Monroe Street, Brooklyn — During the 2010 election cycle, President Obama and Democrats received a thumping at polls. At the time, the media attributed this to the rise of the Tea Party. It was believed that the Tea Party was a group of disaffected Americans, who took to the streets to support politicians who stood for liberty and freedom. Of course, later research revealed that the Tea Party movement was a repacked version of same old Republican constituency. It was the same folks who had always voted reliably Republican, and held hard right views, under a new name. Think Kentucky Fried Chicken, becoming ‘KFC’.

Flash forward two years, and what are the Tea Partiers up to? What else would they be doing but reaching for recycled new ideas like school vouchers. We last saw Republicans pushing vouchers around the time W. was cutting taxes, clearing brush, and ignoring poorly wordedintelligence briefings.

Today we find Tea Party darling, Texas State Senator Dan Patrick, bringing vouchers back from the dead:

But as the upper chamber convenes in January, vastly changed in personality, if not politics, Mr. Patrick, the founder of the Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus, has picked what some may consider an unlikely second act: crusader for public schools.“If there’s one message that I want to send, it’s that I want to champion public education,” said Mr. Patrick, the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee…Through his chairmanship and a new alliance with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Mr. Patrick has the powerful platform he once lacked. His ambitions are pinned on expanding school choice in the state’s public education system. His plan is expected to include vouchers for private schools, a policy previously opposed by every major education association in the state and by many people in his own party.“When people attack me on vouchers, I look at the word ‘voucher’ as some people see it like I look at a rotary telephone. It’s outdated,” he said. “When we talk about choice today, it’s the choice to choose schools within a district, potentially across district lines. It’s charter schools. It’s virtual schools. It’s online learning. It’s the secular and religious schools in the private sector.”

Please take note of the snake oil currently dripping from Sen. Patrick’s palms.


There is nothing in Sen. Patrick’s description of his proposal that differs from vouchers programs of yore, except perhaps “virtual schools.” I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my friend Anthony a few weeks back. Anthony, who fancies himself a libertarian, argued that vouchers were the “only” way to fix education in this country. I imagine that Sen. Patrick shares a similar belief.

The problem with vouchers is not that they are a fancy way of privatizing education; it’s that I can’t imagine voucher advocates have thought very deeply about the words coming out their mouths. Here we have Sen. Patrick, who is presumably a lover of free markets and a self styled education policy wonk, failing to connect basic ideas about markets. Let’s take a step back. Voucher supporters, and others who want to inject choice into the education system, believe that failing schools exist because there isn’t enough competition in the market. Because public schools and those damned unionized teachers have a de facto monopoly on schooling, there is no motive for them to innovate or improve current educational outcomes. Let’s ignore the fact that this argument is poppy cock and accept it as is. Voucher advocates argue that if families were given the option of taking the public dollars attached to their child to any school–public, charter, private, parochial, or virtual– only the best schools would survive. Schools that suck would be forced to improve or lose students en masse while quality schools’ populations would swell. Eventually, the argument goes, the supply of good schools would equal the demand for quality education.

This sounds nice, particularly to those who managed to attend the first two weeks on Econ 101. But for those of us who made it through the entire semester, or maybe even worked in an actual school, this is quite a fantastical idea to latch on to. What we learned during the rest of the semester, is that often, markets don’t always function as we imagine they do. Moving to a voucher systems ignores the significant supply side constraints in this particular market. It’s these supply side constraints that those of us who think seriously about education reform are concerned with. Assuming that every family had a voucher, there simply aren’t enough quality schools in existence today to meet the demand. Why aren’t there enough quality schools? Well because there simply aren’t enough quality teachers, facilities, or school leaders to go around. Moving to a voucher system wouldn’t change this. If all of the students currently attending “bad” schools were to up and leave, where exactly would they go? How many physical seats are available at NYC’s best schools? And how would those school communities feel about dozens of black and brown kids from the city’s most impoverished sectors sitting next to their children… All. Day. Long. I think we know how that works out for those kids.

Now you might say that this would lead to new innovative schools opening to meet the demand. However, creating enough quality schools to meet demand, isn’t like replicating McDonalds to meet demand for McFlurries. We’d have to ask where would the people seeking to jump into this new exciting education market find teachers? My guess is the same place the rest of us have been finding teachers– grad schools, and alternative certification programs. There just isn’t some untapped cadre of quality teachers waiting to find their way into schools. Moreover, because of charter schools, and cities like New York undertaking small school initiatives, parents have a fair amount of choice. None of this has drastically changed educational outcomes. That’s because the supply side of this market is complex, and hard to get right. Making a classroom or even an entire school work, is difficult, despite what some might have you think. And therefore, you cannot radically improve education by making it a more “perfect” market.

My advice to Sen. Patrick and other voucher proponents is to go back and think more deeply about the qualities of functioning markets. I’m sure they've got an Econ text book around somewhere. If not, I recommend this one. In the meantime, I wonder what other Republican ideas Tea Partiers will bring back from the dead. Hhmm, maybe a mandate to buy health insurance?