Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Vouchers Please

It’s my misfortune to have been a public school teacher during more than three decades when public education has been in decline. The reasons are too voluminous to account for here, but I’ll point out two: increased power of teachers’ unions and increased intervention by big government.

The teachers’ unions make it so expensive to get rid of bad teacher that administrators usually just try to just work around them. One report claims it costs an average of $200,000 in legal fees to fire someone if the union contests it. How can a principal build an effective team if (s)he can’t get rid of deadwood? Under most contracts, the only easy way to get rid of a teacher is through the RIF process - Reduction In Force. If a budget is cut or if student enrollment declines, teachers can be laid off, but administrators still don’t have the option of laying off dysfunctional teachers. It has to be “last hired, first fired.”

Then the federal government enters the picture and mandates that local districts spend more and more on students who don’t function well. Trouble is, many slow learners for whom this spending was originally intended over thirty years ago are being dropped from services. They get help in their early grades, but then they’re tested again in middle school and even though they’re still struggling, regulations say they’re operating at the level they’re capable of and they’re declared ineligible for services. Meanwhile, students who are quite capable but who won’t function for whatever reason, receive most of the help. They get an increasing share of services while many slow learners are cut loose to fend for themselves. Regular classroom teachers are expected to tailor their curricula to slow learners who have been reclassified as “low normal.” At the same time, they must put up with the presence of the others who can work but won’t and they must try to keep bright, motivated students interested - all in the same room at the same time. Educational “experts” insist this can be done if teachers receive training in “differentiation.” One result of this is the grade inflation prevalent at nearly every level of education.

As in so many other social programs since the 1960s, millions and millions of our tax dollars are spent to subsidize dysfunction in public education. Why should we be surprised when it increases? Such students learn that the less they do for themselves, the more someone will step in and do it for them. It’s called “learned helplessness” and it has a pronounced effect on the atmosphere of a class. Such kids do nearly nothing for themselves because they’ve learned that there are essentially no consequences for drifting along. They’re passed along year after year. Few ever stay back anymore because the “progressive” experts insist it does them no good. And, they insist that students be grouped heterogeneously - that is, the functional ones are in the same classes as the dysfunctional ones. This way, a whole class is held back rather than just the students who refuse to learn. This condition is most pronounced in middle school, because in high school students may choose advanced courses after the first year and the many dysfunctional students drop out along the way. The “experts” are afraid of grouping students according to their ability and their willingness to do the work necessary to learn, because bright, motivated students would progress so much that the gap between the functional and dysfunctional would become a chasm and attract scrutiny.

The teachers’ unions are the biggest constituents of the Democrat Party and major donors as well. With their pronounced leftist bias, they push the party to port and are largely responsible for bringing Planned Parenthood sex education programs and homosexual activists into public schools with all the accompanying propaganda. Students down to kindergarten level are exposed to it. What’s going on at Portland, Maine’s King Middle School lately - prescribing birth control to middle schoolers is a good example of how far that envelope is being pushed.

Whatever money is left over in teachers’ union coffers after contributing to Democrat candidates is used to fight voucher initiatives in whatever city or state they might arise. The unions know that if low and middle income parents had a choice about where to send their children to school, it wouldn’t be the local public school for many. With the choices vouchers would offer, the enormous political power of the teachers union monopoly would be smashed and public schools would have to compete for students. Unions insist that voucher initiatives would “take money away from public schools,” but one wonders what kind of fuzzy math they use to make those calculations. It costs an average of over $10,000 per year for each student in public schools. Voucher initiatives which the unions have defeated over and over call for less than half that amount to be spent for students to go to private schools. Parents would kick in the rest. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that vouchers would leave more money for public schools, not less.

In spite of all this, my career has provided much reward because I’ve had the freedom to deliver my curriculum the best way I can and it’s been my privilege to work with almost three thousand Maine children, most of them terrific kids. Also, I know that although union power is at its greatest right now, cracks are beginning to form. Utah's legislature approved a voucher initiative and it was signed by the governor. Teachers' unions pushed through a petition forcing a referendum, outspent the proponents, and defeated it at the polls yesterday. New York City is considering one too. Eventually it's going to happen somehere and then spread, but probably not until after I retire.


Anonymous said...

Having fought the battle to preserve Maine's unique vouchers--the Town Tuitioning System since the mid 90's; I find the current school consolidation bill the 'death knell' for it.

Every district will have a high school in it; choice under LD 910 will be at the option of the new district; and current parental choice options will disappear once the new districts are up and running.

The defeat in UTAH was partially financed by the MEA; and the echo will be deafening.

The only hope is the Swans Island program...see my HEARTLAND article at and the Children's Scholarship Fund which I co-founded with Betsy Chapman.

Best of luck to yah! Frank J. Heller, MPA 729 6090

Anonymous said...

might as well read this one too:

Lessons from Maine--Education Vouchers for Students since 1873
by Frank Heller

Frank Heller is an educational policy analyst and advocate of school choice. He is a cofounder of the Maine Children’s Scholarship Fund, a privately funded organization that provides scholarships to children from low-income families to attend private schools.


Since 1873 Maine has financed the education of thousands of kindergarten through 12th grade students in private schools. In fact, the state pays tuition for 35 percent of all students enrolled in Maine’s private schools. The tuition program enables parents in towns without a traditional public school to Choose a school from a list of approved private and public schools, enroll their child, and have the town pay that child’s tuition up to an authorized amount. The town then receives full or partial reimbursement from the state.

In the fall of 1999, 5,614 students
from 55 different communities attended private schools through this program, while 30,412 attended nearby public schools. Schools of choice ranged from regular public schools to local academies such as Waynflete School in Portland, Maine, to boarding schools ranging from Choate and Phillips Exeter in New England to Vail Valley Academy in Colorado.

Data from the Maine Department of Education suggest that the tuition program costs roughly $6,000 per student, or 20 percent less than
Maine’s average per pupil EXpenditure for public education.

Time and time again citizens have voted to keep this system that has been described as “the most valued attribute” of living in Maine. It’s
unfortunate that one of the best features of Maine’s educational system is limited to students
who live in the “right” towns.

Maine’s policymakersshould seek to facilitate greater educational
opportunities for all students, and policymakers nationwide should look to Maine’s extensive experience with vouchers to inform their education reform efforts.

September 10, 2001

Tom McLaughlin said...

Thanks for the education on Maine education history Frank. I read your Heartland article.

I didn't realize that Maine Governor Baldacci's "School consolidation" plan was a threat to those parents living in communities with no high school - that if it's implemented they would lose the ability to choose of high school for their children. I signed the petition at my town hall when voting Tuesday to repeal it. Glad I did.

Anonymous said...

When I first realized it; I emailed Robert Enlow of the FRIEDMAN FOUNDATION and suggested next year's directory of school choice states, add an obit. for Maine's school choice program.

I think he contacted Bill (Becker) about 'doing something' and the oucome was their advocacy of a counter consolidation bill; and most recently Steve Owen(?) championed the school choice options for parents in SAD 47 in a Brunswick Times Record OP-ED.

I knew that the politics of consolidation didn't favor the contracts with private academies and I contacted the leader of the private schools of Maine about the threat.

He said they were working with Gendron's office--she's on the board of Hebron Academy where her granddaughter goes to school; to retain current choice options.

I left it go because of my current energy business interests; but an essay by Rep. Thom Watson(D) in the Brunswick Times Record stated that choice after consolidation would be very restricted .....suspicions confirmed! Curse those socialists!

The private academies will have to negotiate a new contract with the new consolidated district; and if there is a competing high school with room, they will face opposition for exclusive 'sending' agreements.

The real crunch will come when a consolidated district decides to build a new high or other school that will draw students from the private schools.

It's pretty depressing!

Unknown said...

...sadly we have not one, but two lost generations of kids with this new math.

What worries me is they are tomorrow's leaders.

Clockwork Orange and Logan's Run can't be too far behind.