Andy Rotherham is a great guy. And he’s often right. But I’m afraid that on vouchers he’s just plain wrong.
First, Andy wants to argue that vouchers have stalled politically. I pointed out that there are now 24 voucher or tax-credit programs in 15 states serving more than 100,000 students. And two new programs were adopted last year and a third significantly expanded.
No fair, Andy cries, including tax-credit programs “creates a false sense of scale for intentional choice plans.” What’s false about counting tax credit programs, like the one in Florida which functions as the largest voucher program in the country? The program gives vouchers — excuse me — “scholarships” to students from organizations that are funded with dollar for dollar tax credit donations from corporations. This is virtually identical in financing and effect as the state simply giving vouchers to students. The only difference is that the tax credit is treated better by the courts (don’t ask why) because the money never enters the state treasury before going right back out the door as a voucher.
But let’s say we grant Andy his odd position that tax-credit programs don’t count. We still have 13 voucher programs in 10 states serving about 50,000 students. And the two new programs adopted last year were both voucher programs. Wish as he might, Andy still can’t show that vouchers have stalled politically.
Second, Andy rightly says, “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. ” While reasonable folks could disagree about the magnitude of the effect of expanded school choice on public school performance, no reasonable person could disagree with the observation that the research literature supports at least some positive impact. Given how hard it is to find any policy intervention that raises student achievement, consistently finding a positive impact from the systemic effect of vouchers should be treated as a big deal. It isn’t to Andy.
Third, Andy concedes that the more frightening prospect of vouchers helped spread charters, at least in the early stages of the charter movement. But now that charters have reached critical mass, they may well do just fine without the viable threat of new and expanded voucher programs. Folks who are really sincere about charters shouldn’t get so comfortable. Just look at the unionization of the KIPP charter in NY or the constant effort to regulate charters to death in many states. Dropping vouchers from your arsenal would be like confronting a resurgent Russia after dismantling all of your nuclear weapons. You may think your conventional forces are up to the task, but ask the Poles how they would feel about it.
I’ve never understood why people would support charters but oppose vouchers. The theory that expanded choice is good for the participating student and helps spur improvement in traditional public schools is required for both reforms. Yes, charters are more easily subject to regulation than private schools receiving vouchers, but healthy charter programs require light regulation and states have not been shy about applying similar light regulation to voucher programs.
The only reason I can imagine that folks would support charters but oppose vouchers is for political gain since the theory and evidence for both are essentially the same. And I understand why politicians invent these false distinctions to prove their moderation and good sense by opposing the one they artificially dub as radical. But we aren’t politicians. We don’t have to lie or invent false distinctions to please constituencies. Universities, think tanks, and the blogosphere should be refuges for reasoned inquiry and dispute, not rhetoric for political advantage. As it says on the great seal — Veritas.
UPDATE — Andy’s a nice guy. I tried to make my post as hyperbolic as possible and he responds kindly and reasonably. Damn, he’s good.
UPDATE TO UPDATE — Just to be clear, I still think Andy is just plain wrong. The fig leaf that Andy uses to be pro-charter while anti-voucher is the concern that vouchers sever “the connection between avenues of democratic input into schooling decisions and those decisions. In other words, for some people the issue isn’t choice, rather it’s accountability in a broad sense.” The reality is that there is as much opportunity for democrat input in the design and operation of voucher programs as charter schools or traditional public schools for that matter. The public can place whatever regulations it deems necessary on voucher schools as a condition of receiving those funds, just as it does with charter and traditional public schools. Of course, all of these systems would operate best with minimal regulation. If regulation were the answer to school effectiveness our public schools would already be fantastic.