Beltway Confusion

(Beltway edu-analysts discuss the world over brandy and cigars.  Note where they are headed.)

I feel sorry for my education colleagues within the DC Beltway.  I don’t know if it’s all those wine and cheese receptions or box lunch lectures that addle their brains, but they are clearly confused.  They confuse political analysis for research.  And they confuse their political preferences for political analysis. 

Look, for example, at the recent post by my friend Andy Rotherham at Eduwonk on vouchers, which states:

“Now, paradoxically, the school choice experience since the early 1990s has lessened the allure of vouchers as a scalable education reform but at the same time made these smaller “pilot” type initiatives like the one in D.C. seem less toxic and more harmless among an increasing number of players.   Opponents don’t even really have a slippery slope to point to in any of the early adopter sites for vouchers.  There’s not one in D.C.  There it’s the public charters not the vouchers that are taking over and not in the other cities/states, even Milwaukee, where vouchers have been tried and the effects have been modest.  In other words, vouchers are not destroying the public schools.  Rather, systemically, they’re not really doing much of anything at all.”

Andy concludes that “systemically” vouchers aren’t “much of anything at all” because they aren’t expanding very rapidly.  This is a political analysis on the appeal of larger voucher programs, not a summary of research on the effects of vouchers on public school achievement.  If Andy had wanted to talk about the research on the systemic effects of vouchers he would have referenced this literature, which clearly shows that expanding choice and competition through vouchers improves public school performance.  So, Andy substitutes political analysis for research.

But he also substitutes his political preferences for political analysis because he ignores the steady growth in vouchers over the last two decades.  There are now 24 voucher or tax-credit programs in 15 states serving over 100,000 students.  Just last year two new programs were adopted, in Georgia and Louisiana, and the tax credit program in Florida was significantly expanded.  Andy may wish the voucher movement to be stalled, but a clear political analysis would reveal that vouchers continue to move forward.

Now, it’s true that there have been setbacks in the voucher movement.  And it’s true that each new program encounters a blizzard of opposition, making each step forward seem inordinately difficult.  But vouchers are just the spearhead of a broader choice movement that includes the more rapidly expanding charter movement.  If not for the viability of voucher programs, charters would have been the target of this onslaught of opposition. 

Vouchers have made the world safe for charters.  And the moment that vouchers really do stall, the enemies of school choice will redirect their fire at charters, strangling them with regulation and repealing charter gains.  To say that vouchers haven’t really done much of anything politically because charters are really where the action is ignores how much charters owe their political strength to the credible threat of new and expanded voucher programs.

It may be fashionable at Beltway receptions to dismiss vouchers as everyone is eager to be seen as championing the latest DC fad proposal.  But real analysis of research and politics show that the expansion of school choice, led by vouchers, will have a greater impact on education reform than building new school buildings, expanding pre-school, adopting a 21st century curriculum or whatever folks there are now talking about.

(edited for typos)

2 Responses to Beltway Confusion

  1. […] Matt Ladner finds me insufficently enthused about school vouchers because of this post the other day.  Fair enough, I am.  But Matt raises three points that are worth fleshing out.  First, I’ve made the point that the spread of school vouchers over the past two decades is pretty intresting and remarkable given both the organized opposition and what Terry Moe has called a “public school ideology.”   But lumping various tax-credits and voucher plans together as Matt and other school choice advocates often do creates a false sense of scale for intentional choice plans.  That matters here because my point was that it’s because vouchers have been limited to a few places and had a limited impact one way or the other that’s led to a subtle but significant shift in the attitude of some elites towards these programs.    Second, Matt finds the systemic effects more robust than I do.   Reasonable people can review the cumulative literature about choice plans and disagree on how substantively significant or transformative these effects are (or could be at scale) and what that means for vouchers as a policy.  My take is that the political impact outstrips the substantive impact on how schools and school districts operate.  For a smart take on this check out Revolution at the Margins by Rick Hess if you haven’t yet ( a review here). Third, Matt makes the point that the threat of vouchers has helped spread charter schools.   That’s right, especially in the early days of charter schools.   Bryan Hassel wrote a good book that looked at this and it’s a pretty widely acknowledged point by charter school advocates and various analysts.    But, at some point charter schools will reach sufficient mass so that their diffusion will happen based on other factors than the threat vouchers.    Over a million students in more than 4,000 charter schools is substantial and charter caps, for instance, have been raised absent a voucher threat and state financing for charter facilities has been expanded absent the voucher threat.   It’s possible that Matt is right and that once they’ve dispatched vouchers school choice opponents will turn their guns on charters, but it’s also possible that in the end vouchers will end up being the stalking horse for charters rather than the other way around… […]

  2. Greg Forster says:

    For the record: Andy originally mixed up Jay and Matt; he’s made the appropriate correction over on his blog.

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