05 December 2006

Vouchers for Teachers

Advocates of vouchers define the education system as something that parents consume. In their minds, if parents were given vouchers that were equivalent to money and could "spend" these vouchers on the school they wanted their child to attend, schools would respond to demand for education like companies respond to market demand.

I'd argue that the parents are not the best decision-makers about how to shape schools: teachers are. In that light, perhaps we should set up a system in which teachers had the vouchers and could spend them as they wished. Imagine what it would be like.

Right now schools spend roughly $6,000 per student per year. Now, give that money to teachers. If they had, say, 20 students they'd get $120,000. But here's the catch. From that money, they'd have to lease or rent a building where they could teach, hire janitors for cleaning, hire administrators and assistants to help them, etc. Now, the entire administrative structure would be directed towards helping teachers to succeed. Rather than focus on pleasing the folks in Sacramento (or Little Rock or Albany), administrators would, of necessity, focus on helping teachers in the classroom. If the teacher(s) did not see any value in the school psychologist, teaching materials, or school principal, those entities would get no money. The ones that did help would receive money - perhaps even more than they do now.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I'm married to a teacher. The neighborhood she teaches in is lower income and she regularly brings home stories of her frustration with nonresponsive administrators or supposed helpers with teaching, cleaning, etc. It would be a very different matter if all these resources that were supposedly directed towards helping children learn were dependent on her for their funding. The level of responsiveness would have to go up.

One of the many advantages to this kind of system would be that you'd have the equivalent of about 6 million businesses (there are more than 6 million teachers in the US) all innovating and creating demand for high-value added resources and materials. What this would do to the level of innovation could be amazing.


Thomas LB said...

In most places schools are run by an elected school board, so there is already a mechanism in place for parents to improve their local schools.

I would only consider vouchers in areas with a high voter turnout; if they can demonstrate to me that democracy doesn't work, then I'll consider alternatives.

Chris Thorn said...

One of the scary things about voucher programs of any kind is that even a conservative notion of small business failure rates is about 50% in the first five years. How many teachers (or schools in the traditional voucher model) can we afford to have close? The costs for the discontinuity are tough on the kids.

Ron said...

Thomas & Chris – thanks for the important points.

I think that giving teachers more autonomy would translate into more of the incremental changes / improvements / experiments / evolutionary changes that seem to characterize genuine progress. I always get the sense that trying to make changes in through mechanisms like school boards is like trying to steer a car from the trunk.

50% failure rate seems about what it is now - if we count the number of children who are "failed" by the school system or drop out.

Part of what appeals to me about the notion of encouraging more innovation at the level of teachers is that students are so diverse it seems to me that in an ideal system the classrooms, too, would be diverse.