Politico has built an impressive audience by bringing intellectual heft to pinched political debates, but Stephanie Simon’s treatment of school vouchers followed a more predictable narrative: left vs. right, public vs. private, us vs. them. Not surprisingly, the result was tendentious.
Though the original headline’s claim that vouchers offer “no proof they help kids” was later amended to allow that “vouchers don’t do much,” the account was infused with the kind of righteous attitude that mars our political discourse. By paragraph three, Simon was presenting the “inconvenient truth,” as if to signal her impatience with complexity.
Yes, it is true that “Jindal, GOP allies back vouchers,” but it is also true an increasing number of Democrats are joining the fight. Louisiana’s voucher expansion had the support of 19 Democrats (a third of all Democrats) in the state legislature. In Florida, nearly half the Legislature’s Democrats, and a majority of the Black Caucus, supported a major expansion of tax credit scholarships for low-income students in 2010. In North Carolina, a new voucher plan enacted this year was introduced with bipartisan sponsors. One of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, came to the vigorous defense of private options when challenged on the issue in his U.S. Senate primary.
Yes, some voucher students have produced what Simon called “miserable” scores on standardized tests, but that doesn’t necessarily distinguish them from some students in traditional public schools. Students who come from impoverished homes face enormous challenges, and their educational success is an obligation we face collectively as a nation. The test is whether each school is helping or hurting that progress, not whether it is run by public or private educators.
Yes, voucher students in some states don’t take the same standardized test as district students, but that does not make it “impossible to compare academic results.” In Florida, noted Northwestern University researcher David Figlio has used various techniques – including concordance and regression models – to compare between nationally norm-referenced tests and the state test. In 2010, he wrote of low-income scholarship and public students: “The results are consistent with a finding of small but positive differences between program participants and non-participants.”
By seeing mostly through the lens of good and evil, Simon robbed readers of the kind of nuance that enriches political debate. Her reporting on testing data suffered accordingly.
For example, one shortcoming was her attempt to equate proficiency levels of limited voucher programs with city or even statewide results.
It is true, for example, that only 40 percent of Louisiana voucher students score at their grade level – significantly worse than the statewide proficiency rate. If voucher schools were a school district they would be the third worst district in the state. But 91 percent of the voucher students are minorities in a state where the student population is 49 percent white. Additionally, the voucher program is limited to those families with an income no more than 250 percent above the poverty level – just slightly more than eligibility for free- and reduced-price lunch.
Simon made the same mistake when referencing the Milwaukee and Cleveland voucher programs. In other words, she is comparing low- and working-class minority student test scores against city or statewide averages regardless of race or income.
She did report on studies that suggest academic gains for voucher students, but almost grudgingly: “As for academic gains, voucher backers often point to two studies, in D.C. and New York City, for hopeful signs.” In fact, 11 of 12 random assignment studies show benefits for students using vouchers. Another 21 studies show public schools improve when faced with competition from voucher schools.
Of D.C., she wrote: “The research in D.C. found that giving vouchers to low-income students didn’t raise their test scores. But it did boost their high school graduation rate, according to their parents.”
The study’s lead author, Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, reported that the graduation rate was improved by 21 points for students who won and used a school voucher. That’s actually a big deal.
While it is true the final report on D.C. vouchers found no achievement difference between voucher “winners” and “losers,” this occurred not because vouchers failed to improve achievement, but because of the research methodology and because this research occurs in the real world and not a lab. Let me explain:
1). The study actually measured the impact of “winning” a voucher as opposed to using one (this was done to create a very high bar to measure success). That means the “treatment group” included students who enrolled in private schools and those who remained in public schools.
2). By the final report, about half of the “control group” (those who did not win a voucher) ended up exercising school choice anyway by attending schools outside their designated school zone, including charter and private schools.
Moreover, the researchers did in fact observe positive gains for voucher “winners” but they were only 94 percent confident that the results did not occur at random. The threshold for scientific studies is 95 percent confidence so the researchers had to conclude they observed no difference.
Basically the report compared kids who may or may not have been using school choice to kids who may or may not have been using school choice. Earlier years of the study – when the control and treatment groups were less murky – did show achievement gains for voucher winners.
Turning to Milwaukee, Simon writes, “In one study, voucher students did no better than peers in the public schools for four years, then outpaced them in reading – but not math — in the fifth year.”
Here she is referencing the University of Arkansas’ study on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). The study does in fact show significant gains for students in the voucher program only in the final year of the study, but Simon leaves out the fact that this gain occurred after high-stakes testing was added to the voucher program. The study also shows higher graduation rates, higher college attendance rates and improvement in Milwaukee Public Schools thanks to the competition.
Prior to these studies, Greene, Peterson and Du (1998) found statistically significant gains in both reading and math while Rouse (1998) found gains only in math. The results are indeed small, but they are positive. This is more impressive when you consider the voucher averages $6,442 compared to the $15,969 per pupil spent by Milwaukee public schools.
By viewing vouchers as antithetical to public schools, Simon missed a more intriguing – and emerging – story. The reason many Democrats are joining Republicans in the push for more learning options is not because they believe traditional public schools are a failed institution. It is because they believe different children learn in different ways and that more options – such as magnet schools, charter schools, online courses, career academies, vouchers – strengthen public education. They know parents of financial means have always had options for their children, and they want parents who struggle to enjoy the same.
In the world of customized education, we don’t condemn an entire form of learning because any one of its schools might need to be shut down. We don’t criticize parents for choosing a different school if it works for their own child. By insisting private options are in competition with public schools, Simon ignored the possibility that they might complement each other.