Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I'm willing to give Megan McCardle a chance on an issue until she gets unreasonable, and on the subject of vouchers she has become not only unreasonable but insulting and, as I said on an 11D thread, kind of creepy. I've basically written off reading anything she has to say on the vouchers issue, but a series of links to her screeds encouraged me to click just one more time on a follow-up post. And I found this:

How many educated people who:

a) Oppose vouchers
b) Have children who do not attend inner city public schools

would still oppose vouchers if they were the only way to get their child out of an inner city public school? How many of them would accept that their child had to be left in that school because the systemic effects of allowing their child to exit that repulsive school would be dreadful?

Respectfully, I believe the answer is "null set".

Respectfully? Ha. MM hasn't typed a single word on this issue with respect for anyone.

OK, let's start with this: the whole POINT is that the "educated" class will *never* be in a situation where vouchers would be the only way to get kids out of failing inner city public schools. (Note: FAILING. Not all inner city, non-magnet schools are failing, for what it's worth.)

This reminds me of the (badly retold by me) joke about the physicist, the chemist and the economist cast away on a deserted island with nothing else. Starving, they are thrilled when a single can of beans washes up on the shore. They have to figure out a way to open the can, so the physicist says, "If we climb to the top of the tree and throw down the can onto a rock, the force of the fall combined with the opposing force of the solid rock will open the can." The chemist says, "We can use the salinity of the sea water mixed with the sand to create a chemical reaction that will bore a hole through the metal of the can." And the economist says, "OK, let's say we had a can opener...."

Second, I could tell her that yes, under this wildly improbable scenario, I would still oppose vouchers, but she wouldn't believe me. Really. I don't think she would. And we would have no way to test the situation because IT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN.

Third, were my kids, in this wildly improbably situation, in a failing inner city school, you can bet damned sure that I would do everything in my power to MAKE SURE THE SCHOOL IMPROVED.

For the record, John Edwards, whom I consider to be the foremost advocate of the poor right now among the presidential candidates, opposes vouchers because they would increase the inequities in K12 education.

And all of his kids - rich as Edwards was - went to public schools. In fact, I was Googling to remind myself about Raleigh public schools (I lived there for 3 years), and his two older kids went to Broughton, which is not even as well respected as Enloe.


MH said...


I think you are missing the bigger point. Public education, as it currently exists in many areas (including mine), is killing cities by driving out the middle class and locking the poor into a cycle of continuing poverty by failing their children. I agree with many of the criticisms of vouchers that were given in the comments on 11D. But, I have also come to the conclusion and public schools, at least in Pittsburgh, are not capable of reform through any currently existing political process. Why have I come to that conclusion? School spending is currently $16k/per pupil, teacher pay is high by local standards (more than I make by quite a bit), the drop-out rate is through the roof (5 of the 10 high schools were recently labeled ‘drop-out factories’), and enrollment is dropping even faster than population. And the teachers union has just voted (by a large margin) to authorize a strike for higher pay and a shorter work day(!). They also want to continue to pay virtually nothing for health care and retirement benefits better than those that cost me 15% of my salary. The school board elections are not competitive due to the local political machine (and the teachers union is a key component of that machine. I’ll support any solution that doesn’t involve cannibalism or giving more money to the people who have demonstrably failed in the past. Vouchers, Charter Schools, whatever. It all seems more likely to work that what we have now. I mean, I have my own personal solution that I can take whenever I want (it involves a realtor and a moving van), but that will only work for so long because the suburbs won’t continue to be nice places if there is nothing in the center.

Doug said...

"I've basically written off reading anything she has to say on the vouchers issue..."

I'm tending toward the same conclusion, except I would drop "on the vouchers issue" from the sentence.

Wendy said...

MH, you weird me out a little with your turn to the right-wing, but I do sympathize with your points. And you make a good point about the middle class fleeing the cities.

I do think a combination of macroeconomic factors is leading to these problems, and I'd like to address those. And this combination that afflicts many urban areas seems to be magnified by the political situation in Pittsburgh.

What I am suspecting is that we need to do a serious overhaul in the way we think about education, and the ways we teach elementary school kids needs to be different from the ways we teach middle school kids and high school kids. But that will mean starting things and failing at them sometimes, and I don't think people have the patience right now.

Re your issues with the disparity between your pay and that of teachers: hey, join or start a union. ;) That's what unions were created to do--bargain for better benefits for their members against entities in whose best interests it is to pay as little as possible.

MH said...


I'm not complaining about my pay. I wouldn't say no to a raise to a raise or anything, but I am relatively well-paid compared to co-workers with similar levels of experience and education. And I am a former AFSMCE member, though I never went to a single meeting or voted in any union election.

Here is my question, how do you expect the public schools to have a 'serious overhaul' of their education methods? People with much more clout than me have been trying for decades. The teachers, unless they have some personal moral code about failing, have no incentive to do anything different because they benefit tremendously from the current system. And those with such a moral code are presumably doing everything they can now and it isn’t helping enough. The school board can’t force changes on the teachers union because public employee unions are the biggest and most powerful component of the Democratic machine that has run Pittsburgh since the 30s. And the longer the machine is in power, the more of the middle class leaves, removing the very people who could organize for change.

However, the state and federal governments can force the district to enact certain types of reforms. The feds forced the standardized testing. I don’t know if that will lead to any educational improvement on its own, but it has made the problems with the district undeniably apparent so at least the debate has started. The state forced charter schools on the district, though the district and union continue to fight very hard on that. One or the other could require vouchers. I agree that, as potential solutions go, this is all very ad hoc and sub-optimal. It is also the only potential source of change.

Wendy said...

MH, you ask a good question, and my simplistic answer is that the solution depends on each community. :) I don't know a lot about Pittsburgh, unfortunately. :( I went hunting back when you first started posting and had a hard time finding info. I would need more time (and perhaps some better databases).

I do believe the teachers themselves do the best they can. My experience is that teachers become easily demoralized by bad conditions. Do you know what conditions are like in the schools are buildings in good physical shape? Are there sufficient teaching materials? Is there relatively up-to-date technology in the classrooms?

What did you think of the JHU report with suggestions on how to make improvements?