Why Do Reporters Get it Wrong?

January 13, 2012

It’s really frustrating, but some reporters continue to mis-represent the scholarly literature on the effects of private school choice programs.  We devoted an entire chapter in Education Myths to debunking “The Inconclusive Research Myth.”  But like an un-dead vampire that won’t die even after you’ve driven a stake through it’s heart, reporters keep repeating as fact things like the following:

Studies have generally found no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private
schools with vouchers.

That statement was the conclusion of the famously unreliable and partisan Center on Education Policy.  And reporter Tom Toch embraced it as an accurate summary of voucher research in his recent article in the Kappan.  What do we have to do to stop reporters from repeating this falsehood?

This blog post from Adam Emerson at the newly launched Fordham blog, Choice Words, is a great start.  Here’s a taste:

School voucher critics generally approach their job reviewing the research on school choice with unfair assumptions, and otherwise insightful commentators risk recycling old canards. This is true with Thomas Toch’s critique of vouchers in the newest edition of Kappan, which concludes that voucher programs haven’t shown enough impact to justify their position in a large-scale reform effort. Questions of scale can lead to legitimate debate, but we’ll get nowhere until we acknowledge what’s in the literature.

And Adam doesn’t even reference all of the gold standard (random assignment) research showing positive effects for students who participate in voucher programs, not to mention all of the rigorous studies finding that entire school systems improve in response to vouchers.

So why do people like Tom Toch, who’s not stupid or mean, fail to acknowledge this wealth of evidence showing benefits from voucher programs and just focus on crappy and mistaken summaries from hacks at CEP?

Verdict in the WSJ: “School Vouchers Work”

May 3, 2011

Wall Street Journal columnist, Jason Riley has a must-read piece in the WSJ today.  The piece features the work of my University of Arkansas colleague, Patrick Wolf, JPGB’s very own Greg Forster, as well as a reference to the competitive effects study that Ryan Marsh and I conducted in Milwaukee.  There are too many highlights, but here is a (big) taste:

‘Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement,” said the White House in a statement on March 29. “The Administration strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students.” But less than three weeks later, President Obama signed a budget deal with Republicans that includes a renewal and expansion of the popular D.C. program, which finances tuition vouchers for low-income kids to attend private schools.

School reformers cheered the administration’s about-face though fully aware that it was motivated by political expediency rather than any acknowledgment that vouchers work.

When Mr. Obama first moved to phase out the D.C. voucher program in 2009, his Education Department was in possession of a federal study showing that voucher recipients, who number more than 3,300, made gains in reading scores and didn’t decline in math. The administration claims that the reading gains were not large enough to be significant. Yet even smaller positive effects were championed by the administration as justification for expanding Head Start….

The positive effects of the D.C. voucher program are not unique. A recent study of Milwaukee’s older and larger voucher program found that 94% of students who stayed in the program throughout high school graduated, versus just 75% of students in Milwaukee’s traditional public schools. And contrary to the claim that vouchers hurt public schools, the report found that students at Milwaukee public schools “are performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.” Thus can vouchers benefit even the children that don’t receive them.

Research gathered by Greg Forster of the Foundation for Educational Choice also calls into question the White House assertion that vouchers are ineffective. In a paper released in March, he says that “every empirical study ever conducted in Milwaukee, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Maine and Vermont finds that voucher programs in those places improved public schools.” Mr. Forster surveyed 10 empirical studies that use “random assignment, the gold standard of social science,” to assure that the groups being compared are as similar as possible. “Nine [of the 10] studies find that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit and three that some benefit and some are not affected,” he writes. “One study finds no visible impact. None of these studies finds a negative impact.”

Such results might influence the thinking of an objective observer primarily interested in doing right by the nation’s poor children. But they are unlikely to sway a politician focused on getting re-elected with the help of teachers unions.

“I think Obama and Duncan really care about school reform,” says Terry Moe, who teaches at Stanford and is the author of a timely new book, “Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools.” “On the other hand they have to be sensitive to their Democratic coalition, which includes teachers unions. And one way they do that is by opposing school vouchers.”

The reality is that Mr. Obama’s opposition to school vouchers has to do with Democratic politics, not the available evidence on whether they improve outcomes for disadvantaged kids. They do—and he knows it.

Douglas County Offers Vouchers to Students

March 16, 2011

The school board in Douglas County, Colorado voted unanimously to offer vouchers worth $4,575 to as many as 500 students who were not previously enrolled in private school.  The measure would save the district between $402,500 and $2.2 million and would greatly expand options for those families, including religious and secular private schools.

The teacher unions and their allies will almost certainly try to tie the program up in court and run their own board candidates in the hopes of rolling back the policy.  But with choice and other ed reforms being pushed all over the country and with the ability of unions to automatically deduct dues from payrolls being eliminated in a number of states, the ability of the unions to fight every battle in every location is limited.

The most effective political strategy for adopting ed reform is to “flood the zone.”  Propose a lot of ideas in a lot of places and the unions find it nearly impossible to block every one.  That’s what Jeb did in Florida and now reformers are adopting that strategy nationwide, enhancing its effectiveness.

Patrick Wolf Testifies on DC Vouchers

February 16, 2011

Watch my colleague, Patrick Wolf, tell it like it is on DC vouchers to the U.S. Senate.

And you can read his testimony here.

Look Who’s Standing in the Schoolhouse Door Now

October 18, 2010

The Oklahoma legislature and its Democratic Governor adopted a law allowing disabled students to use public funds to attend a private school if they wished to do so.  Similar laws have been passed in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Utah, and Arizona.

Disabled students have had to fight for decades to receive an adequate education from the public school system.  Federal legislation, now called IDEA, was adopted in the mid-1970s to ensure an appropriate eduction for disabled students.  Unfortunately, having a legal right to something and actually receiving it are two very different things and many disabled students continue to be denied appropriate services despite their legal entitlements.

That’s why several states have decided to empower families with disabled children with an additional mechanism by which they could ensure receiving an appropriate education — special education vouchers that would allow them to transfer to private schools if they believe that the public schools are not serving them adequately.  Oklahoma is the latest state to offer these vouchers but it almost certainly won’t be the last as several other states are considering the idea.  And there is good evidence that special education vouchers are significantly improving outcomes.

But, according to Education Week, four Oklahoma school districts have decided not to offer these vouchers that are required by state law.  The reasons given for willfully disobeying the state law are varied.  One district, Broken Arrow, has suggested that the voucher laws violate the state’s constitution because funds would go to religious schools.

Besides the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court and several states have ruled that these vouchers would not pose this type of constitutional threat, apparently public school district officials in Oklahoma think they know better.  And they’ve discovered some new constitutional process by which school officials interpret the constitution rather than the courts.

Actually, it’s not really a new method of deciding who should interpret the constitution, since it was a method well-established by segregationist school officials and governors who believed that they had the power to block black students from exercising their civil rights no matter what the law or courts said.  Now it is disabled students who are being blocked at the schoolhouse door.

The willingness of public school officials to publicly flaunt their disobedience of the law is not even very unique in current times.  Just two years ago school officials in Georgia decided to disobey the state’s duly enacted social promotion policy simply because they disagreed with the policy. Some of the Oklahoma public school officials similarly believe that they have standing as educators to decide what is best for kids and formulate the policy regardless of what the law and the people who pay them say.

Public school officials get away with this kind of willful violation of the law far too easily.  No one will go to jail.  No one will lose their job.  No one will be sanctioned in any way.  And they wonder why having a law to ensure appropriate services for disabled students isn’t sufficient.  Maybe it’s because public school officials apparently don’t have to follow the law.

The Little Voucher Engine Keeps Chugging Along

September 7, 2010

Despite various reports of the death of vouchers, mostly from people wishing that the idea were in fact dead, voucher programs and supporters keep gaining steam.

Today in the WSJ we learn about how both Democratic and Republican candidates for governor in Pennsylvania are voucher supporters.   As the piece concludes:

The Obama Administration, which is phasing out a popular and successful school voucher program in Washington, D.C., at the insistence of teachers unions, refuses to acknowledge that vouchers can play a role in reforming K-12 education. But states and cities are the real engines of reform, and the Pennsylvania developments are another sign that the school choice movement is alive and well.

Greg in PJM Keeps ‘Em Honest With Choice

February 14, 2010

Greg has a great post today on Pajama’s Media about how school choice is the secret sauce that keeps all other reforms honest.  Think of it as a love letter to education reform. : )

Here’s a highlight:

… the biggest political winner in education by far in the past year has been charter schools. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first, but the Obama administration’s pro-charter rhetoric has been more than just talk. Charter caps are being lifted because the administration really does support charters.

Why? I think it’s mainly because a critical mass of their political base on the left has embraced the principle that parents should be put in charge through choice, and I think that has happened precisely because they want a reform that will keep the system honest. More and more people on the left are sick and tired of the empty promises they’ve been peddled for decades: that this time, throwing another huge chunk of money at the blob will fix the schools — and this time, we really, really, really mean it, cross our hearts and hope to die.

The social justice folks on the left just don’t buy it anymore. They now see that the blob has been pulling the wool over their eyes for generations. You can imagine how they’re feeling about that right now. And woe betide you if the wrath of the social justice folks falls upon you; they’re not known for being gentle with those whom they perceive as enemies of social justice.

Case in point: Did you know that the same team of scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners, scruple-at-nothing propagandists who produced An Inconvenient Truth has now made a hard-hitting documentary bashing teachers’ unions and advocating charter schools? And it was the very first film picked up for distribution at the Sundance Film Festival?

… The recent surge in the political fortunes of charter schools has been fueled by the less dramatic but steadily growing success of private school choice: school vouchers and similar policies that allow students to attend private schools using public funds. There are now 24 private school choice programs serving 190,000 students nationwide, up from just five programs in 1996. And private school choice is continuing to gain ground every year with the creation of new programs and expansion of existing programs, even in tough years like 2009.

As my friend Jay Greene likes to put it, vouchers make the world safe for charters. That is, it’s because of the more modest success of vouchers that charters have exploded. As long as vouchers are on the march and are thus a credible threat, triangulating legislators who need the blob’s support can embrace charters without paying too high a price for doing so. If the blob cuts off its support for legislators who back charters, it won’t have anyone on its side when vouchers are on the agenda. Because vouchers are out there, the blob has no choice but to suck it up and pretend to be OK with charters.

The next question, though, is whether charters alone are going to be sufficient to keep the system honest. Charters have ridden to success with the help of a lot of new supporters, but those supporters are a demanding constituency. The social justice folks expect results.