The Vagaries of Vouchers

05/25/2011 12:35 pm ET
  • Gerald Bracey Fellow at the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University

What is with the Washington Post? On June 17, 2008, it runs an article summarizing a report that contends the Washington, D. C. voucher program doesn't work. On June 24, it runs an editorial begging Congress not to kill the program.

Those wishing to eliminate the program did have the wrong reasoning: they claimed it drained money from public schools. Not so, says the post. It comes a "generous federal allocation." Well, as Jack Benny might say, that makes all the difference.

The money comes from all of us via voucher-mad George W. Bush. Bush put vouchers into the original version of NCLB. When vouchers got excised and stayed out despite six separate efforts by Ohio's John Boehner, Bush rolled out a voucher proposal for six cities. Congress wasn't buying that, either. So Bush proposed a program for DC only. Congress said no to that on three occasions. Even getting Dianne Feinstein to play both Benedict Arnold and hypocrite didn't work (she changed her vote and, speaking out of the other side of her mouth, said she would never vote for vouchers for Californians). Finally, Bush operatives got the voucher proposal attached to an omnibus budget bill worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Dems realized that if they voted against that, the government would shut down, and with the fate of Newt Gingrich much in mind, they held their collective nose and voted the program in.

In the Post article, voucher advocates claimed that Democrats should not deny poor families the kinds of choices available "to the well-to-do." This is absurd. The vouchers are worth $7500 and are used in what are at best marginally better schools, a little over half of them church-affiliated. The "choices available to the well-to-do" in the District charge $20-30K a year tuition. Alternatively, Washington's poor cannot move to a well-to-do Northwest neighborhood, or the counties of Fairfax or Montgomery. Ha.

The study was conducted by people at various universities and research organizations that depend on federal funds. After 2 years of the program, they found no differences between kids with vouchers and a matched group in the DC public schools. Nor was there any significant impact for kids who were the top priority to get vouchers, those from schools that NCLB had already labeled as Schools in Need of Improvement.

Parents of voucher kids were less likely to report serious concerns about school danger. Note, they're reporting "concerns." There is no objective measure in the study of violent incidents. The voucher and control kids don't report any differences in "dangerous activities" (the report's term). In addition, parents of voucher kids were more satisfied with the schools than were parents of kids in public schools, but, again, the two groups of students did not differ in their levels of satisfaction.

The Washington Scholarship Fund that runs the program predicts gains next year, claiming it took three years for gains to show up in Milwaukee. I don't recall the third year results, but do recall that after 5 years, the official evaluation by John Witte found no differences and Paul Peterson found differences favoring vouchers, as always. Cecilia Rouse found a math difference favoring vouchers, but no difference in reading (these differing results on the same data are possible because different models of statistical analysis make different assumptions about data treatment). Rouse also felt, however, that the advantage had nothing to do with vouchers, but with the small classes the voucher kids attended. We shall see.

Of course, the advocates' arguments have changed over time. Vouchers, it was said initially, would increase the achievement of kids using them and also increase the achievement of public schools because competition would end the state's monopoly. Neither of these has happened so now the argument is that choice, in and of itself, is sufficient.

In arguing for continuation of the program, the Post asked, "Which members of Congress would accept an argument that they should be forced to send their children to a failing school for the good of the school?" "Failing school," of course could be just a phrase of propaganda. If one subgroup of kids fails to make AYP under NCLB, the whole school fails. Or maybe the Post editors just feel that all DC schools are failures. It's not clear from the text.

But if the voucher kids don't do any better at their new schools and are no more satisfied, we are left with two potential explanations: either the school's quality isn't important, or the schools where the voucher kids use their vouchers are themselves failures.