Yes, School Choice Works

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” – John Adams

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I love Rick Hess for being pissed off that voucher advocates promised the moon and stars back in the 1990s, setting us up for the appearance of disappointment. Inevitably, when we got actual programs enacted, we got tiny, cramped, ridiculously overregulated and sabotaged-by-educrats programs, not the universal vouchers that have defined the gold standard for school choice for fifty years. Unsurprisingly, the modest and heavily limited programs we have enacted have failed to deliver the moon and stars.

Of course I love him for that; we’ve been making much the same point for a while now. Welcome to the party, Rick!

And I love Rick Hess for demanding that we reboot the movement with a focus on “making markets,” on “deregulation and re-invention.” Advocates of school choice to improve public schools have been in hock to the private school status quo for too long. As Milton Friedman said, education is the only thing we still do exactly the same way we did it a hundred years ago. We don’t even know what a good school looks like; we have to set the market free to find out.

Again, welcome to the party!

But Rick doesn’t get the facts right on the question of whether vouchers “work.” He jumbles together respectable scholars (ahem) with breathtakingly shameless professional con artists who happen to have Ivy League credentials (ahem) as though they all had equal credibility. Obviously if you’re going to do that, you can create the appearance of uncertainty no matter how clear the facts are.

Don’t listen to the experts – including me. And don’t listen to experts who decide what’s true – or what’s certain or uncertain – by weighing how many alleged “experts” are on each side.

Find out the facts for yourself. Here’s a fact you can start with: there have been 19 high-quality empirical studies of how school vouchers (and in one case tax-credit scholarships) impact public schools. Of those, 18 find that vouchers improve public schools, one found no visible difference, and none found that vouchers do harm. And that one stray study finding no difference was . . . guess where? In D.C., where the voucher program intentionally insulates public schools from the effects of competition. So even the exception proves the rule.

Vouchers work. Facts are stubborn things. No matter how many “experts” you quote against them.

It’s imperative to look at the high-quality empirical studies and not anecdotes or people’s claims. That’s the only way you can reliably disentangle the impact of vouchers specifically from the impact of hundreds of other factors that affect school performance.

This matters because you can’t reboot the movement with a focus on building markets, as Rick and I both want to do, if you start by ignoring the facts about all the good vouchers have already accomplished. The effect is more likely to be despair and abandonment – if you’ve fought for 20 years and haven’t accomplished anything, why keep fighting?

In the 1950s and 1960s, the clever intellectual elites thought they could reboot America to pursue a new vision of greatness by pooh-poohing and downplaying the importance of all the great things America had accomplished in its past up to that point. They were hoping to inspire the rising generation to aim higher and achive a more glorious society.

What they got instead was a generation of dirty, smelly dopehead dropouts who wouldn’t fight for their country or make any contribution to society. After all, why should they? What good was it?

Anything that produces hippies is a bad thing. (Just ask anyone who’s made fun of “peace, love and understanding” in front of Matt.)

I want the same thing Rick wants. I just want him to see that when he advocates rebooting the movement around liberating real educational markets, the facts are on his side.

8 Responses to Yes, School Choice Works

  1. I also am a strong supporter of school choice. My blog is written in portugueses.

  2. allen says:

    I wouldn’t say a generation of “dirty, smelly dopehead dropouts” so much as a generation led to believe that “dirty, smelly dopehead dropouts” were society’s cutting edge.

    Facts are indeed stubborn things but people are pretty stubborn as well so I wouldn’t assume Rick Hesse’ coming over to the dark side is much of a victory. Fact is, far from being the bold pioneers pointing the way to some educational promised land pundits are much more creatures of the system and incapable of thinking outside its confines.

    As an example of that blinkered thinking I’d offer the utter failure of the punditry to give thought to what happens when charter school numbers get to the point that the need for a particular school district becomes questionable.

    Detroit’s upward of 30% now with other districts higher. The trend isn’t downward since many, perhaps most, of those charter schools have waiting lists. It wouldn’t be all that inaccurate to say that the continued existence of the Detroit Public School district hinges on whether the legislature raises the charter school cap. Given the pressure to do so it’s really more a question of “when” then “if”.

    Politically it’s a great question to ask since it reminds people that school districts are just a way to get a job done and not a sacred burial site that’s beyond mundane investigation. Academically it’s also a good idea to toss around because this is going to happen and the political class is going to be looking to academe for ideas and solutions.

  3. GGW says:

    What’s the score on the 18 studies in terms of the effect of vouchers on the kids who get the vouchers (or who use the vouchers) – which I think is 2 different groups.

    I think I remember you writing that in FL the kids who used vouchers made good gains.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    These were studies of how vouchers impact public schools. So everyone in the study is someone who neither “got” nor “used” a voucher.

  5. GGW says:

    Oh. Is there a set of studies in one place about the effect of vouchers on the kids who use em?

  6. Hey GGW —
    Here is a list (with links)of rigorous participant effects studies:

  7. GGW says:

    Great link! Thank you.

  8. Vouchers are good but don`t forget-teachers are not trained-they`re out there “playing” at-maybe this will work-

    Their preparation never teaches them how to teach Reading-
    Myth at Teacher`s College-
    Children learn to read Naturally-Like learning to speak!

    Have a scotch and think about the impact of this on our world.

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