Florida high court kills school voucher program

Florida high court kills school voucher program
In a ruling expected to reverberate through battles over school choice in many states, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a voucher program for students attending failing schools, saying the state Constitution bars Florida from using taxpayer money to finance a private alternative to the public system.

Well, that's good, was my first reaction. Certainly not "a blow to educational reform" as Jeb Bush called the ruling. As long as it is not made into a separation of state and Church issue, it is good. The language of the ruling (as quoted by SF Chronicle) is slightly reminiscent of the Brown v. Board of Education and it certainly parallels some of its sentiments.

In its ruling, the Florida court cited an article in the state Constitution that says, "Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools."

The Opportunity Scholarship Program "violates this language," the court said. "It diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools that are the sole means set out in the Constitution for the state to provide for the education of Florida's children," the ruling said.

What this ruling recognizes, just like Brown did half a century ago, is that many of the stories we tell ourselves in conceptualizing education are not apt metaphors for what goes on when it is applied across the board. The problem is not using the metaphor itself but rather denying its partial nature. As many have pointed out, this is the problem with the market metaphor in general, and the school voucher idea as one of its most extreme instantiations is particularly vulnerable to this criticism (just as the 'separate but equal' doctrine was).

The metaphor in question basically relies on the 'choice and competition scenario' in which a dissatisfied customer seeks another vendor. Successful vendors are those who provide customers satisfaction by meeting their needs and learning from their mistakes. Those that do not, perish. This drives continuous improvement in services and as such is a process that needs to be encouraged. (The various competition and anti-monopoly laws are an expression of this scenario.) In the metaphor, schools are projected into the role of vendors and parents fit the role of customers. But the problem is that the scenario only presents a very limited picture of the world. Its most severe limitation is the fact that it relies on either the services provided not being essential or not having to conform to a uniform standard. It also (in some versions - see Lakoff's Moral Politics) sees failing vendors as guilty of a sin against their customers and views their failure not just as justified but as desirable, sometimes even as a form of punishment. It also assumes very simple consequences of the choice the customer makes (such as shopping across the street) and makes it axiomatic that all customers are able to make the choices with true regard to their needs. The choice is further seen as virtually automatic and common sense. All of these elements are contained in the scenario, although they are rarely brought up (hypostasized). :"(This scenario is in an interesting conflict with the 'economies of scale' model, which also contributes to its shortcomings for education.)":

But many areas of social and economic life do not conform to that scenario in many or some ways. Electrification, railways, telephony could not provide universal services without a certain amount of monopoly or a regulatory institution taking on some part of the monopoly. And these, despite their complexities, provide simple services. However, education conforms to even fewer of the requirements of this scenario. Partly, it is not alway clear (and the discourse reflects the confusion) who the customer really is. People readily switch between the parents, children, state or society in their conceptualizations. The same holds for the product: learning, knowledge, future employment, economic development, social cohesion, moral fibre of the community, all of these have been proposed.

This is why the school voucher application of the market metaphor in education is not apt. The school voucher application of this metaphor sees parents as the customers but assumes that they are all able to make the same decisions with unexpressed and insignificant consequences (the lie of this assumption has been repeatedly exposed in theory and practice). What is more significant, however, is its reduction of what the product of education is. In all the images and scenarios that are used in the debate, the key improvements are seen in school cleanliness, security, effectiveness of teachers, or possibly in the school's ability to get its graduates accepted by the next level institution. All the other possible mappings between product and function of education are either ignored or assumed to follow from this. That's why the shortcomings of the voucher program are not just practical but also conceptual (as the Florida court ruling seems to imply).

Note on the benefits of metaphoric analysis (or what I prefer to call 'conceptual discourse analysis': In many ways, I simply rephrased the many criticisms leveled against the school voucher idea over the years. And I want to stress, the fact that it relies on a metaphor is not what makes it wrong. But realizing the seductiveness of the metaphors involved might make the cirticism more targeted and help it (in as much as this is possible) avoid the same mistake, i.e. overextension of a partial metaphor. :"(And of course, all metaphors are partial, so that adjective was really unnecessary.)":

Note on the practical implications of education reform: Despite being critical of the vouche program, I am very skeptical of claims made for any reform of the educational system (including the negative ones). The causal assumptions made for them are usually highly metaphorical and imagistic and long-term deep change is hard to observe other than in some of the surface logistical aspects. In fact, I wonder if there has ever been a substantial change in education, in this deep sense. However, some of the logistical changes can cause a lot of economic and psycho social hardship to many people and it is therefore worthwhile investigating them in detail.