Steven Den Beste wrote a great item on education and school vouchers yesterday. The way that schools are run right now is pretty broken, but school vouchers are not guaranteed to help, and he’s certainly right in saying that allowing “market economics” or whatever to work its magic on the school system isn’t going to suddenly make everything OK.

The new breed of school incentive systems that President Bush loves is doomed to failure, for the blunt reason that Den Beste offers — some kids just don’t have the same potential that others do. The other stupid thing is that schools (at least in North Carolina) are graded on improvement. So if you have 95% of your students reading at grade level one year, and 95% of your students reading at grade level again the next year, you are evaluated poorly because you didn’t make things better. A rotten school that has 50% of students reading at grade level in year one and 70% reading at grade level in year two is evaluated incredibly well because of the amazing improvement. There’s no facility for saying that schools have simply maxed out. Thus we see students who are average to above average being sent to remedial programs in hopes of improving their scores so that the school’s average scores will go up and teachers can all get their raises.

The best and worst thing about the public school system is that they have to educate everybody. So dumb students, psychotic students, ill behaved students, and criminals all get the same opportunity to learn that promising, hard working students get. I worry about what happens when the promising students in struggling schools are all off at some voucher-subsidized school and the teachers at the struggling school are left with everyone whose parents don’t care or who don’t want to learn. I don’t have any data on this, but I would imagine that at tough schools, burnout among teachers will progress more rapidly if the students that make the classes worth teaching are no longer there.