Kevin Carey Gets the Facts Wrong

(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.

11 Responses to Kevin Carey Gets the Facts Wrong

  1. matthewladner says:

    I enjoy Carey’s higher education work, but when he pops into the K-12 choice debate he seems seldom correct, but never in doubt. When John Kirtley posed the example of Jacksonville Florida having 90 private schools serving low-income children through the tax credit program but less than six charter schools doing so, he struggled to mount a coherent defense of his preference for using charters as the sole means for promoting choice:

    It’s sad to see such a sloppy follow up from Carey more than two years later.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Matt, you only say that because you’re a partisan hack who only loves bashing Democrats and screwing over the poor to feed your greedy corporate masters. Pat, too. Just because you get the facts right and all your arguments are logically sound doesn’t change anything!

  3. I know I didn’t come up with the phrase and it doesn’t sound as good when it comes from me, but: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

  4. Minnesota Kid says:


    Matt had every opportunity to deliver his signature “Boooooooooooom!” here but, since he supports school choice, he must have been too busy lighting his cigar with one-hundred-dollar bills. You were well within your rights in delivering a surrogate “Booooooooooooooooom!”

  5. Tim says:

    210,000 children is about 0.4% of the age 5-18 population of the United States. I’m not sure that describing 0.4% as a “small handful” represents a failure to grasp the facts.

    As an amateur who is agnostic about anything so long as it works, I’d like voucher supporters to take a crack at addressing Carey’s point about real estate choice and school choice. Are the residents of Bronxville, New York, where the average annual property tax bill is $43,000 (that’s not a typo), expected to fling their doors open to all voucher-holding comers, e.g.?

    • Greg Forster says:

      Thankfully, none of the school choice programs gives an admissions veto to local real estate agents. The schools have already proven they’ll take the kids.

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        You mean the private schools right Greg? Last I heard there were still not any suburban Cleveland districts participating in the Cleveland voucher program despite the fact that they get offered far more money than the private schools for the same kid.

        Reason- “no space.”

        So Tim- no one is going to force Bronxville to take voucher kids. If they want to remain a bastion of over-taxed economic segregation, they will be able to do so.

        What I would like to see however is enough choice options to empty some space in Bronxville, and for them to decide to participate in choice programs voluntarily.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Good catch, Matt. That’s right. Suburban private schools open their doors to urban choice students; suburban public schools never do, even though the choice programs usually contain mechanisms to permit this.

  6. Alsadius says:

    Is anyone else seeing problems with the formatting of this post? I’m seeing what I assume are quotes rendered as boxes and Js.

  7. […] Kevin Carey Gets the Facts Wrong ( […]

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