DC Vouchers: One Step Up, Two Steps Back

July 13, 2009


As Matt wrote on Friday, a majority of the DC City Council Members wrote a letter to Arne Duncan expressing their strong support of the DC voucher program, including expansion of the program beyond those currently using scholarships.  The WSJ has yet another great editorial on the topic.  It says, in part:

Earlier this year Illinois Senator Dick Durbin added language to a spending bill that phases out the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program after next year. The program provides 1,700 kids $7,500 per year to use toward tuition at a private school of their parents’ choosing. Mr. Durbin’s amendment says no federal money can be spent on the program beyond 2010 unless Congress reauthorizes it and the D.C. Council approves.

The D.C. Council’s letter shows that support for these vouchers is real at the local level and that the opposition exists mainly at the level of the national Democratic Party. Mr. Durbin has suggested that he included the D.C. Council provision in deference to local control. “The government of Washington, D.C., should decide whether they want it in their school district,” he said in March. Well now we know where D.C. stands. We will now see if the national party stands for putting union power and money above the future of poor children.

Will others who’ve offered DC local control as a reason for opposing the voucher program now come out in support of it?  (I’m looking at you, Kevin Carey.)

Unfortunately, even as vouchers benefited from the support of the DC City Council, Senator Durbin was busy introducing new, onerous regulations on the program in an appropriations bill last week.  In particular, his measures would require participating private schools to take the DC public school test rather than a nationally-normed standardized test, even though they may not have the same curriculum as DCPS.  His measures would also require the Secretary of Education to prohibit voucher students from attending any private school that was not deemed “superior” to DC public schools.  The language is unclear as to whether that means the average DC public schools, the best, the worst, or what. 

You know, this may not be such a bad idea.  Maybe no DC public school students should be forced to attend a public school that is worse than average.  How about if we offer them vouchers?

Wait, I’m sure that was not the intent of the new Durbin measures.  The clear purpose is to strangle the program with reasonable-sounding but truly crippling regulation while the entire program is eventually eliminated. 

Senator Feinstein attempted to remove the Durbin measures in the full committee and Senators Landreau and Byrd joined her in that effort.  But they failed on a tie vote.  It was particularly disappointing to see Senator Mark Pryor vote with Durbin.  Pryor has to be careful not to move further left than his Arkansas constituents as he follows the national leadership or he could finally face a serious challenger for re-election.

For Those Keeping Score

May 20, 2009

For those who are keeping score, 3 of the top 5 circulating newspapers in the United States have recently written editorials supporting the D.C. voucher program:  USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post

The New York Times along with their teacher union readership have remained quiet on the issue, hoping the dirty deed can be done as silently as possible. 

And the Chicago Tribune, which is a top 10 circulating newspaper as well as the hometown paper for voucher-killers Obama, Duncan, and Durbin, also endorsed DC vouchers.

Somebody needs to reach Kevin Carey in his hermetically-sealed DC bubble to let him know that at least some people who “are serious about education policy” seem to care about vouchers — that is, unless we want to believe that the editorial boards of the country’s largest newspapers with total circulation in excess of 5 million readers shouldn’t be considered as serious as policy analysts at tiny DC think tanks.

I Want A New Civics Teacher

May 18, 2009

Kevin Carey offers a Civics 101 lesson on his blog.  All I can say is that I want a new civics teacher because this one doesn’t even have basic facts right. 

For example, Kevin writes that DC is “the one place in America without representation in Congress.”  The people of Guam, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico will be thrilled to learn that they’re not part of America or that Kevin has decided to give them representatives. 

But this is a bit of a distraction from the main issue, which is whether charters are good because they are allegedly accountable while vouchers are bad because they allegedly are not.  And here Kevin makes yet another bold, false assertion saying that vouchers schools are “currently unaccountable.” 

In what meaningful sense are DC charters more accountable than vouchers?  Both are subject to market accountability so that if they fail to perform to parental satisfaction they can lose students and the revenue those students generate.  In this sense both charters and vouchers are far more accountable than D.C. district public schools, which receive ever more revenue even as they perform miserably and lose students.  The only “currently unaccountable” schools are the district public schools, not the voucher schools.

But I imagine that Kevin only understands accountability to mean directly accountable to a public authority.  Even with that narrow meaning of accountability vouchers are accountable because they are subject to Congressional regulation and oversight.  Just watch the excellent hearings on DC vouchers held last week if you want to see what accountability looks like.

Perhaps Kevin has an even more narrow understanding of accountability, meaningful compliance with a particular set of rules regarding testing and reporting of results.  But even then DC vouchers are truly more accountable.  DC voucher students are required to take a standardized test and an independent evaluator is assessing whether students are benefiting from having access to the voucher program.  It’s true that DC charters must report test results by school, but that doesn’t make them any more accountable.  Knowing raw test results does not tell parents or public authorities whether those students would have done better had they not gone to that school or had access to the charter program.  The only way to know that with high confidence would be with a random-assignment evaluation, which many voucher programs have had and charter programs almost never have.

By accountability maybe Kevin means checking boxes on some regulatory check-list regardless of benefit to parents or the public.  Kevin would be right about that one.  Charters do have more meaningless and even counter-productive regulation with which they have to comply in the false pursuit of accountability.  The net effect of those mindless regulations is to undermine charter effectiveness and help preserve the unionized traditional district stranglehold.  That’s the kind of false accountability that I’m glad vouchers don’t have.

(edited for typos)

Ed Sector’s K-12 Incoherence Week

May 15, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been out and about this week, but our pals over at Education Sector have kept me entertained. On Carey’s too-cool for-school dissing of vouchers, I can’t help but wonder: what would stop an advocate of home-schooling from dismissing Kevin’s beloved charter schools on a broadly similar basis? After all, home-schooling is legal in all 50 states, charters in only 40. Many of those 40 laws, however, are dogs that will never produce more than a rounding error number of schools. They’re not bad, they’re just drawn that way:

Precise numbers are not available, but twice as many or more students may be home-schooling than attending charter schools, and the rate of growth has been faster. High quality outcome data is hard to come by, but anecdotally universities have come to view home-school students very positively. I haven’t seen the same said for charter schools yet, nor have we seen (yet) a charter school student crush the evil Sooners like the bugs they are after winning the Heisman Trophy.

Im way too cool for you Carey, google my girlfriend

I'm too cool for you Carey, google my girlfriend...

Does it follow then that home-school supporters should be completely dismissive of charter schools? No of course not. The truth is that we don’t know what is going to take hold in K-12 reform, only that it is going to change.

Meanwhile, Andy Rotherham has delivered a brilliant column on the limitations of transparency that all but screams out at the end for a decentralized, self-regulating mechanism to hold schools accountable for results.

Ummm….you know….like parental choice.

The Negative De-Sarcasticizer

May 14, 2009

Kevin Carey ran my post from yesterday through a “negative de-sarcasticizer”  and wants to take issue with the suggestion that D.C. vouchers were adopted democratically. 

First, I should warn Kevin that a negative de-sarcasticizer actually makes things more sarcastic.  I know because I bought one on Ebay and I use it to help make my posts as sarcastic as they are.  The negative de-sarcasticizer comes with a large, yellow label warning about the hazards of double negatives.

Second, the suggestion that DC vouchers were not democratically created because they affected DC and DC does not have a vote in Congress wouldn’t just call into question the legitimacy of DC vouchers.  All federal laws affecting DC would be undemocratic by this standard.  This would include NCLB and other federal education legislation that Kevin praises charter schools for more strictly obeying.

Third, I am glad that Kevin believes that “giving parents educational choices and opening up public education to competition and innovation will improve outcomes for students.”  And I agree with him that charters would be one way of expanding choices and competition.  But I continue to be puzzled by the argument that vouchers are bad because they are less accountable than charters.  Whatever regulation you believe is desirable for schools could be applied to vouchers as well as to charters.

Finally, I continue to be troubled by Kevin’s need to dismiss vouchers by labeling the idea as “unworkable” or “not serious.”  This is just argumentation by name-calling rather than addressing the substance of the issue.  When I hear this kind of argument it makes me want to turn my negative de-sarcasticizer up to full power.

Kevin Carey’s Too Cool for Vouchers… and Cooler Than You

May 12, 2009

Education Sector’s Kevin Carey has a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog about why vouchers don’t matter.  It seemed to me that the piece had been highly edited, leaving out what Carey really thought. 

Sure enough, my secret agents were able to discover the original draft.  The parts that were edited out I’ve been able to restore.  They’re the bits in italics and bold:

Why School Vouchers Don’t Matter by Kevin Carey (Original Draft)

President Obama wants to appropriate enough money to keep the Washington, D.C. voucher program going for the children currently enrolled. Good — this is the only ethical position to take. I know some Democrats in Congress wish the program had never been implemented, but that’s the price of losing elections. Dragging low-income and minority students out of their schools just so the N.E.A. can score some petty political revenge would be inhumane and a political debacle besides.

That said, there’s a strong element of artifice to this whole debate. The D.C. voucher program does not represent serious public policy. It was a P.R. move, a bone thrown by the previous administration to the privatization crowd it marginalized by supporting NCLB.

You see, policies that are designed for P.R. or to satisfy political constituencies are not serious public policy.  Applying this standard I’ve determined that 99.44% of all public policies are not serious. 

The voucher dream (setting aside the obvious anti-labor agenda for the moment) has always been to introduce market dynamics to public education — to create new competition and provide incentives for innovators and entrepreneurs to bring energy and resources to the enterprise of educating students. 

Using my psychic powers to identify the dreams of others, I am certain that helping low-income families find better schools had nothing to do with passage of the D.C. voucher program.  That’s right, the only real test of a five-year, tiny voucher program that pays one-third per pupil what the public schools receive is whether new private schools are built.

The D.C. voucher program does none of these things. No new schools have been built as a result, no groundbreaking programs created, competition spurred, or innovators attracted. It’s basically just an exercise in seeing what happens when you take a couple thousand students out of pretty bad schools and put them in a range of other schools that are, collectively, somewhat better. Answer: some of the students may be doing somewhat better! I think we already knew this.

And by “we” I mean only the really cool people, not the majority in both chambers of Congress who voted to set an execution date for the program. 

Remarkably, the D.C. voucher program is being taken seriously even as, right here in the same city, charter schools are actually creating the whole range of market responses that vouchers are not.

Of course if we capped charter funding at $7,500 per pupil and limited their number to 1,700 students citywide and sunsetted the whole program after 5 years, I’m sure that charters would have “actually created the whole range of market responses” anyway.  Charters are just so cool that they could have beaten Mike Ditka in a Superbowl showdown with one hand tied behind their backs.

Drive across the river and see the brand-new schools built by KIPP and SEED, which are just a part of the tens of millions of dollars of new investment in public education spurred by charters, a wave of new organizations and people coming to the nation’s capital to educate disadvantaged students, along with many others who were here already, people who never would have been able to operate within the traditional public system.

One could argue, I suppose, that if vouchers had been given to 17,000 students instead of 1,700, they would have had more impact. But I’m not so sure — I kind of doubt that Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day would up and build annexes in Anacostia in response.

Of course, I suppose that a bunch of the non-elite private schools where 99% of the voucher students attend might actually expand if you offered them 10 times as many spots and long-term security of funding, but that would undermine the straw-man argument I’m making. 

In any event, why bother? Who cares about the 1,700 students benefiting from D.C. vouchers?  Not cool folks like me!  I always remember to take my jaded pills each morning. 

D.C. charter schools are directly accountable to the public and specifically designed to serve urban students. Why would it be better to re-direct public funds to schools that are neither of those things? 

I mean, the private schools in D.C. aren’t really urban because when you enter them you are transported through a kink in the time-space continuum to a place outside of an urban area.  And those vouchers aren’t really accountable because even though they were democratically created, subject to oversight and renewal within 5 years of creation, and mandated (unlike charters) to participate in a rigorous random-assignment evaluation, they don’t have the word “public” in them.  And we cool people know that the magical addition of the word “public” makes things truly accountable to the public.

Yet the D.C. voucher debate is playing out on national television and has provoked a seemingly endless series of righteous editorials from the Washington Post.

Don’t they know that righteousness is my department?! 

This seems to be the real purpose of school vouchers — giving people the opportunity to scramble for the moral high ground of defending disadvantaged youth.

Never mind what I said at the start about the real purpose being to introduce market competition or to destroy unions.  The real REAL purpose is to defend disadvantaged youth — and is there anything more awful than that?

Many wealthy members of Congress send their children to private school! So does our wealthy President! Outrage! Hypocrisy revealed! 

More exclamation points!  Loud noises!  Harrumph!  Please pay no attention to the cynical thing I said in the last paragraph about how awful it is to care about disadvantaged kids!

Meanwhile, voucher opponents paint themselves as brave defenders of the education system, as if this was some crucial battle against the Wal-Martification of public schools.

There!  I’ve bashed both sides, so I get my triangulator license renewed.

In that sense vouchers do have some utility — they separate people who are serious about education policy from people who aren’t. The more you shout and carry on about them, the less you’re paying attention to the issues that really matter.

And I never shout or carry on about vouchers!  I’m too cool.

Carey: Universities = Newspapers with a longer death sentence

March 31, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Wow…just wow.

The Way of the Future in Higher Education

November 27, 2008


aviator-leonardo-dicaprio-11(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ed Sector’s Kevin Carey’s article on the technological transformation of American higher education is a must read. Carey’s article leaves much to discuss, but a bottom line conclusion is that computer based learning at traditional universities is improving instruction, lowering costs and moving us in the direction of outcome based assessment- all very positive developments.

The other story however is that many universities are pocketing the efficiency savings and jacking up tuition, making undergraduates even bigger cash cows than they used to be. Higher education is on an unsustainable path, and yet Carey writes:

Long-prosperous colleges risk finding themselves in the perilous state of the newspaper, with competitors using the Internet to drive down prices in businesses that were once profit leaders. That would be a mixed blessing, at best. The Web is a boon for those who need to access higher education at a distance. For colleges that have grown complacent and inefficient—and there are many—a dose of fiscal reality would do them good. But the financial cross-subsidization at the heart of the modern university also sustains much of what makes it a uniquely valuable institution, more than a mere conveyer of credits and degrees. Much as newspapers use classified advertising to support money-losing foreign bureaus, subsidized scholarship makes huge contributions to the scientific, cultural, and civic lives of the nation. The University of Phoenix does not.

Carey is of course correct about the huge contributions of university academic departments which cannot financially sustain themselves. I suspect however that the costs of many such departments are far greater than their benefits. It’s not a stretch, for example, to view, say, a Sociology department with a large number of faculty and few students as a group of self-indulgent rent seekers whose dead-weight cost helps drive up tuition and wastes taxpayer money. Mind you, there has been some great work done by sociologists, but there seems to be much more taxing of plumbers to subsidize coffee house revolutionaries going on.

Not just to pick on the Sociologists, when I was a Political Science graduate student in Texas, my fellow graduate students and I once counted up the number of Ph.D. programs in political science in the state. We wondered “do we really need so many?” The answer was obvious: no, hell no.

I think Carey’s use of the newspaper analogy is an apt one- it just hasn’t happened yet. A little Schumpeterian creative destruction in higher education seems long overdue.

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