School Vouchers and the Death of Meritocracy

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

America likes to think of itself as a country where one’s abilities determine one’s fortune. America was founded by those fleeing European countries where upward mobility was restricted by the state.

The opportunity to obtain a good education is essential to a society that values meritocracy.

James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953, recognized that students should be chosen based on their intellectual abilities rather than their family connections. A meritocracy, based on equal opportunity, is the cornerstone of a free society. Without free public education, there is no mechanism allowing the talented to display their abilities.

Educational opportunity should be the great equalizer in our society, it should not be reserved only for those who can afford the costs of private schools. Yet numerous states are using tax payer funds to subsidize the rich who treat their kids to an education at a private school. These states are cutting funding to public education, and using those same funds to provide vouchers subsides to those who least need them.

Yet the rich are not content with being able to afford the costs of private education, they expect tax payers to subsidize their expenditures. In Colorado, the board of the Douglas County School District voted for a pilot program that provides parents $4,500 for each student. That falls significantly short of the tuition that ranges from $7,000 to $14,000.

In states across the nation, lawmakers slash public school spending while funding voucher programs. In New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) slashed $820 million in school spending last year while financing a school voucher expansion which “would cost about $825 million.” In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett (R) proposed nearly a billion dollars in education cuts, while pushing a voucher plan that “is estimated to cost taxpayers $730 million in the first four years.”

When Republicans talk about cutting spending, they are excluding the rich from those cuts.

H/T: The Economist, LA Times, Think Progress.

71 thoughts on “School Vouchers and the Death of Meritocracy”

  1. Elaine,

    Actually, I said the Gablers “represent more of an annoying distraction than any kind of major problem with the way kids are educated by the government,” not a “major problem with textbooks.”

    The kids who are graduating high school without basic reading, writing, and math skills aren’t doing so because of anything the Gablers or their supporters did. If the Gablers had never existed, kids would still be graduating without basic skills while hating school and wasting hundreds of hours of their lives because of the way we educate kids. They would have forgotten accurate facts of history and biology instead of the made-up, conservative “facts” of the Gablers.

    Like I’ve said, a system that forces kids to memorize facts they’ll never utilize in life outside of school, especially kids who are having problems with reading, writing, and basic math, is a broken system. We know for a documented fact that when you force kids to memorize information they’re not interested in (and will never use) so they can parrot it back on paper, they’re not learning anything (except how to hate the subjects they’re being forced to memorize).

    But this is what much, if not most of post-elementary compulsory schooling is about. And it’s a huge part of why kids drop out when they can barely read or write or understand fractions and percentages. It’s a huge part of why so many kids graduate with a poor understanding of reading, writing, and/or basic math.

    So, that’s why I feel the textbooks, even the bad ones, aren’t the problem. It’s our arbitrary and impractical requirements which maintain power structures for the adults, while neglecting the individual learning needs of the students.

  2. Les,

    I don’t see how you can say that the Gablers and their cohort are an annoying distraction when they are the cause of so much of what is wrong with a number of the textbooks being published today. I’d say they are at the root of the textbook problem.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you write “the major problem with the way kids are being educated by the government.” School districts vary from city to city–not just state to state. Educational systems/districts are not uniform across the country.

    As I see it, the biggest problem with education today has become its focus on mandated testing and prepping children for those tests.

  3. Elaine,

    The processes she describes for choosing textbooks in California are quite accurate. And since she was a teacher here, considering what teachers go through in this state (the lack of flexibility, etc.) there’s every chance she has an ax to grind. But she’s using simple facts to grind it.

    Obviously, the Gabler case is a terrible thing and religious fundamentalists like them should be opposed at every turn.

    But then again (did you suspect that was coming?), the fact is that most kids simply don’t remember the vast majority of the science and history they’re forced to memorize for the short-term goals of post-elementary schooling. Obviously I’d prefer that they memorize and then forget 95% of accurate material than inaccurate material, but the Gablers, to me, represent more of an annoying distraction than any kind of major problem with the way kids are educated by the government.

  4. Les,

    There’s something one has to take into consideration when reading that Examiner article. The author links to another article posted at the website of Key Curriculum Press–a publisher of math textbooks and other educational materials. I don’t know enough about the process of textbook adoption and implementaion in California schools to judge whether the author of the article is impartial or has an ax to grind.

    Do you have an opinion about the influence that the Gablers and others like them have had on the publishers of textbooks? Do you think that it’s a good thing? Shouldn’t history and science textbooks contain the truth? Should the textbooks be written to appease right-wing fundamentalist groups who want to indoctrinate our youth with their ideological viewpoints?

  5. Elaine,

    I’m probably too often throwing around “district” and “state” in terms of buying textbooks, without being as clear as I ought to be. It’s going to vary state to state, district to district (even school to school, I’m sure).

    Again, I don’t doubt that you and your fellow teachers were able to have input on the textbooks used, as you’ve described the environment you worked in as very flexible. But as described in this article:

    in California, such flexibility doesn’t exist, especially after elementary school.

    As far as other states buying Texas textbooks (and I’m being cautious now about whether it’s states or districts buying the books), the more I look into it, the more it looks like a rather undocumented, but legitimate, concern. From the NY Times article below,

    “James Kracht, a professor at Texas A&M’s college of education and a longtime player in the state’s textbook process, told me flatly, ‘Texas governs 46 or 47 states.'”

    That said, in a multi-billion dollar industry dependent upon government contracts, individualized learning isn’t top priority.

    However, I’m actually rather optimistic about the limitations to learning that mass produced textbooks create, as digital technology is making it easier and easier to cater to the needs of smaller groups, which is something I believe is desired by most educators.

    I’m also optimistic because, though we must remain ever vigilant, the kind of biblical literalism and religious fundamentalism that caused the problems in Texas is slowly decreasing.

  6. Les,

    “Because Texas buys so many textbooks, that brings their prices down, making them attractive to school districts all over the country. These districts make a decision to abandon older, accurate textbooks for newer, inaccurate ones.”

    I’ve never heard that before. Which districts are you referring to?

  7. Les,

    “Now, I do think this is happening less than it used to, but the textbook industry is still driven by the contracts they have with state and local education departments.”

    I’m not sure what you mean when you write “local education departments.” Are you talking about local school districts? I was a school teacher for many years. Our school system adopted new textbooks and educational programs from time to time. We teachers were often involved in reviewing/piloting the different textbooks/programs and in making decisions about which ones would be adopted systemwide.

  8. Elaine,

    Because Texas buys so many textbooks, that brings their prices down, making them attractive to school districts all over the country. These districts make a decision to abandon older, accurate textbooks for newer, inaccurate ones.

    Now, I do think this is happening less than it used to, but the textbook industry is still driven by the contracts they have with state and local education departments. Government contracts are, by their very nature, political. And the kind of political maneuvering necessary to secure a government contract has almost nothing to do with finding the best ways to increase real learning.

  9. Les,

    “And the reason other states order those textbooks has to do with money. Money is at the source of a lot of dysfunctional school systems.”

    I’m not following your reasoning in connecting what folks like the Gablers do/have done to corruption and dysfunction in public schools.

  10. Elaine, but that is a perfect example of one kind of unethical relationship that exists. And the reason other states order those textbooks has to do with money. Money is at the source of a lot of dysfunctional school systems.

    If you have Netflix Watch Instantly, you can watch this movie:

    which does a fine job of documenting the overt corruption and dysfunction of the public schools in New Jersey. Now, the last third or so of the film is an argument for vouchers, which is a point worth arguing about. But the awfulness of the school system in that state is inarguable and whether it’s administrators, parents, teachers, unions, or politicians, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The hard part is getting people to admit it.

  11. Les,

    That wasn’t what you were were talking about before. You claimed there were unethical relationships between the textbook publishers and education departments across the country. I was talking about the influence that right-wing fundamentalist groups exerted on publishers. It was more about ideology than money.

    A link to the Gablers’ site:

    We are a conservative Christian organization that reviews public school textbooks submitted for adoption in Texas. Our reviews have national relevance because Texas state-adopts textbooks and buys so many that publishers write them to Texas standards and sell them across the country.

  12. Les,

    “Beyond the unethical relationships which exist between many textbook publishers and education departments around the country, there is the matter of the arbitrary and impersonal nature of the things kids are forced to learn.”

    I disagree. I’d say it’s more about the power that right-wing folks like Mel and Norma Gabler wielded over publishers of textbooks.

    From NPR:

    “For more than 40 years, Gabler and her husband, Mel, who died in 2004, worked to rid Texas schoolbooks of factual errors and what they saw as amoral, anti-Christian, pro-evolution biases. The Gablers’ influence extended nationwide. Texas is the country’s second-largest textbook purchaser, so books with Texas-approved content were frequently sold to school districts in other states.”

  13. Mike,

    I tend to agree with you about funding. It seems to just make sense. But I don’t think it will eliminate the fact that some schools, for a variety of reasons, will perform better than others, and that parents should have the freedom to remove their children from schools which aren’t meeting their needs and find one that does.

    Maybe vouchers aren’t the best way to do create school choice, but it’s still an essential element that’s missing from public schooling.

    As fare as the goals you stated:

    1) True, but I think it’s a tiny minority of voucher advocates who favor this.

    2) Absolutely, and I would oppose the use of public funds for religious education.

    3) The government oversight of curricula is, I think, actually one of the problems in our current system. Beyond the unethical relationships which exist between many textbook publishers and education departments around the country, there is the matter of the arbitrary and impersonal nature of the things kids are forced to learn. Even though the vast majority of students will not enjoy or ever find use for the experience of reading, for example, “Moby Dick,” they are forced to do so. I’m not suggesting that it shouldn’t be offered or recommended, but forcing kids to read things they have no interest in (as opposed to teaching them to read with comprehension) is a waste of their time and a willful dismissal of their individuality. This goes for a number of subjects, from chemistry and physics, to history and algebra 2. Now, there is no doubt that it is a good thing to know about history and science and literature, but we know for a fact that forcing a kid to memorize facts in order to pass a test necessary for graduation does not equal learning. And that is the essence of what government oversight of curricula has accomplished. (Okay, that’s a bit of a digression and probably not a top priority in the school choice discussion, so I thank you for your patience.)

    4) Not all teachers’ unions are created equal. Some do fine work and others do quite the opposite. So, I think that’s incredibly complicated. As long as unions look at every criticism as an attack on the very idea of unions, instead of as opportunities for improvement, they will give ammunition to those ideologically opposed to unionism (which I’m not, despite my intense dissatisfaction with their behaviors).

    In the meantime, there are parents with kids in dangerous and/or dysfunctional schools all over the country. They have been told to be patient for years, through funding booms and busts alike. So what do we tell them, now? To wait some more? This is why I believe that the primary goal should be school choice.

    I don’t know what real school choice will look like, but I do think that ideas about curricula and unions and standardized testing often get in the way of finding out how to create individualized and liberated learning experiences for every child.

  14. Mike A.,

    You summarized it better than I ever could have–and I was a teacher. When school reform was enacted in Massachusetts back in the early 1990s, it was obvious that destroying the influence of teachers’ unions was one of its major aims.

    You are spot on about state-mandated testing. I took early retirement mainly because I could see that I wouldn’t have been able to continue teaching the way I had been teaching for many years. Education isn’t about the kids any longer–it’s about the tests.

    Tell your sister that I understand how she feels.

  15. School vouchers are and always have been a bad idea. I have argued for years that gross disparities in the funding of public schools could be eliminated by eliminating funding at the district level, a practice that virtually guarantees that the children of the affluent will receive better public school educations than the children of the poor.

    Vouchers are a transparent attempt to accomplish several unworthy goals:

    1. To gradually eliminate all public school funding.

    2. To permit the redirection of tax dollars to religious schools, particularly Christian fundamentalist schools. (It is interesting that conservatives had no interest in a voucher system when a majority of religious schools in this country were Catholic parochial schools.)

    3. To reduce government oversight of curricula, a particularly attractive idea for the growing numbers of ideologues who wish to incorporate revisionist history and pseudo-science texts.

    4. To destroy the influence of teachers’ unions in the schools.

    Finally, it is my opinion that new testing requirements (such as FCAT here in Florida) are inherently flawed because they do not measure educational progress. They are instead based upon a business model for education, one in which children are regarded as the educational equivalent of widgets.

    I would like to add several comments from one of my sisters, who has been a public school teacher for 35 years, but they are largely unprintable.

  16. “It’s to point out that there are things we haven’t tried that we ought to try.”


    You and I are not very far apart n outlook towards education. My fear, justified by the educational battles
    since SCOTUS desegragation ruling in 1964, is that freedom of educational choices often gets misused in the service of those who truly believe in general inequality
    of educational options.

  17. Elaine, see, I just knew if we kept talking we’d end up agreeing 100%! (Well, 100% on that one, significantly raising our average!)

    I once saw a news story with a woman complaining that her high school football playing son couldn’t read and blaming the school. I didn’t blame the school for that one.

  18. Les,

    “It’s also a fact that where we see the most problems with kids in schools that don’t meet their needs is after elementary school.”

    I agree. Elementary schools are more child-centered than middle schools and high schools. In addition, elementary teachers teach all subjects. We have the same students all day so we really get to know them and become aware of their strengths and weaknesses.

    Regarding Parents: Parents are their children’s first teachers. Most children don’t start attending public school until they are five or six years old. Parents have lots of time with their children before they begin kindergarten. They must shoulder their responsibilty in order to help their children begin school with certain basics–such as knowing the alphabet, colors, numbers, nursery rhymes, etc. Parents should read to their children every day. Public schools and teachers need support and help from parents. Unfortunately, schools are expected to “do it all” these days.

  19. “…because as they are becoming individuals, their arbitrary requirements are less and less individualized.”

    This should have read: “…because as they are becoming individuals, the schools’ arbitrary requirements are less and less individualized.”

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