article IX, section 1(a) further states: “Adequate provision shall be made by law
for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public
schools.”

Given that the Florida constitution specifies public schools, vouchers for private schools are problematic until the constitution is amended. I know everyone is busy, but there are benefits from looking up the decision instead of just reacting to the newspaper accounts.

Coco said...

peter hoh: "The transition from the current system to a voucher system will be chaotic"

P. Froward: "Why? What sort of chaos accompanied that program in Minneapolis? Was it worse than the general chaos we see now in poor neighborhoods with worthless schools?"

P. Froward, I think you're missing pete hoh's point. He wasn't saying that any small voucher progam would lead to chaos. I believe he was saying that small programs for vouchers or scholarships for disadvanteged kids to attend private schools don't really address the larger issue.

Kid's First is a cgood example - according to its website it provided 125 partial tution scholarships to disadvantaged K-6th graders last year (or perhaps each semester - its unclear) to attend a private school. It actually serves 4 counties - Hennepin, which includes Minneapolis, Ramsay (which includes St. Paul) and two other suburban counties - so, tons of kids are potential applicants.

So of course no "chaos" would result from such a small program - or even a program 5 times is size. It seems like a great program, but again its very very tiny in the context of the total propulation it serves.

QUestions that arise from peter hoh's post are: what would happen if you tried a voucher system on a mass scale - how would it work, how would it actually change what exists today? Where would the money come from?

The bigger tearjerker (to copy from a previous poster), are not the letters from the kids lucky enough to be included in First Kid's but in the tens of thousands of kids left behind so to speak - how do we address those kids? Does a voucher program to private schools provide a serious answer (again, on a mass scale) and how would it work?

peter hoh said...

I'm having major internet problems. Will reply to questions when my connection is fixed.

peter hoh said...

Private schools are fundamentally different than public schools. Public schools cannot turn away students from their own district, and no amount of competition will change that. Vouchers, however, will change the private schools that accept them.

Those paraochial schools which spend 75% of what public schools spend per child are, in most cases, subsidized by their parishes -- and by the willingness of staff to work for lower wages. These schools also do not (usually) provide services for profoundly handicapped children.

A parish may welcome a voucher program if it helps fill a parochial school with sagging enrollment, but I wonder how long a parish will support a school of kids who are not from that parish?

KidsFirst sounds like a great program, but there's a huge difference between putting a percentage of disadvantaged kids in a well-functioning school and creating a functioning school for mostly disadvantaged kids.

Should a state-wide voucher system be put in place, the private schools would not have the capacity to meet demand (and I'm not anticipating that all parents would want to use the vouchers for private schools). What good is a voucher if it can't get your kid into the school you want him or her to attend? Also, I expect that the better private schools will opt out of voucher programs, further reinforcing the idea that the vouchers don't really offer the opportunity that was promised.

Secondly, capacity plays an important role at the school level. One of the advantages of private schools is their ability to manage their size. Keeping enrollment at stable, projected levels helps an institution in many ways. Fluctuating enrollment creates chaos and adds to expenses.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, we saw a couple of charter schools fail because they had difficulty managing sharp increases in enrollment. There were other problems with the largest of these failures, which resulted in several hundred students losing their school one spring day. Guess who took them in? The St. Paul Public Schools.

I like choice, and I like market economies. The market analogy falls short, however. Under a voucher program, parents are not spending their own money. Vouchers let parents allocate other people's money for the education of their children. And in our current economic system, parents don't bear the financial consequences of their children failing to gain an adequate education.

My experience with schools -- as a teacher at a couple of private schools and as a parent and board member at a charter school -- influences my thinking on a related point. There's a danger that placating parents becomes more important than upholding good academic standards. I think it's a good thing that schools are accountable to boards which are governed by more than parent input.

Hey, I'd like to see vouchers work. I really would. And I'm comfortable if some state other than my own takes the first big jump. But I won't be surprised if 10 years later, the majority of poor kids are still in crappy schools.

Coco said...

Peter - didn't want you to think no one was reading a poste topic that you obviously spent time on even though it is by now far down the page.

You're reasoning makes a lot of sense to me on a practical level. Vouchers seem like a band-aid solution that can make a difference on a small-time scale for kids involved but don't offer any real solution on a larger scale. And yet they are bandied about as if they are - Tierney's column is a good example of this mistake. He takes the antecdotal story of one student and then suggests all students would experience similar results under a voucher system.

peter hoh said...

Thanks Coco!