Facts and Frames

I think it was Talleyrand who said something along the lines of “language has been given to man to enable him to conceal his thoughts.” Nowhere is this observation more apt than in the debates over school voucher programs.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that many public systems are underperforming, and that people of good will are working on a variety of reforms intended to improve them. Reform is not a dirty word; it is also not a specific description. Some reforms show promise; others do not. Some are consistent with the democratic mission of public education; others are not.

Thus far, the scholarship evaluating voucher programs suggests that participating schools perform no better than public schools when you control for student population–that is, if the children in the public and private classrooms all have the same socio-economic characteristics, voucher schools do no better (and sometimes far worse) than their public counterparts. I should also note that despite careless rhetoric used by proponents and opponents of this or that reform, vouchers and charters are different animals. Charters–whatever their merits or problems–are public schools.

Indiana, under Mike Pence, has vastly expanded its voucher program, and the funds for that expansion have come at the expense of the state’s underfunded public schools. So it is understandable that members of local school boards have gotten “a bit testy,” as the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette put it.

Things have gotten a bit testy between several members of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Last week the foundation sent a new report extolling the virtues of vouchers via email to Mark GiaQuinta, president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board.

He responded with “more distortions and lies.”

The ensuing back-and-forth was not a model of civil discourse, but it certainly highlighted something that many of us who consider ourselves pro-reform but anti-voucher have long recognized: this is a fight to which people bring different weapons. Voucher proponents use framing (it is hardly an accident that the Friedman Foundation’s vice-president is a PR professional). Voucher opponents, by and large (and with some exceptions), counter with facts. 

Voucher proponents frame these programs as a means of getting poor children out of failing public schools and into private schools that will give them a better education. That may even be their sincere intent, but it is a frame, a proposition for which, thus far, there simply is no evidence. Quite the contrary; as the Brookings Institution reported a few days ago:

Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions.

Fort Wayne School Board members responded with several facts inconsistent with the “frame”:

  • A majority of children using vouchers in Allen County go to religious schools at taxpayer expense, raising troubling questions about family motivation and public oversight.
  • Fewer than 10% of Allen County children using vouchers ever attended public schools.
  • Three times more students left Fort Wayne Community Schools that had earned an “A” rating from the state than left “D” schools.

At its base, the voucher debate is an argument about democracy, and the role of public schools in creating a polity–an “us”–out of the diverse populations that make up our nation. As I have previously written, in an article titled Privatizing Education: The Liberal Democratic Idea, Constitutionalism, and the Politics of Vouchers,

Arguments about the education of the young are at least as old as Socrates. However, it is fair to suggest that the voucher debate that has erupted over the past few years is qualitatively different from many that have preceded it. Rather than arguing about whether public schools are deficient, and if so, in what respects; rather than debating the merits of one “reform” over another, the issue has become whether America should continue to support a system of free, publicly controlled schools or whether government’s educational role should be reduced to dispensing vouchers to families, enabling them to “buy” educational services in the marketplace. It is a classic political confrontation, engaging partisan strategies and implicating political ideologies.

And all too often, giving short shrift to facts and the actual consequences of ideologically motivated reforms.


  1. I am a member of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education (ICPE); are there any other organizations lobbying to save our public schools?

    In the 1970’s, Alan Watts stated, “Man is going to computerize himself out of existence.” This was a prophet comment. Will public school systems here “voucher themselves out of existence”? If Pence is reelected and Glenda Ritz is not; the answer to that question will be a resounding… YES!

  2. I don’t doubt Sheila’s desciption of the facts. However, I still do not understand all of the objections to vouchers. When we lived in Hamilton County and our sons were ready to attend high school, we chose a private school on the northside of Indianapolis over our local school. There was not the slightest question about whether our local school could offer the same academic opportuinties as the private school. We paid tuition to the private school and local taxes to support the inferior local school. We could afford it, but I can understand the frustration of others parents who wouldn’t have that choice.

  3. -Wm. Koss — Please tell us what Hamilton Co. school district you lived in. I’ve never heard of any school in that county being described as “inferior” and would like to know which ones they are. Thank you.

  4. I think that anyone who cares about the country would prioritize education near the top of any list of what we must excel at to maintain our leadership position in the world. We should never stop looking for innovative edges to improve how we accomplish the most essential gift from one generation to the next.

    If any degree of privatization demonstrated any superiority we should be working on mining it.

    That however hasn’t happened. The data seems to show that only if you carefully select high performing students exclusively can you reliably elevate outcomes but at great expense.

    Ok, now we have that knowledge. Time to move on.

    Education is like health care. Everyone who is medically or educationally below standard is a drag on everyone else. Nobody wins an exclusive arrangement. Freedom only comes when everybody is achieving everything that they are capable of both medically and educationally. A country with 20% PhDs and 80% illiterate will not be successful.

    We’ll always need to keep experimenting with ways that address the success of all students.

    Let’s keep trying and institute what shows the best results.

  5. SS, this was years ago and I’m sure a wider affluence in the county has generally lifted the quality of most public schools (not just Carmel). But at the time we lived there, not in Carmel, it was not the case, which was my point.

  6. If we continue to put people who distrust and dislike government into elected office, we will continue to get a decreasing level of excellence and service from our government entities, including our schools. Abandoning the schools by issuing vouchers does not make for a better educated electorate. It does, however, make for a malleable electorate that is easily deceived and apparently easily angered. For the nihilists, it’s a big win.

  7. While it seems that the religious right has used vouchers as a way to pay for their children to attend private parochial schools, I believe the real reason that the voucher program was started is an effort to eventually privatize education with the purpose being to take control of the curriculum. This will enable the libertarians to ultimately teach their views to students and create a country with their same beliefs about having little to no government.

  8. Let’s look beyond the controversy Sheila has identified in her piece today. The expression “Divide and Conquer” comes to mind when discussing the state of education in the country these days. We see it in other areas as well. The corporate would be conqueror first frames the issues in true Lakoffian fashion (aided by Pence and other lackeys), incessantly trashes the pubic endeavor (whether education, the post office, social security, or any other public endeavor where there is a pile of money and weak resistance to “reform”), and then, after softening up the resistance with their propaganda, march in and save the day on their white horses. I think the move to come up with various forms of “reform” is at base a corporate design to take over public education and the vast pile of taxpayer funds involved in supporting public (and private) education. Welcome to your new curricular designers – corporate boards- who will make ALEC look like liberals with their market worshiping 1984 brainwashing of hapless students – and all at taxpayer expense! Currently we are in the “trashing” phase of the corporate project to privatize virtually all public endeavors and need to do some Lakoffian framing of our own if we are to avoid total corporate control and morph into 19984 Smiths.

  9. Gerald,

    “……..need to do some Lakoffian framing of our own if we are to avoid total corporate control and morph into 1984 Smiths.


  10. Gerald, I hope you don’t mind if I use your comment (with credit) in sharing the article.

  11. Nancy,

    “While it seems that the religious right has used vouchers as a way to pay for their children to attend private parochial schools, I believe the real reason that the voucher program was started is an effort to eventually privatize education with the purpose being to take control of the curriculum. ”


  12. We can’t forget that every business adventure starts with the thought, how can I make more money regardless of the impact on others? There is no such entity as “business” only many businesses each separately following competitively that one dictum.

    Managing that highly motivated and innovative stream of consciousness requires a constant stream of regulation. So we have many minds pitted against each other continuously in a game where we the people are the stakes.

    Eyes in search of “make more money” naturally view us institutionalized as bigger targets than us as individuals.

    It follows naturally that education as critical as it is would be a major target.

    Once that connection is made what Gerald eloquently describes kicks in. What political capital must be raised to prevent regulation from limiting “make more money”?

    Of course an alternative to all of that is make more progress by having a positive impact on others.

    Some would say that’s not motivating enough. Bill Gates as an example would say that nothing’s more motivating.

    I suspect that both mindsets are required; they can be complementary, and that’s roughly where we have progressed to. But the “game” never ends.

  13. Greetings W. Koss , Did you receive any money from the state in form of a voucher to help pay the tuition at B? I’ll bet not. I do not think my school tax money or any of my tax money should pay for any schools except public schools.

  14. Both my wife and I attended church-affiliated schools from 1st grade through college. Our parents’ tax money paid for the public option that we didn’t use until graduate school. But it was never primarily about religion, mainly personal choices for what our families considered the best educational opportunities in our Indianapolis neighborhoods. And as long as the “public” (whoever that is) doesn’t provide quality options for all families, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that some people see the voucher system as a way out. Some of them might even see private and parochial schools, much like private charities, as meeting community needs that the tax-supported entities are unwilling or unable to meet. I don’t want my taxes to support anyone’s religion either. But, again, it’s not necessarily always about religion.

  15. I’m with S. Smith. When was Koss in Involved with Hamilton Cty schools, 1922?

  16. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the obviously intelligent, thinking, rational (for the most part), decision making people who are able to comprehend the conflicting media reports, read this blog and process the information to author comments, even those we disagree with, were educated in public schools.

  17. Speaking as a 30-year K-12 professional educator with active and valid teaching licenses in four separate states, I’m not particularly impressed with the current school reform movement especially as it’s unfolded here in Indiana and more precisely in the Indianapolis Public Schools.

    In professional education circles across our country, Indianapolis is known as the charter school epicenter and the primary incubator of school reform for the U.S. Beginning back in 2001, Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (D) convinced the Indiana legislature under then Gov. Frank O’Bannon (D) to approve a law making Indianapolis the first U.S. city where the Mayor has the ability to authorize charter schools, which are public schools that are independent of school districts and therefore have more freedom and autonomy to make key decisions at the school level. Evidently this was such a grand idea among politicians that the following Gov. Joe Kernan (D), Mitch Daniels (R), and now Mike Pence (R) have continued to support charter schools.

    As with most government supported innovative ideas, it’s only a matter of time until the ‘for profit’ education management companies arrive in town. I resent the hell out of any ‘for profit’ corporation making money off the backs of poor inner-city students. In fact, I resent the ‘for profit’ education management companies more than the idea of some parochial schools receiving voucher money.

  18. Girl. I know what he said. Did you read my entire response. Or maybe my full answer didn’t reach Sweden or Switzerland or wherever

  19. About a year ago, I was called by the Friedman Fdn. with a survey. It was on a land line, so I’m sure most responders agreed with them, but the lady asking the questions got an earful of research data that I’m certain disagreed with the group. She sounded absolutely shocked with actual data, not the usual right wing talking points.

    Some people actually listen to facts and are stunned. Unfortunately there are lots of folks who don’t need data when you have ideology. And it’s tragic when those people make the laws.

  20. Paul – Feel free to use my commentary with or without credit. We are on the verge of being swallowed up into the corporate maw, and publicly funded endeavors are just the low-hanging fruit. Higher fruit is still on the list of corporate ingestion. We need to get the word out by reframing the issues and arguing from there in true Lakoffian fashion.

  21. http://neatoday.org/2013/04/25/a-nation-at-risk-turns-30-where-did-it-take-us-2/


    These articles refer to a famous (in-famous…) report on the state of education in the United States in 1983. Googling “A nation at risk” will call up the original item. I bring this controversy into this discussion because, for me, this report commissioned by Reagan was the first giant leap down the path currently followed in regard to public education. The citations above lay out some of the political context for the original report and trace their effects into the present. Anyone interested in these issues should also be aware of the Sandia Report (noted in the 2nd item above, I think) which debunks much of the data in the original. There is also the controversial “The Manufactured Crisis” by David Berlinner and Bruce Biddle, which mounts a cogent, but contested, critique of the original.

    In the same time frame, there was a constant refrain from one side of the issue: “You can’t fix schools by throwing money at them…” Try Jonathan Kozol, “Savage Inequalities” for a different take on that sort of ugly, maddening, nonsense.

    All of this referencing is to add weight (if it were needed, not) to Sheila’s points (which some of you have also been underlining). I have thought for a long time that the “at risk” report and other “conservative” critiques of public education were veiled or outright attacks on the public benefit of public ed, as well as attempts to reverse the effects of Brown v. The Board, for which one solution was private schools for the children of people who believe they are white. Other ‘framing’ techniques, such as false equivalence are also in evidence. In my mind, much of this attack stems from a business or corporate and quite Ayn Randish sort of mind-set, all very racist.

    This is another area in which the smallest action (pay attention to and vote in your school board elections) can make a big difference, plus (getting larger) pay attention to and vote in more local elections at every point and at every level!

    I guess that in this post I am advocating for self education about the real issues, not those filtered only through political lenses, and personal action based on that refreshed knowledge – in addition to adding my mite to support for public education – a benefit of as well as a support for democracy.

    You all are the choir, true, but maybe some of this can be useful amunition in your own arenas! Thank you for your alert awareness!

  22. You might feel better about vouchers if you thought of them as a type of reform. As you mention, some reforms work and some don’t. However, the argument about vouchers drawing funds away from public schools and isn’t that awful falls flat when you look at NYC, WDC, and Baltimore, whose public educational systems are failing while they represent some of the most expensive public ed systems in the world. The Dems are all in for keeping minorities in failing and dangerous public schools to protect teachers unions. I’d rather give these families a choice, which the majority of them want.

  23. Rick your argument falls flat. School systems such Boston and NYC are struggling with funding issues because of Charter achools. Regardless of the source of the cuts in budgets, nothing will “reform” education until the politicians that control the money accept the fact that poverty has an impact on educational progress.

  24. Rick: “NYC, WDC, and Baltimore, whose public educational systems are failing:

    What evidence of this can you offer? Don’t forget to account for the consequence of other variables like poverty.

    I personally agree, coming from the state with the highest paid teachers in the country, that paying teachers more doesn’t necessarily lead to better education, but that’s only one way to try for a return on more investment.

    To me the teacher improvement opportunity which nobody that I know has fully mined is in the hiring and rewarding of better teachers and the firing of the sub standard. I think that we may be stuck where we are until we can achieve that breakthrough.

    Of course we also need more effective parenting and that in itself is an education issue but also a cultural consequence of poverty. Of course poverty is also an education issue.

    We need to break out of the stagnation and get the pedal to the metal on improvement because being ordinary in education just will not cut it in the coming world.

  25. I have been in public education for 28 years and as an art teacher, I have always been at the top of the list to be “riffed” when budgets were cut. So I take this voucher stuff personally. Not just because it impacts me, but vouchers take art classes away from elementary schools and vouchers make schools not replace teachers when one leaves, which makes classes bigger. Vouchers mean there won’t be enough money for field trips and real librarians in the schools.

    Public schools have to take every and any kid that shows up at their door, no matter what color their skin is, no matter what language they speak, and no matter how difficult they might be to educate. Vouchers go to schools that discriminate and select only the types of students that meet their criteria.

    Vouchers are just wrong and the only way to put an end to them is to put people like Pence and in particular Rep. Bob Behning out of office.

  26. “I’d rather give these families a choice, which the majority of them want.”

    You want to give them a choice between a publically owned building and a privately owned one? Why do you think that should be a choice for them, it’s inconsequential.

  27. The good and bad of public schools is that they are required by their charters to do what society has to – deal with everybody, warts and all. They can’t, and neither can we, throw people away because they don’t meet our expectations. Why? Because that makes them an even bigger problems. Public schools have the uneviable job of making do with out of spec people, like police officers do.

    That’s also the main reason why teaching is hard to evaluate though it’s necessary to.

    One of the reasons it’s necessary to is to match students with teachers who are best suited for dealing with the lives that the students find themselves living in.

    Most of us oversimplify the jobs of others but they’re all hard but in different ways. Life is not supposed to be easy even though we have it easier now than virtually all of our predecessors.

    Conservatives love to simplify things by assuming that if you ignore problem people and just deal with motivated people the problems will reform themselves. Pretty unrealistic.

  28. Remember this…one point…the single very poor parent, working long hours with VERY little flexibility, somehow has received reliable information and known or been able to discover the implications of putting her child(ren) in a charter school. The competitive acceptance process and wait-listing are survived and this move is made. How does he provide reliable transport to the new school, which is out of his neighborhood and to which there is no busing. Please do not assume that every choice is a legitimate option…

  29. Nancy and Marv, yes. The Kochs and right wing machine have their tentacles in State business…not only for control, but for profiting the 1%. Witness our infrastructure, our water, our streets. Pubic schools have degraded enough to provoke alarm. But what can we do?

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