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Yesterday, Politico ran a story on school vouchers headlined “Vouchers Don’t Do Much for Students,” and that was probably the most pro-voucher line in the piece. The story notes low rates of proficiency among voucher students in places like Milwaukee and Louisiana, implies that losing voucher dollars stops school districts from improving, and points out that Gallup finds 70 percent of respondents are now opposed to vouchers. Meanwhile, the strongest substantive defense of vouchers that Politico saw fit to print was Brookings Institution scholar Matt Chingos’s lukewarm assertion that “there’s no evidence that people are being harmed” by them.
When it comes to making sense of an article like this, there are at least four points worth keeping in mind.
One, the evidence for the benefits of vouchers is stronger than the article suggests, even if it’s curiously absent. As nine researchers and policy wonks (including yours truly) noted last year in a joint commentary for Education Week:
Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. None of these studies has found a negative impact. . . . Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive.
Two, the article reflects an utter lack of interest in how markets work. The point of markets is not to promise miracle cures, but to enable smart problem-solvers to do better, and to improve and expand over time. Unfortunately, truth be told, for two decades, choice advocates have alternately emphasized feel-good anecdotes and evaluation results, while devoting remarkably little attention to what it takes for vibrant markets to take shape in a government-dominated sector. It’s no surprise that many choice schools are mediocre, given the dearth of incentives for good schools to emerge or expand and the number of bottlenecks and impediments good schools face. It’s vital to do much more to understand and address these dynamics. Happily, on this score, things are looking up. In one promising development, my AEI colleague Mike McShane is heading up an intensive effort to determine what it will take to turbocharge the “supply side” response to Louisiana’s and Indiana’s voucher programs.
Three, the article made much of the fact that private school-choice programs now spend one billion dollars a year to send students to private schools. When a school-choice critic quotes this figure to you, note that we spend north of $600 billion a year on K–12 schooling in the U.S., including tens of billions on employee health care and retirement benefits. One billion a year amounts to less than one-fifth of one percent of K–12 spending.
Four, the article raises legitimate questions of double standards on the part of choice proponents. The story notes that voucher advocates offer high rates of parental satisfaction with private alternatives as evidence that these programs are beneficial, but that they have sometimes simultaneously dismissed parental satisfaction with public schools as irrelevant or misinformed. Similarly, the article uses low “proficiency” rates to question the benefits of vouchers. Given that voucher students tend to be poor and in troubled public schools (which is why they want to change), the right metric is not their level of proficiency but how much they’re learning each year. Unfortunately, voucher proponents have used the proficiency critique to blast public schools serving poor students, making it hard for them to complain that the same standard is applied to them.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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