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Monday, December 12, 2005

"More Black Families Homeschooling"

"More Black Families Homeschooling," reports the Washington Post:

Denise Armstrong decided to home school her daughter and two sons because she thought she could do a better job of instilling her values in her children than a public school could. And while she once found herself the lone black parent at home-education gatherings that usually were dominated by white Christian evangelicals, she's noticed more black parents joining the ranks.

"I've been delighted to be running into people in the African-American home-schooling community," Armstrong said. 

Home-school advocates say the apparent increase in black families opting to educate their children at home reflects a wider desire among families of all races to guide their children's moral upbringing, along with growing concerns about issues such as sub-par school conditions and preserving cultural heritage.

I'm inclined to think that home-schooling -- done right -- is the best way to raise and form a really well-educated young person.  I also know that I am not up to it.  Still, I think the freedom and right to home-school is essential -- it's something of a "canary in the coal mine" when it comes to gauging authentic freedom, it seems to me.  So, stories along the lines of "Home-schooling:  It's not just for 'fundamentalists' anymore" are welcome.  What is not welcome, though, are arguments like this:

Apple, the Wisconsin professor, said improving public education for the greatest number of students depends on mass mobilization by concerned parents, but he raises a cautionary note.

"They're trying as hard as they possibly can to protect their children, and for that they must be applauded," Apple said. "But in the long run, protecting their own children may even lead to worse conditions for the vast majority of students who stay in public schools, and that's a horrible dilemma."

I'm sure it's a failing on my part, but I've never understood the appeal of the argument that poor children should be denied opportunities to escape (via vouchers, home-schooling, etc.) failing and failure-generating public schools because the departure of some kids would make things even worse for those kids who stayed behind.  The argument is particularly tought to take (for me) coming from persons who would never send (and are not forced by circumstance to send) their own children to the schools in question.

Posted by Rick Garnett on December 12, 2005 at 11:21 PM in Rick Garnett | Permalink


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Hillel, you make a good point, and I should clarify my initial statement (which Joseph has also already helped me correct!). It is one thing to regret the fact (if it is a fact) that engaged families' decisions to opt-out of public schools (for homeschooling, private schools, etc.) could make things worse for kids in bad public schools. And, it is another to contend that such decisions should be discouraged, made more difficult, or even prevented, because of the possibility that they will make things worse for kids in bad public schools. My objection, I guess, is (primarily) to the latter contention. Thanks.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 14, 2005 1:01:32 PM


Bringing this back to homeschooling. I don't understand why you object to the argument that while individual children may gain from homeschooling, children who remain in public schools loose out. I don't understand anyone to be making a legal argument that people should not be ALLOWED to homeschool for this reason. Rather, it is a general lament--and quite possibly true. It is no different from any other "tragedy of the commons" argument.

I certainly agree that those who would choose not to send their children to the public schools in question because they are so horrible have no business making this argument. But disinterested observers of the system have every business doing so.

Do you disagree?

Posted by: Hillel Levin | Dec 14, 2005 12:47:00 PM


Although I disagree with their goals, I don't think that voucher proponents in general are trying to destroy public education or liberalism. Many are tyring to figure out what is best for children under difficult conditions.

A not-insignificant portion of voucher proponents, however, support the cause at least in part out of what I consider to be an ideological and ill-considered animus towards unions in general and/or teachers' unions in particular. And teachers' unions do often support liberal causes.

Finally, again, voucher supporters differ with me in that they are much more sanguine/positive about the actual effect of vouchers: public tax money supporting (almost exclusively) private religious schools.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Dec 14, 2005 9:17:30 AM

In my experience people who support vouchers generally don't care about improving schools or educating children. Rather, it is a politically expedient way of destroying public education (and the "liberal" scourge it creates). Of course I could be wrong.

Posted by: a-train | Dec 14, 2005 7:48:06 AM


Thanks for the polite and reasonable reply -- certainly anyone can miss a word in a quick reading of a blog post.

In response to the substance, the "massive funding" question is only relevant to my point that vouchers will inevitably and necessarily benefit Catholic schools almost exclusively (again, to the tune of 95% in Cleveland). One can decide that's a good thing, a bad thing, an important thing, or an unimportant thing. But policy makers and voters should understand that it's true. That's my only point there.

Regarding teachers unions, my experience with them, both as a scholar of public sector labor and as a former labor lawyer, is that in fact they are very interested in the welfare of children. I would add that studies show that teacher unionization correlates positively with higher test scores on standardized tests and higher graduation rates. Again, your impression about the motivations of unions may be different, but instead of arguing over the motivations of parties, we should be considering data.

I appreciate the cite of the Brookings report, and I hope to look at it sometime (although right now many bluebooks await, which may explain my multiple posts on this thread today). My point remains that proponents of vouchers often rely on a series of claims that initially seem like common sense, but on further examination are quite shaky: public schools are all mediocre to bad (not true, most are good, with exceptions mainly in poor areas); vouchers would allow students lots of options (not true, in almost all cases they can only get you into Catholic school); students that use vouchers do a lot better (no real evidence for that); etc.

You then say, but given that the jury may still be out re the data, and given that some public schools really are bad, why not experiment with vouchers? My answer is that I would rather experiment with my tax dollars in improving public schools, schools over which I have some democratic control and in which I believe as a matter of principle, rather than subsidize parochial schools with public money while making public schools worse.


While I don't have specific cites handy, I don't think it's controversial that Catholic schools survive because they are heavily subsidized by the Catholic church. Also, the church often provides housing for teachers and pays them considerably less than other schools (which is why many teachers start out in Catholic schools and them move to public or more ritzy private schools). This is all, I stress, fine with me: if some teachers want to take a vow of poverty for a few years and/or if any church wants to subsidize schools, good for them. I just prefer that my tax dollars go to public schools.

If you want proof of the inability of other institutions that lack these sorts of subsidies to survive on 2-3 grand a year per student, read up on the Edison experience (summarized in my first post), or check around you to see how many private, secular schools in your area survive on tuitions of 2-3 grand. One of the big promises of voucher advocates was that all sorts of educational entrepreneurs would open up all sorts of exciting new types of schools, and because of the magic of ... I don't know, market efficiency or getting rid of unions, or whatever ... they would all charge 2-3 grand a student. It hasn't happened, and a lot of folks have discovered that it can't be done. That's especially true if you care about treating kids with special needs, disabilities, problems -- the types of kids public schools have to take but private schools don't.

David S.:

Thanks for the link. As someone who lived in DC for over a decade, I found it especially interesting.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Dec 13, 2005 6:18:45 PM

Your trackback is being mean and uncooperative. So here's my trackback: "Educating the Community".

Also, I think that this article by Charles Lawrence III (PDF) may give some answers to your question on why people indict choice programs which help a few on the grounds that they hurt the remainder.

Posted by: David Schraub | Dec 13, 2005 4:34:52 PM

Joseph, I'm not sure that's a sufficient answer. If educating these students is really a net money loser at all private schools, as you assert, it is a money loser for someone with regard to the Catholic schools. Your theory assumes that the Catholic schools and the Catholic church are sufficiently independent and that the Catholic schools are willing to cause the Catholic church to lose more money on educating these voucher students. Do you have any data for that claim? I ask this question out of genuine curiosity. I am not a Catholic and know very little about Catholic schools, so I really don't know how they are administratively run, but it does seem unlikely to me that the Catholic schools would be motivated by a desire to get more money when their actions would be causing the Catholic church as a whole to be losing more money than they gained.

I realize that Catholic schools have on some occassions lobbied on behalf of voucher programs. So I guess in my mind this calls into question your premise that other schools would not also be able to provide an education to voucher students without losing too much money.

Posted by: Harry | Dec 13, 2005 4:06:32 PM

Joseph, I *did* mis-read your post, re: "elite," and I sincerely apologize. As for "massively subsidizing Catholic schools," I just don't think that's the issue. Instead, I frame the matter as "delivering education more efficiently and well to currently neglected children." With regard to "teachers union obstructionism": You are right, of course, that the unions (like churches) have their interests. The unions, though, purport and try to be perceived as being relatively disinterested, or interested primarily in the educational welfare of children. In my view, they are not.

You are right to remind voucher supporters that, at present, the evidence is still coming in. But again, I think it is a mistake to move from what is possibly a current lack of evidence (pro or con) to a conclusion that we ought not to move forward with experiments that might produce evidence (pro or con). In any event, I recommend strongly the Peterson & Campbell study, "An Evaluation of the Children's Scholarship Fund" and also "The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools (Brookings 2002)".

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 13, 2005 3:16:37 PM


I don't see the tension. Catholic schools get big subsidies from the Catholic church which allows them to charge tuitions generally that are much lower than other private schools for *all* their students. So they aren't losing money when they take in a voucher student. Private schools that lack equivalent subsidies don't and can't educate children for 2-3 grand each (see my first post). Further, as I mentioned before, with enrollments at Catholic schools nationally dropping in recent decades, it's a way for them to get the state to pay for more Catholic school tuitions. And there's considerable evidence that's exactly what has happened. See Cleveland.

Again, I don't object to Catholic schools. I just don't want to support private, parochial schools over which I have no democratic influence (as I do with public schools) with public tax dollars, when those same dollars could be spent on improving public schools (which again, with some notable exceptions, are generally pretty good).

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Dec 13, 2005 3:09:27 PM

Joseph, I'm confused by what seems to be a major tension in your argument. On the one hand, you say the amount of most vouchers is not enough to provide for a private education without some additional funding from somewhere. This seems to mean that any school (Catholic or otherwise) is losing money by taking in a voucher student. As far as I can tell, this is inconsistent with your claim that Catholic schools are lobbying for vouchers because they want the money. If money was the issue, I would think the Catholic schools would rather not have the extra costs of the discount students (and then they would save on the costs of extra teachers and perhaps extra building maintenance).

I realize that there are some fixed costs that can be spread out over many students, but are the variable costs really so minimal that it is financially sound for the Catholic schools to take students that other private schools cannot educate at an economically efficient rate? And if so, wouldn't other private schools who are already covering the fixed costs through their normal tuition students be able to educate some additional students at the voucher rate?

Posted by: Harry | Dec 13, 2005 2:44:44 PM


First, you mis-read one of my lines. I didn't say "elite Catholic schools," I said "elite non-Catholic private schools." Because, my point remains, what vouchers effectively do is provide a massive public subsidy to private Catholic schools, because no entity without a massive subsidy from somewhere can afford to educate large numbers of children on $2-3 grand per student.

You may see no problem with the public massively subsidizing private Catholic schools, and I won't try to change your mind. But it's important that people understand that is what's happening, because some might defensibly think that a better way to spend public money on schools is to improve public schools. Especially when many of those teachers at Catholic schools, heroic or otherwise, leave for public schools after a few years because of the relative pay levels.

I'm puzzled by the phrase "teachers' union obstructionism." Different groups have different interests, of course (Catholic schools too, right?) but there is some data, including the GAO study I cited.

I realize the data isn't all one way on this, but claims by voucher advocates often assume that the data is much more positive for voucher use than it actually is. If you don't like that GAO study for some reason, here's a few more I collected when researching the issue a few years ago (I admit there may be more recent stuff I haven't looked at):

Indiana University researcher Kim Metcalf has been studying the Cleveland voucher plan. His work shows marginal differences between voucher-eligible students who attend public and private schools. (1999)

Policy Matters Ohio found that only about one-fifth of Cleveland students who use vouchers attended public schools. (2001) http://www.policymattersohio.org/ClevelandVouchers.pdf

Education researcher Kim Metcalf has reviewed voucher research, pro and con, and expresses concerns about the "costs of choice." (1999)

Haggai Kupermintz of the University of Colorado at Boulder argues that improvements in Florida public schools were the result of targeting students' writing skills, not vouchers. (2001)

Alex Molnar has studied the effects of class size reductions versus vouchers and has found vouchers lacking. (1999)

Bottom line (almost literally). While I think reasonable minds can differ on the efficacy and/or desirability of vouchers, I think claims in their favor have been wildly overstated, and that there are some principled reasons to oppose them. Your mileage may vary.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Dec 13, 2005 2:21:41 PM

I have to disagree with Joseph. I have tried to make the case elsewhere -- on social-justice, efficiency, education-reform, and religious-freedom grounds -- for (religious-school-inclusive) school vouchers, and I won't rehash all that here. In any event, it is, with all due respect, a mistake to rely much on the claim that "little evidence [shows that] students really benefit from [vouchers]" given that (thanks to teachers-union obstructionism, Blaine Amendments, and misguided understandings of the First Amendment) there have not yet been meaningful opportunities to develop or test such evidence. In any event, the evidence that does exist does suggest that there are educational-performance-related gains to be had by permitting low-income children (especially African American children) to use vouchers at eligible religious schools. What's more, these gains exist notwithstanding the fact that voucher amounts are (take DC, for example) *strikingly* lower than per-student expenditures in public schools. See generally, Peterson, Campbell, et al.

Joseph's statements about allegedly "elite" Catholic schools, their tuitions, and their costs are also either off the mark or (in my view) not really responsive. Why, exactly, is it an argument against vouchers that inner-city Catholic schools -- whose tuition, in fact, could be covered by a reasonable voucher and that are, in fact, willing to subsidize the education of low-income (often non-Catholic) children, thanks to the sacrifices of heroic teachers, who usually make much less than their government-school counterparts -- are the schools willing to educate children who would otherwise languish in failing (but more expensive) public schools?

All this raises, I think, a really important question: What should we make of arguments the premise of which is that we should not facilitate -- and, in effect, we should prevent -- "exit" from dysfunctional schools, but should instead require them to wait until those schools somehow heal themselves?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 13, 2005 1:41:09 PM

Since this has strayed from home-schooling into the voucher debate, I want to respond to the voucher points. The argument that vouchers help poor, inner-city (or what ever phrase you want to use to indicate "black") kids is full of holes, and that's why those communities often don't support vouchers once they've heard both sides of the argument.

First, there's precious little evidence students really benefit from them. The U.S. Government Accounting Office issued a report that found only minimal differences in student achievement between voucher-eligible students who attended public and private schools. (2001)
http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d01914.pdf and other surveys duplicate those results.

Further, the bottom line is that no primary/secondary school can afford to educate students on anywhere near the amount of money that vouchers could realistically be--say, 2-3 thousand--except highly subsidized entities, meaning, essentially, Catholic schools.

Take Edison. They tried and so far have failed miserably. Edison
practically went bankrupt and had to take a massive federal bailout to
avoid doing so. No private school system has shown a profit or even the
ability to stay in business based on a per-child tuition of 2-3 grand
because it costs more to educate children than that. Especially if you
want your school system to deal with kids with any type of special

This is why elite, non-Catholic private schools charge 10 grand plus per year. But of course inner city school parents we're supposedly trying to help with vouchers won't get their kids to such schools with a 2-3 thousand voucher--even if those schools would agree to take such kids, which of course they don't have to.

Catholic schools are, of course, highly subsidized by the Church. There's nothing wrong with that, but we should be clear that they aren't paying for the costs of their school via tuition and/or vouchers.

So, vouchers have acted so far and will continue to act almost exclusively as a subsidy for students to attend Catholic schools (see Cleveland, around 95% of voucher money going to parochial schools).
Notably, attendance at Catholic primary and secondary schools has dropped significantly overthe last decade or so, and not-so- coincidentally, Catholic schools have beenthe main lobbying force behind vouchers.

This also relates to the Establishment Clause problem, which the Supreme Court rejected, so I'll stick to the "are vouchers good policy" arguments. I don't want to bash Catholic schools, but I would say that the better public policy for school children is to take tax money to improve public schools--which on the whole are much better than the high profile problem cases lead people to believe--rather than to try to pass off vouchers, which will primarily act as a subsidy for Catholic schools, as some way to help poor kids and the education system.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Dec 13, 2005 1:14:06 PM

... I've never understood the appeal of the argument that poor children should be denied opportunities to escape (via vouchers, home-schooling, etc.) failing and failure-generating public schools because the departure of some kids would make things even worse for those kids who stayed behind.

Some scattered thoughts:

I agree with your post, but I don't think this is the strongest argument against home schooling. The problem, I believe, is that many people couldn't home school even if they wanted to because they are not educated enough to teach their kids (for example, my parents were immigrants who only finished grade school, without public schools I would have been screwed). When the people who are most able to affect improvement in public education (i.e. people who have some political clout because they are educated and not poor) have no incentive to make public education better (because their kids are not involved), it seems that it will inevitably hurt those who most depend on public education.

That aside, I believe the biggest problem with public education is that it is modeled on a Ford assembly line . Even when we look to improve public education (or diagnose problems) the approach is based on a manufacturing paradigm (i.e. quality control, standardized tests, etc.). This might be because when current system was adopted the point of public education was 1) day care for blue collar workers and 2) produce better blue collar workers. That is what the system was designed to do. Anything else was gravy.

But just as kids bodies grow in spurts, so do their minds. Having a system that is rigidly organized around calendar age will always be screwed. The Latin word that education comes from is educare. It means "to bring out." I'm afraid that is exactly where mass education often fails.

It is too bad that for many the reason to home school is to "protect" their child, rather than to help them flourish.

(disclosure: I let my kids decide if they want to home school or not. One stays home and he loves it.)

Posted by: a-train | Dec 13, 2005 10:32:32 AM

I think your last statement is very true. Often times the people that are fighting against voucher systems and charter school are those with means to send their children to better school districts.

Posted by: AG | Dec 13, 2005 9:48:31 AM

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