Jarvis DeBerry Vouches For The Educational Status Quo

Louisiana ranks 49th in public-school education outcomes despite spending $10,533 per student (according to the U.S. Census using 2009 figures), a number placing the state 21st among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, just above the national average of $10,499 and ahead of every Southern state outside of Virginia.

Louisiana’s voters overwhelmingly voted a governor back into office who had been making noises about major change in the state’s educational delivery system last fall, and to go with his re-election Louisianans overturned the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in favor of aggressive reform to the system. Voters – with a great deal of help from the legislators themselves – also granted the governor a legislature with Republican majorities in favor of reforms in both houses at the State Capitol.

The above facts send a rather clear message most people in this state understand quite well. Namely, that the current system has been adequately funded but is quite obviously failing, and the public is ready for significant, even transformative change.

Moreover, where change has been instituted – namely, Orleans Parish – results have been significant and impressive. Test scores in New Orleans’ charter-heavy public school system are on a rapid rise, and an overwhelming percentage of parents hold favorable opinions of both the charters and the state’s pilot “opportunity scholarship” program at work in the city.

So nothing in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform package, including his proposal to expand the opportunity scholarship program out of New Orleans and into every parish in the state where local public schools score C, D or F in Louisiana’s new School Performance Scores system, should be much of a surprise.

But New Orleans Times-Picayune’s editorial page writer Jarvis DeBerry has taken in all of the above and spewed forth a torrent of nonsense in defense of the current failed system. DeBerry’s main complaint about school vouchers: because you can’t show that every private school is better than every public school, there is no fact-based argument for giving parents the opportunity to spend the state’s education dollar where they believe is best for their children.

It’s a long-winded reprise of Louisiana Association of Educators executive director Michael Walker-Jones’ statement that poor people have “no clue” about what schools are best.

The piece begins with DeBerry hacking away at a straw man…

I attended public schools. Therefore, my support for them comes naturally. I believe it is in everybody’s best interest, up to and including the government itself, to have a well educated citizenry. We could list all the reasons why, but how about instead, we look around us and acknowledge the multiple ways society falls apart when the schools are generally awful, all the ways we suffer when most of a population is thrust into adulthood without an education they can put to use.

No kidding. If it wasn’t important to have a well-educated citizenry, Louisiana wouldn’t be spending the better part of $11,000 per year per child on public education. And if it wasn’t important to have a well-educated citizenry Jindal and the proponents of reform wouldn’t bother trying to change the system.

That DeBerry, who grew up in Holly Springs, Mississippi, went to public schools (he attended college at Washington University in St. Louis, though, which is a private institution) is frankly immaterial to his argument other than to show his bias. He goes further, however…

But it was in public schools that I was fashioned into an empiricist. It was there that I learned to set aside my passions, look at data unflinchingly. Consequently, if you can show me that a child has a better chance of acquiring a good education via vouchers at a private or parochial school, I won’t let my personal history blind me to your facts.

But there’s the rub. You need to show me those facts. Heretofore, proponents of vouchers, Gov. Bobby Jindal among them, have made faith-based arguments for faith-based schools. We are asked to accept it as truth that schools that are privately funded are by their very nature better than publicly funded campuses.

The facts are denoted above. Louisiana is wasting a sensational amount of money on bad public schools, and the electorate has resoundingly declared “No more.” That means DeBerry, who says he can set aside his passions and base an opinion on empirical data, is ignoring the fact that public support for the status quo is no longer a majority proposition.

But DeBerry loses perspective completely with the argument as he frames it. He demands proof that private schools are better than public schools in order to accept the concept of education vouchers, as though somehow the success of such a system depends on his being convinced it’s a good idea.

It does not.

The whole purpose of a voucher system is not to improve the education of every child on a wholesale basis. The purpose of vouchers is to empower parents to improve the education of their children on a retail, or individual, basis. What DeBerry is asking is for every parent to prove to him that a private school would be better for her child than a public school, and that is a dreadfully misguided demand. Vouchers make no such demand; vouchers offer parents the freedom to pursue whatever educational opportunity the market might provide, whether those opportunities would include traditional public schools, charters, private or parochial schools or even non-traditional educational methods like home schooling. A voucher system disregards a view of education in the aggregate and focuses it on the individual, where it belongs.

He dives deeper into the intellectual muck next…

Let’s begin with the thought that it’s doubtful that every school in a certain category will prove better than every school in another. Some public schools are better than other public schools. Some private schools are better than other private schools. Put them all together and it’s unlikely that all private schools would prove better than all public ones. It might sound good as ideology, but most things in life don’t line up so neatly.

It might shock DeBerry, who has no experience with private education in New Orleans, to learn what most natives of the city have known for decades – namely, that the Big Easy’s private and parochial schools have almost constantly outperformed its public schools. And he presents the ultimate straw man argument, suggesting that if there is one public school which outperforms a private school the voucher argument falls apart.

And then DeBerry carries water for the establishment by trotting out what it seems to think is its best argument against vouchers…

But even if we move away from general categorizations and begin comparing individual campuses, it should be fairly easy to demonstrate if one school is better than another. Put their students to the test. If testing is a reliable way to assess the performance of public schools — and we’ve been told for years that it is — testing ought to be considered just as reliable in assessing the performance of private schools seeking public funds.

For years, though, some private and parochial school leaders have resisted the idea of testing, even as they’ve lobbied for vouchers. Will they consent to testing this year, or will our governor insist that their schools be granted public funds without ever having to prove that they’re worthy of them?

It was in a religious setting that many were admonished to be good stewards of money. It’s good public policy, too. You would think, then, that holding private schools accountable to the same standards as public schools would win universal support. But experience has shown otherwise.

Private and parochial schools have lots of reasons to resist one-size-fits-all testing as designed by the public-school establishment, in the knowledge that by doing so they’re inserting their heads into the proverbial lion’s mouth. Again, though, DeBerry is missing the point of vouchers. Vouchers aren’t intended to fund private schools. Vouchers are intended to fund parents. A voucher represents a decision to make a parent the state agent in charge of educating children in said parent’s household. So the argument which says that we have to test private schools in order to make sure government money is being spent properly there is a swing and a miss – it bypasses the decision-making authority of the parent who has been appointed to choose the right school for his or her child.

This would seem to fly right over DeBerry’s head, but in fact it doesn’t.

The pro-voucher argument hangs tenuously on this point: Parents are reaching into their pockets to send their children to private schools; ergo, the quality of the education there must be better. Parents, Jindal said last week, “are the best accountability system we have.

It’s a seductive argument, but it has its flaws, the biggest of which is the assumption that we all spend our money rationally. We don’t. But even if all our spending were rational, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that private schools provide better schooling than public ones. Some parents like such schools for the religious instruction, for the athletic programs or for the status that comes with being able to say they have a child in private school. But none of those things has anything to do with the quality of the educational product.

That isn’t the pro-voucher argument at all. The pro-voucher argument is that parents can do a better job choosing schools for their kids than educrats can, and parents generally will not accept a poor product for long when they’re in charge of whether to continue buying it or not.

That the schools in Louisiana widely regarded as the best from an academic standpoint – Newman, Jesuit, Sacred Heart, Episcopal, Country Day, St. Martin’s, Catholic High in Baton Rouge, St. Joseph’s Academy and several others – are nearly all private schools isn’t an accident. Those schools are the product of a competitive market, just like Apple Computers, ExxonMobil, Verizon and Mercedes-Benz, they’ve earned their prominent place on the scene by supplying a superior product for an extended period of time.

DeBerry refuses to accept this truth, and doubles down with a surprisingly foolish statement to the effect that religious instruction has nothing to do with the quality of the educational product. Most religious people would find such a statement patently offensive, as they consider the moral teachings inherent in religion to be essential to a quality education and would point to the lack thereof in our state’s public schools as a major factor in our having to incarcerate a world’s-worst one adult in 55.

But it’s worth pausing to consider the strange argument that because people don’t always spend money rationally (as DeBerry apparently defines it), it’s necessary for the government to spend it for them.

Let’s remember that the government DeBerry suggests is better-suited than the parents are for rational expenditures currently stares a $900 million deficit in the face, and the government in question has generated a ranking of No. 49 in educational outcomes with a No. 21 spending figure. How rational is that?

And then the big finish…

If public money is going to be diverted toward those campuses, it needs to be because there’s a better education to be had there, and if there’s a better education to be had there, it should be fairly simple to prove.

I support public schools, but not to the extent that I believe that any students should be confined to the bad ones just to keep those campuses alive. If there are ways to get a bigger return on the dollar, let’s explore those options. Let’s consider vouchers to private schools.

But don’t just tell me they’re better. Make like I’m from Missouri. Show me.

DeBerry doesn’t understand anything about the subject of his latest column. He dismisses the concept of parental choice out of hand by saying people can’t be depended on to make rational decisions, demands an immaculate factual showing that private schools are better than public schools when what facts we do have indicate public schools can hardly perform worse in the aggregate, then attempts to camouflage his arguments by saying he’s open to the idea of vouchers but somebody needs to sell him on them.

The response? Why bother? DeBerry has made it clear he’s not interested in Jindal’s plan. He’s merely putting on a thin cloak of objectivity while throwing rocks at school vouchers. In this he’s out of touch with his readership and reality.

And like Walker-Jones, he foolishly hints that the laws of economics don’t apply to poor people, or education.

If the defenders of the status quo can’t present any better arguments than these, it’s time for them to stand aside and let the reformers have their shot at improving Louisiana’s educational outcomes.

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