Moving beyond the fringe voices in the voucher debate

The New York Times published a semi-balanced story today on the growth of the private school–choice movement—and attention is always welcome—but it also helped perpetuate two nagging myths about vouchers and tax-credit scholarships:

1.    Reporters Fernanda Santos and Motoko Rich wrote, “Research tracking students in voucher programs has also not shown clear improvements in performance.” Not true. As nine scholars and analysts noted in an Education Week essay published last year, results from gold-standard voucher research have consistently shown (among other positive effects) modest academic gains and outsize graduation rates among voucher recipients when compared to their public school–district peers.

2.    The story also repeated the fable that vouchers are accompanied by no accountability for academic results. Wrong. Choice advocate Dick Komer of the firm Institute for Justice told the Times that the only real accountability that matters is parental choice. Voucher opponent and union chief Randi Weingarten railed, “There’s absolutely no accountability with vouchers.” Both are wrong.

In fact, the two newest voucher programs, both of which have captured much attention (Indiana and Lousiana), as well as the proposed initiative in Tennessee, make clear that underperforming private schools won’t be welcome in these programs, for these (and many other) choice programs require participating private schools to administer the same assessments as are given in public schools and bar schools from continuing in the program if their assessment results are weak and stay that way.

It turns out that the oldest voucher program United States, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, is perhaps the most tightly regulated of the twenty-three or so such programs now in existence. In their introduction to the Fordham Institute’s recent report on laws governing vouchers and tax credit scholarships, Chester Finn and Amber Winkler wrote that the Milwaukee program has accumulated more rules as it has grown older and larger, “like a ship burdened with barnacles.”

Some analysts believe that programmatic requirements such as these have helped to produce the achievement gains that evidently eluded the Times reporters. Professor Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, for instance, found that the mere public release of test scores in Milwaukee played a role in the achievement gains those voucher students made on their public school peers.

But that’s not all that voucher programs can claim. The best methods used for high-quality research, including random assignment of participants, have been applied to voucher programs in Milwaukee, New York, Dayton, Ohio, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. And these studies have generally reported modest achievement gains that accumulate strongly over time. Graduation rates among voucher students have also been stronger, especially in D.C., where the Opportunity Scholarship Program increased a student’s chance of graduating high school by 21 percentage points.

None of these studies found a negative impact of vouchers. That’s important to know—but barkless dogs rarely make it into sensational news accounts, either.

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