As a K-12 public school graduate, former Board of Education member, and activist for a fair distribution of state aid in New Jersey, one education stance I have been very reticent about is my support for school vouchers.
My self-censorship is from the fact that there is a mentality among many people that someone who supports vouchers is "anti-public education," and I didn't want to risk association with people who support school choice. Also, exposing the problems of New Jersey's distribution of school aid and the School Funding Reform Act took so much time that I haven't had much time for follow, let alone write about, other education issues.
I'm sharing my support for vouchers now because Laura Water's recent public support for vouchers has inspired me to be open about it and I expect the Biden administration to do everything it can to undermine and eliminate voucher programs and if, in my minuscule impact, I can raise opposition to that, I want to help.
I have multiple reasons for supporting vouchers, but I will share two here that I think they are less commonly expressed:
- vouchers can encourage integration.
- families deserve educational agency.
Vouchers are Also About Integration, Not Only Education Policy
My earliest reason for supporting school vouchers is urban policy, not education policy, where school vouchers are a way to gradually reduce spatial SES segregation and mitigate NJ's status as one of the most segregated states in the US.
My premise is that where there is a ZIP-code based education system, middle-income families who live in towns where most people are low-income have a strong education-centered incentive to leave that town, even if they are otherwise satisfied with their homes and community. I believe that if private schools were affordable thanks to government assistance -- instead of something that costs out-of-pocket an average of $13,800 per student in New Jersey -- more middle class families would stay or move-in to low-SES towns.
It should be self-evident that the loss of middle-class families is highly damaging to poor towns. The middle-class families who move out take their spending power, which hurts local businesses and exacerbates joblessness, which in turn creates social problems. When they take their tax payments out, those remaining have to make up the lost revenue. When a population actually declines and towns lose "eyes on the street," they become less safe and there is a spiral of deterioration. The departure of middle-class people is socially damaging because middle-class visibility and social-involvement are beneficial to lower-income people by diluting poverty.
I believe vouchers would diminish the middle-class flight tendency by making high-quality private schools affordable to middle-class families.
Obviously people have motivations for relocation other than schools, such as quality of houses available. To that I point out that NJ's poor cities, like Newark, Plainfield, Paterson, Irvington, all have sections of spacious, historic homes that look suburban, and yet are not nearly as wealthy as suburbs with identical houses. Part of my premise is a reason for that is that even if the houses there are impressive, they don't come with the high-quality "free" school systems that suburbs have.
Some people might object to my proposal by saying it is a plan for gentrification, where that word is a synonym for displacement, but I see gentrification as a synonym for "revitalization," "renewal," and reinvestment. Further, in gentrification, incumbent homeowners are winners, since their home values increase. If you believe it is an American sin that Blacks have been denied the economic benefits of homeownership by redlining, then gentrification has economic advantages aside from the fact that it represents spatial integration. As I mentioned above, gentrification also produces jobs.
For all we hear about it, gentrification is generally a phenomenon of "superstar" cities that dominate the media. In New Jersey's context, that means and New York City's Hudson County satellite cities. However, most of New Jersey's post-industrial cities aren't gentrifying at all. For evidence of that, if you look at the real estate trajectories of New Jersey's post-industrial towns and cities, the ones that aren't in Hudson County are steadily eroding. To a large degree, New Jersey's non-Hudson County cities are sustained by federal, state, and county transfer payments and not private-sector-based activity.
Looking at all of New Jersey's low-SES towns (defined by being in DFG A), most have LOST tax base in the last ten years or grown at rates well below inflation. When you consider that the tax-base growth also occurs because of non-residential property and expansion of the housing supply, you realize that there's no denying that homeowners have done extremely badly.
So gentrification is newsworthy and important in a few towns like Jersey, but it is highly localized.
Additionally, displacement happens not only because of higher income people are moving in or staying in a neighborhood; displacement happens when there is an increase in high-wage people combined with the town's refusal to increase its housing supply, ie, build vertically. All of New Jersey's non-gentrifying cities have substantial amounts of vacant and underused property that could be densified. Displacement is not inevitable. Displacement happens when there is an inelastic housing supply created by restrictive zoning.
A Real Drawback:
I am basing this argument on how people are, not how people should be. In an ideal world, there would be achievement gap based on socioeconomics and middle-class, affluent, and rich parents would gladly send their children to schools with children who are poorer than they are.
In reality, this rarely happens. New Jersey's political leadership, Phil Murphy, Robert Menendez, and Jon Corzine are all private school parents, as are Joe Biden, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, and the Clintons. My pro-voucher solution would help to reduce SES spatial segregation, but not segregation between schools.
I admit that a problem of a robust voucher system is that most of a town's higher performing schools would be private schools and the traditional public schools would have a different, lower-performing, likely racially different population. That is not something I want, but I think it is less bad than the status quo where those same students leave the towns altogether to reside in middle-class and affluent suburbs. If voucher opponents (you know who you are) want to be consistent, they (or YOU) should send their (or YOUR) children to low-performing public schools.
An Exaggerated Drawback:
goes into private school choice programs, the public schools are still getting more than they spent previously. To say that public schools are being cut in a scenario where New Jersey increases education spending by $500 million but allows $50 million of that to go to private schools is nonsense.
My secondary reason for supporting vouchers is that I oppose the one-size-fits-all model of nearly all public school systems. Ddifferent children have different needs and talents, parents have different philosophies about education, therefore a choice-based system where families can choose a better-fit school would create happier people and more accountable schools.
As Mike Petrilli humorously explained:
“Customization” is the real issue. Even in upper-middle-class communities, not all parents want the same things for their kids. From my own personal experience, affluent parents break down into at least three groups:
Tiger Moms (and Dads), who want their kids pushed, pulled, and stretched in order to get into top colleges. They want gifted-and-talented programs in elementary school, lots of “honors” and Advanced Placement options in secondary school, and high-octane enrichment activities like orchestra, debate club, and chess teams. These folks have no patience for warm-and-fuzzy edu-babble; they want teachers who themselves attended elite schools and can help their charges attain the pinnacle of academic achievement.
Koala Dads (and Moms), who want school to be a joyful experience for their kids, big and little. They want lots of time for creativity, personal expression, social-emotional development, and relationship-building. Models like Montessori and Waldorf are catnip to these folks; they want teachers who can role-model a kind, soulful, tolerant, mindful way of living in the world—a sort of wisdom that goes beyond mere knowledge. They, too, aspire for their children to attend great colleges—but probably the liberal artsy/crunchy types.
The Cosmopolitans, who want their children prepared to compete in a multicultural, multilingual world. They want a language immersion program for their tots (ideally Mandarin, though they’ll settle for Spanish); International Baccalaureate (IB) starting in middle school at the latest; and at least one, if not several, overseas experiences in high school. They want multicultural, multilingual teachers—and aspire for their children to either run, or save, the world. (Yes, these are close relatives of the Tiger Moms—Madres Tigres you could call them.)
That's just a brief sketch of the different learning types and curricular emphases that families want. I also think parents can have legitimate differences of opinion regarding a school's schedule and size.
must adhere to. They have little power compared to municipal government. Boards of Education are severely constrained by what they can negotiate in a contract. They are constrained by lawsuits, particularly in special education. They are constrained by permanent bureaucracies that turn over at a very slow pace.
- NJ Boards of Education are elected by the most unfair of all voting systems, at-large plurality, where the top 2-3 finishers are declared elected, even with a plurality. and even when all the winners are from the same faction. It's entirely possible for the winning faction to sweep, and a large minority faction to not receive any seats at all.
There are some Boards of Education in other states that are elected by proportional representation, but none in New Jersey.
In some larger districts where teacher unions have more clout, like Jersey City, Board of Education members often have conflicts of interest that arise from being endorsed by teacher unions.
(I regret that I didn't pursue voting reform when I was a BOE member)
- Serving on a Board of Education is a volunteer commitment of thousands of hours and over time, fewer people have been willing to run and serve. Statewide, there are only three candidates for every two spots, meaning many candidates win by default, and it's common for voters to not even have a full-slate of candidates they would want to win.