(Guest post by Patrick J. Wolf)
In The Atlantic Online resident cool-kid Kevin Carey sings the “vouchers-are-all-bad-but-charters-are-all-good” song that is the official anthem of the beltway crowd of education reform hipsters. Carey repeats some points from my own research that school choice results would be even better if parents had more extensive information about schools (but see here for how the mere availability of choice improves parent knowledge about schools) and the supply of choice schools was of consistently higher quality. Fine. Carey also claims that private school administrators are rapacious (tell that to the nuns that still run many Catholic schools) and politicians who support school vouchers do so for “obviously partisan reasons” while Mr. Carey only cares about the children.
Unlike Kevin Carey I don’t purport to possess the ability to look inside of people’s souls and conclusively discern their true motives. Still, his broad-brush claim that all voucher backers are merely trying to “club Democrats” (his words) seems demonstrably inconsistent with the behaviors of voucher supporters such as retiring Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, Senator Diane Feinstein (yeah, she loves to club Democrats), former Democratic Mayor Anthony Williams, Wisconsin State Representative Jason Fields (yet another African-American Democrat who supports vouchers), etc. I really could go on and present a much longer list, but Kevin Carey only uses single examples to make sweeping generalizations so I’ll simply outperform him by using multiple counter-examples to disprove his universal and unqualified claims.
What disturbs me more than Carey’s reckless accusations is his lack of knowledge of the basic facts surrounding school vouchers. For example, he states casually that, “To this day, vouchers are only available to small handful (sic) of students.” The facts are that 27 different voucher or tax-credit funded voucher-like programs serve over 210,000 students. Even Paul Bunyan’s hands couldn’t hold that many kids.
Carey goes on to state boldly that, “Unlike private schools that pick and choose their pupil (sic), charters are open to all students and allocate scarce openings via lotteries.” The facts are that many voucher programs do not allow private schools to discriminate in admissions. In Milwaukee, for example, private schools participating in the voucher program must admit students by lottery but public charter schools in the city can pick and choose their pupils — the exact opposite of what Carey claims.
The D.C. voucher program is “a small, benign, and not particularly effective effort that at its core is nothing more than its name suggests: a program that awards scholarship (sic) to a small group of poor families to partially offset the cost of attending private school”, according to Kevin Carey. Ignore the fact that this is yet another grammatically incorrect sentence from Mr. Carey. Is it true? Well, I know a few things about the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, having served as the U.S. Department of Education’s independent evaluator of the program and having written six detailed reports on our nation’s only federally-funded school voucher initiative.
Did the D.C. voucher only “partially offset the cost of attending private school” for families, as Carey claims? In over 99 percent of cases, the D.C. voucher of up to $7,500 was accepted by schools as full payment from the family. The private schools accepted less than half the per-pupil government resources allocated to D.C. public schools and either provided a highly efficient education to voucher students or, in many cases, covered the extra costs themselves. Wait a second, I thought Kevin Carey said that private school operators are greedy and avaricious?
Is the D.C. voucher program “not particularly effective”? Our gold-standard experimental evaluation concluded that the voucher program increased the high school graduation rate of students by 12 percentage points from the mere offer of the voucher and 21 percentage points if a student actually used it. That makes the D.C. voucher initiative the most effective drop-put prevention program ever evaluated by the U.S. Department of Education. The same Milwaukee evaluation that Carey references as showing no net achievement benefits for voucher students also reports that Milwaukee voucher students are graduating from high school and enrolling in college at higher rates due to access to private schools through the program.
President Obama proposed in his State of the Union address that teenagers be compelled to remain in school until they turn 18 or graduate. Who needs such Big-Brother-like compulsion? When the government provides more students with access to private schools through vouchers the kids stay in school willingly.
Does Kevin Carey ignore the clear and large graduation rate benefits of the D.C. and Milwaukee voucher programs because he thinks it isn’t desirable for low-income minority children to graduate from high school? If so, then human compassion and a wealth of research proves him wrong. More likely, Carey ignores the compelling evidence that school vouchers help disadvantaged students go further in school because it is an inconvenient fact that undermines his argument. He doesn’t want to admit that voucher programs are effective at promoting the most important student educational outcome there is, and he certainly doesn’t want to share that uncomfortable information with his readers. Move along, nothing to see here.
After lauding school choice only through public charter schools, Carey states that, “…the market will still require strong oversight from public officials to grant the ‘approved’ status Friedman envisioned over a half-century ago–and the willingness to revoke that approval when performance is sub-par,” which is exactly how the Milwaukee voucher program is designed and operates.
Doesn’t Carey read anything? A report released last year documented that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the government agency that oversees the Milwaukee voucher program, has kicked 35 schools out of the program since 2006. The average student performance in those schools was dramatically lower than the achievement numbers for the schools allowed to remain in the program. Voucher programs in the U.S. have exactly the kinds of government accountability mechanisms that Carey falsely claims are missing from them, plus market accountability to boot.
After Kevin Carey’s litany of factual errors, he grandly proclaims the path forward for people, like himself, who actually care about the children. “We can start by purging the worst rhetoric from the school choice conversation.” Well, Mr. Carey, before you criticize the splinter in your brother’s eye you might want to work on removing the log from your own. Meanwhile, readers who want accurate information about school vouchers should, like the Titanic, steer clear of The Atlantic.