Mary Landrieu’s ‘Peak Education’ Economic Illiteracy

We could do another post on the idiocy of the state’s teacher unions in their opposition to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform package, and we could do something on Jindal’s counterbarrage calling for Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators, to resign after the latter suggested poor people aren’t capable of picking schools for their kids.

But when we found this, it just jumped out as blog material.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu sought to pour some cold water on one of the central proposals in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform agenda Monday, using state data to show a huge gap between the number of students who would technically qualify for the governor’s proposed private school voucher program and the number of seats that may actually exist in the state’s private schools.Under Jindal’s plan, about 380,000 students would qualify to receive state aid for tuition at a private or religious school, Landrieu pointed out.

But even if every private school in the state could immediately grow their enrollment by 10 percent to accommodate an influx of voucher recipients, there would only be about 8,000 seats available. She based her estimate on figures from the state Department of Education that show about 80,000 private school students in Louisiana overall.

Vouchers, Landrieu said, “cannot be the centerpiece of our reforms based on the reality of these numbers.”

Landrieu, it should be pointed out, isn’t actually all that bad on education. She’s more or less a fan of charter schools,  for example, and she’s been supportive of Jindal’s call for urgency in school reform.

But the voucher criticism as expressed today is just painfully stupid.

Does Landrieu really believe that when the state issues school vouchers covering the cost, essentially, of public school – which is somewhere between $10,500 and $13,000 per student per year, depending on your source – that there won’t be an increase in the supply of spots in private schools? Particularly when those vouchers are available to some 380,000 students?

The point is to create a market for education. The point is to incentivize entrepreneurs in the educational field to get into that market and try all kinds of things which might well work better than the crappy public schools those 380,000 kids are stuck in. And the point is that the parents of those kids in those crappy schools, rather than politicians, would get to make the decision where those kids and the tuition dollars which follow them go – once the politicians have proven themselves to be failures in operating public schools.

Because that’s where the voucher program kicks in. It applies to kids in schools which score C, D or F, and that’s a bit more than half of the state’s 700,000 K-12 kids. If your school stinks, Jindal wants to give you a chance to try a private school.

In all likelihood that doesn’t mean Newman, St. Martin’s, Country Day or Episcopal. It means Catholic school, since Catholic schools are a lot cheaper per student than public schools are.

But when there’s no more room at the current private-school inn, guess what happens?

Somebody comes along and builds more private schools. That’s called the marketplace.

Let’s say they build an interstate exit out in the sticks. Invariably, somebody will build a gas station there. And inevitably, that gas station will get pretty busy pretty quickly. Maybe even so busy that folks will sometimes be stuck lining up for gas there.

Guess what happens in no time…

Another gas station.

This plays out the same way with fast food restaurants, with bars, with theme parks (feel free to count how many they’ve got in Orlando now since Disney built the first one there) and lots of other kinds of business establishments.

Does anybody really think the marketplace will operate differently somehow where schools are involved?

Of course not. The minute Jindal’s voucher program goes statewide America’s entrepreneurial class will descend on Louisiana armed with every possible business model in an effort to land those 380,000 kids and their parents as clients. Because doing it better, cheaper means the potential for profit and success in any business.

The majority of the charter schools currently in Louisiana are non-profits, and charters go through the government – whether local school boards, or, increasingly in the current political landscape, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. And that responsible government agency can pull a charter if they don’t think the methods or results are worthy of taxpayer dollars.

Which is a perfectly fine idea and in New Orleans it works like a charm. After Hurricane Katrina the school system was largely dissolved and better than 70 percent of the public school kids in the city now attend charters. Now, after six years of building a charter school-based market there, two-thirds of the folks agree that the schools are better than they were before the storm.

But vouchers go even further than that.

Because  with vouchers, there are no politicians around to pull the plug and there is no board to grant a charter, or not. With vouchers the final arbiter is the consumer. Nobody wants to go to a bad school.

The voucher program in New Orleans, limited though it might be, is even more popular than the charter schools are. This came out on Thursday

The Louisiana Federation for Children today praised newly-released results of a recent parental satisfaction survey showing overwhelmingly high satisfaction rates from parents with children participating in the New Orleans voucher program.

The survey, conducted by direct mail in December 2011 by the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), reported an overwhelming satisfaction rate – 93.4 percent – among parents with children in the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence program, which allows qualifying families to send their children to participating private schools of their choice. The percentage includes those parents who reported being “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their child’s school.

Why are they satisfied? Because they directly picked their school. It’s not rocket science; it’s the market at work.

There is no better way to insure quality of service than competition among suppliers of that service. The voucher program makes a growth industry out of education in Louisiana thanks to the creation of a sizable market from what is essentially thin air.

It’s pretty simple for most of us. Open up a significant demand, and you’ll see a significant increase in supply. Basic economics.

But Mary Landrieu has practically zero private-sector experience. She got elected to the state legislature in 1980, when she was 25, and she’s been an elected official since. So it’s no surprise that Mary Landrieu can’t envision education becoming a service industry like insurance or medicine or IT or staffing or food service; she has zero frame of reference to see something like that.

And because she has zero frame of reference, she offers up something akin to the Peak Oil prophecies of the 1960’s and 1970’s applied to education. We’ll never have enough private school spots to cover the kids who want them, so a voucher plan won’t work. We’ll never have them because there’s a finite amount of classroom space in Louisiana. We just can’t kill dinosaurs fast enough to train private-school teachers or build schoolhouses, you see. Or something like that.

This is stupidity. It’s breathtakingly vapid to come out of the mouth of a U.S. Senator. But it’s what we have, and it’s emblematic of why our schools are what they are.

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