(Guest Post by Patrick J. Wolf)
Robert Enlow of EdChoice and David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute have engaged in a titanic battle of words over at The74. Enlow claims that Osborne is opposed to universal school vouchers because of his political ideology, even though vouchers would fit well with Osborne’s theory of action that decentralized, choice-driven education policies produce better outcomes than the traditional, bureaucratized system of public schools. Osborne responds that the argument he made in his book is not political and Enlow is ignoring its substance. Let’s have a look.
Osborne’s main argument is that his opposition to universal school vouchers is driven by objective, scientific reason, not political ideology. He makes that claim from his perch at the highly political Progressive Policy Institute in that most political of cities, Washington, DC. We like to avoid “guilt-by-association” arguments here on the JPG Blog, so let’s just assume that Osborne’s employment by an explicitly political organization has nothing to do with his position on school vouchers. Generosity rules our hearts.
Osborne begins his argument that he is not being political by quoting a passage from his recent book, Reinventing America’s Schools. Osborne’s “non-political” argument begins: “Our Republican leaders, from President Trump down through Congress and state legislatures, have turned to vouchers as the answer.” Whoooaaa there Hoss! Nothing like defending the non-partisan nature of your thinking by falsely ascribing support for vouchers solely to Republicans. Osborne is arguing that the explicitly political nature of his anti-voucher argument proves that he is being non-political. Clever.
We are social scientists here on the JPG Blog so let’s look at the truth or falsity of Osborne’s claim associating the push for school vouchers singularly with Republicans. Private school choice, in the form of vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and Education Savings Accounts, has been a bipartisan issue from its germination through the present day. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was launched in 1990 only because Democrat legislator Polly Williams joined with Republican Governor Tommy Thompson to steer the proposal through the law-making process. The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program similarly was established by a bi-partisan legislative coalition. Washington, DC, has a private school choice program largely due to the efforts of Senator Joe Lieberman, Former Mayor Anthony Williams, Former City Councilman Kevin Chavous, and Senator Diane Feinstein. Last time I checked, none of them were Republicans. Osborne would have been more correct to say, “Our bipartisan policymakers, in Washington and the states, have turned to vouchers as the answer.” Because they have.
Osborne begins the next paragraph of his response with this indictment: “First, vouchers offer no guarantee of academic success…” Well, the same charge can be leveled at every education policy. Osborne’s preferred policy is heavily regulated charter schools. “David Osborne is foolish to advocate for heavily regulated charter schools,” David Osborne might charge, “Because heavily regulated charter schools offer no guarantee of academic success.” The only two guarantees in this world are death and taxes. Osborne makes a silly argument by declaring that school vouchers are bad policy because they don’t produce perfection. Nothing does.
Osborne proceeds to lament: “Experience teaches that some parents will stick with a school if it is safe and nurturing, even if test scores are abysmal, so we cannot rely on parents to abandon all failing schools.” He is correct that urban parents tend to value safety and the nurturing of their children at school above test scores, as Thomas Stewart and I established in our book, The School Choice Journey. Abraham Maslow, quite properly, would applaud them for being so rational in their decision-making. David Osborne, instead, is irrational and paternalistic by insinuating that parents are choosing badly when they prioritize the protection and nurturance of their children above their score on a standardized test.
His next charge is that universal vouchers will lead to the hyper-stratification of private schools by family income. This is a red herring. Schools are hyper-stratified by income in the traditional public school system because the primary feature that distinguishes the otherwise standardized government-run schools is family income. When family background is the only condition that varies across schools of choice, then family income becomes the single criterion of school choice, exercised indirectly in the case of public schools through residential choice. Private school choice programs allow schools to differentiate themselves based on religious identity, underlying child development theory, curriculum, use of technology, and, yes, that dreaded safety and nurturance that David Osborne disdains. With so many criteria to choose schools, families rely less on peer-group features like family income and race when choosing private schools, which is why private school choice often leads to less stratification of schools. Besides, policy makers have a range of tools to limit stratification in a universal school voucher program including weighting the voucher value by student need or requiring that participating schools accept the full voucher as the cost of educating the child. The increased stratification that Osborne fears is unlikely under private school choice and, even if possible, is preventable.
Osborne further claims that due to the increased stratification through private school choice, “Children would also lose the chance to rub elbows with those from different social classes, races, and ethnic groups. That experience creates a more tolerant society…” Exactly. And you know where that mixing of diverse groups more frequently takes place? In private schools of choice! As a result, private school choice programs promote levels of tolerance that are equal to or better than public schools. You can find evidence of this reality here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, oh heck just read the systematic reviews here and here!
So, my final question to David Osborne is, if the research evidence isn’t behind your opposition to private school vouchers, what is? Could it be…