Friday, November 11, 2005


State school board ponders vouchers:
The State Board of Education took the first step Wednesday toward creating more competition for public schools.

Proposals include providing vouchers to help pay tuition at private schools for at-risk and special-education students and offering cash incentives for students to graduate early from high school.

Those plans are among the ideas Education Commissioner Bob Corkins, hired in September, wants to pursue.

Early indications are that the proposals won't be an easy sell. The six-member majority that hired Corkins could recommend the changes, but approval would be needed from the Legislature and the governor.

Board members who opposed hiring Corkins said the proposals were unnecessary.

"We don't have in this state any failed school systems," said Bill Wagnon of Topeka.
Balkanizing the schools will not improve education. Schools are one of many places where having a critical mass is beneficial for everyone. Larger districts can give better care for special ed students, and the more such students there are in a system, the better care they can all receive.

Providing incentives to the schools (not students) for early graduations makes some sort of sense. When they get per pupil funding, early graduations cost schools. and such disincentives don't help.

I would suggest to Mr. Corkins that, before he tries to rebuild the schools, he should learn how the schools actually work.

To do that, he'll need to broaden his transition team to people who aren't just from the northeast corner of Kansas.

I oppose vouchers on principle. Vouchers are part of an explicit program of defunding public education. Set aside the details of the education different schools offer, and public schools are better than such a canalized system because they bring together people from different walks of life. That's a good thing, it knits society together.
I also oppose vouchers in Kansas for practical reasons. School choice makes some sort of sense in New York (which has a public high school dedicated to aircraft maintenance, and another exclusively for those interested in the performing arts within a half hour's drive); out in western Kansas, it's incoherent. Like public transportation, school choice requires high population densities.

When SUSA did a 50 state poll on the schools, Kansans was the 4th most likely to rate the schools as "passing," behind North Dakota, Iowa and South Dakota, tied with New Hampshire and Virginia.

(Picky detail note: this is yet another poll where it's irrelevant whether the respondents will vote.)

While 68% is not very good, only a quarter of Kansans think the schools are failing. The Wichita area has the most unhappiness at 34%, a number pretty close to the national median of states (Western KS has 24%, Eastern KS 21%).

That's not a formula for revolutionary change. Most of the schools in Kansas are probably a few hours drive from any other school, making vouchers worthless. The remaining schools are generally high quality, though improvements are always possible.

This scheme, like the half-baked 65% scheme being pushed in Missouri, is a solution in search of a problem. What Kansas schools need is enough money to attract the best teachers and institutional stability to keep the great people already working in the schools. The evolution nonsense scares off talent, as do the constant attacks on the schools, the bickering over funding, political attacks on teachers and the institution of public education; all these factors make our teachers skeptical about staying and uninterested in coming to work here. I know this from talking to people who are seeking jobs out of state and who are not looking here.

If Bob Corkins and the Board want to better educate our students, they should work on settle down and figure out what isn't working for the WIchitan public, and how to handle the unique challenges of small, rural schools.