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National Review Online


Vouchers: Not Dead Yet

April 08, 2009

By Jay P. Greene

President Obama has all the evidence he needs to save the D.C. voucher program.

The Washington, D.C., voucher program is not dead yet. Congress has set its execution date, slipping a provision into last month’s omnibus spending bill to end the program unless it is re-authorized by Congress next year. With anti-voucher members of Congress in a clear majority, supporters of the program are glum about its political prospects.

The pall has extended to voucher programs around the country. If our legislators can terminate the D.C. program without too much political cost, might they decide to become serial killers, targeting vulnerable programs in Milwaukee, Ohio, and elsewhere?

Oddly, Congress chose to act even as the programs continue to produce solid evidence of academic effectiveness. Just this week, the U.S. Department of Education released the results of its official evaluation of the D.C. voucher program. It found that students selected by lottery to receive vouchers to attend private schools made significantly greater progress in reading than did lottery losers who stayed in D.C. district or charter schools. A student attending a private school with a voucher typically was four months ahead of the average public-school student in reading after three years. The first cohort of voucher students to participate in the program was ahead of their public-school counterparts by the equivalent of 19 months of reading instruction after three years in private schools.

Last week, I released a study [PDF] that is part of the legislatively mandated evaluation of Milwaukee’s voucher program. It found that competition from the voucher program has improved the academic performance of students remaining in Milwaukee’s public schools by about 12 percentage points over the history of the program. That is, vouchers did more than benefit the students who received them; they motivated the entire school system to improve.

But the mood is so negative on vouchers that even these positive results have been viewed negatively. For example, press reports interpreted the evidence from Milwaukee as disappointing because voucher participants did not make greater academic progress than their public-school counterparts in one year’s time. But a large difference between the two groups should not be expected in a case where vouchers create a rising tide that is lifting all boats. The voucher students benefit by finding schools that match their needs more closely, and the public-school students benefit from a school system that is more highly motivated to do what it takes to discourage any more students (and the tax dollars they bring with them) from leaving with vouchers.

Frankly, the results in Milwaukee should be seen as even more encouraging than the results in D.C. My colleague Marcus Winters and I looked for evidence that D.C. public schools were improving in response to expanded choice and competition, but we were unable to find any. Vouchers in D.C. currently benefit only voucher recipients because the D.C. public schools have essentially been protected financially against the loss of students to vouchers. The schools don’t lose revenue when they lose students, and so their motivation to respond to expanded competition is undermined.

Despite all the encouraging evidence from voucher evaluations, some people are determined to maintain their voucher depression. Milwaukee schools are still abysmally underperforming, they’ll say. That may be, but the evidence shows that things would have been much worse if there had not been a voucher program. They’ll say the gains in D.C. are too small, were only tested in reading, and weren’t even detectable in the first two years of the program. True, but voucher benefits generally take a few years to materialize, since students experience some initial setbacks whenever they switch schools. And all of these results are from constrained programs with vouchers worth only a fraction of the per-pupil spending in public schools.

Besides, no large-scale reform has managed to produce huge improvements for low-income minority students in a short time frame. I’m hard pressed to think of any other reform that has proved, after rigorous evaluation, to have produced any gains at all under those conditions. If you require dramatic improvements overnight from education reform, you are likely to be chronically depressed.

Education reformers need to get out of their funk. First, they need to keep goals for educational improvement realistic and continue pursuing evidence-backed reforms like vouchers, even if they are currently out of favor in national politics. And the positive evidence may well save D.C. vouchers and others facing execution. They may even get a reprieve from President Obama, who has declared: “If there was any argument for vouchers it was, all right, let’s see if this experiment works, and then if it does, whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids.” If doing what works for the kids decides the issue, vouchers have a very promising future.

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