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Give Politico some credit for writing about something other than the partial government shutdown and impending debt ceiling crisis. But its new piece on school vouchers creates an incomplete picture about the efficacy of school choice. Here is reporter Stephanie Simon’s nut graph:
Taxpayers across the U.S. will soon be spending $1 billion a year to help families pay private school tuition — and there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.
I asked AEI’s Michael McShane to help me give a more complete picture than the one Simon painted. A few observations from McShane:
1. There is almost no discussion of cost in the piece. Getting the same results (or slightly better) at around half the cost—the level at which most voucher programs are funded— is a big deal.
2. I don’t know what advocates only talk about two studies (DC and NYC) when making the case for private school choice. Advocates (like the Friedman Foundation) generally like to say that 12 out of 13 gold-standard, randomized studies have found positive academic results for some or all students participating. Now, the gains haven’t been huge, but the pattern has been consistent.
3. The recurring trope that “voucher schools don’t participate in accountability programs” is curious on two counts. First, the three largest programs (Milwaukee, Indiana, and Louisiana) all have schools participate in accountability systems. Schools can lose the ability to accept voucher students for poor performance. Second, many of these same folks decry the fact that accountability systems are “inaccurate” or “unfair” and yet say that voucher schools should have to participate in them. If they’re bad, try and get schools out of them, not put more in.
4. There is lots of other research on civic outcomes like voting, voluntarism, and tolerance, and all of it shows positive results for students participating in voucher programs, as well as rigorous studies of the results of voucher programs on students left behind in public schools. Totally not mentioned in the piece.
Many veterans of education reform are dubious that any one amazing idea will “fix” US education. Certainly school choice has not shown itself to be a magic bullet. So should reformers give up on trying to inject market forces into the education system? Not at all. While current school choice programs have enabled more kids to find slots in existing schools, McShane has previously written, they have done a poor jobs at encouraging a) good schools to expand or b) the creation of new high-quality schools. It’s tough to have creative destruction when there is no creation. McShane:
Private-school choice will drive positive change only when it creates high-quality private schools within urban communities. New schools and school models need to be incubated, funding needs to follow students in a way that allows for non-traditional providers to play a role, new pathways into classrooms for private-school teachers and leaders need to be created, and high-quality school models need to be encouraged and supported while they scale up. In short, policymakers, private philanthropy, and school leaders need to get serious about what’s necessary to make the market work.
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