Reporting on school choice lacks nuance, perspective

PoliticoPolitico 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.

Cory Booker D-NJ
Cory Booker D-NJ

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.

Adrian Fenty D-DC
Adrian Fenty D-DC

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.

Gwyn Clarke Reed D-FL
Gwyn Clarke Reed D-FL

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.

James Meeks D-IL
James Meeks D-IL

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:

Marcus Brandon D-NC
Marcus Brandon D-NC

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.

Troy Brown D-LA
Troy Brown D-LA

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.

Barbara McGuire D-AZ
Barbara McGuire D-AZ

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.

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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.


Voucher schools have the same advantages that charter schools do, including picking who they accept and get rid of. If they are not doing better than public schools and the info says they are not then I submit they are failures. If the reason we started vouchers was to provide better education outcomes then it’s time we stopped providing vouchers.

My friend’s daughter worked at a local private school that operated out of an abandoned strip mall. The school advertizes that it takes vouchers on their site. There she taught high school math for 12.50 an hour with her AA degree in elementary education. I know she worked hard and tried her best but every kid there was shortchanged.

Patrick R. Gibbons

So I take it you are all for shutting down alternative schools, vocational schools, magnet schools, schools for the gifted and career academy schools as well?

The research does not say that voucher students do no better than non-voucher students. It says there are small benefits and that public schools get even better as a response. That is a pretty big deal, especially since these programs are typically educating the toughest students at half the cost.

Nope not at all. I think we actually need more schools that play to kids strengths and desire, more public schools.

I talked to the Florida expert and he said some religious voucher schools do better but other than that there isn’t much difference and again since they (voucher schools) have tremendous advantages to me that makes voucher schools failures.

Where is your evidence that says they are educating the toughest students?

Finally after years of demonizing teachers and closing/threatening to close public schools the rights narrative has changed. Oh vouchers aren’t here to provide better education outcomes so kids can leave failing public schools they are here to make public schools better. (sic)

Patrick R. Gibbons

Well I agree we should have more options to play to the strengths and desires of all different types of kids. But I thought you were against schools kicking out kids and cherry picking the best? You do know alternative schools exist because kids get kicked out of their regular school? You do know magnet schools only take the brightest students? You are ok for public schools to do this but just a hint of anecdotal evidence on private or charter schools and you want to shut them all down? That just seems kinda hypocritical.

The average student on a Step Up For Students scholarship has a household income of $23,541. These students are also among the lowest performers and are more often than not coming from the lowest performing public schools. The evidence comes from David Figlio a researcher at Northwestern University

Finally, school choice supporters have always argued that public schools would get better in response to vouchers. That goes all the way back to 1955 when the concept of vouchers was first proposed.

Sigh, alternative schools for children with severe discipline problems are a necessity but once a kid proves he or she can behave they are sent back to their home schools. As for magnet schools in my hometown every high school now has an advanced academic program but yes in the past they did tend to skim off the best performers but now with industry certifications and the advanced programs everywhere there are more and more options at every school.

Dr. Figlio is also who I talked to.

As for the poorest kids performing the poorest, I would imagine the children at the schools they came from would have similar family income and test data.

I also think vouchers if regulated (teachers must be certified and there must be comparable accountability measures) have a role to play as a supplement to public education. The problem is the leaders of the pro choice crowd want to use them as a replacement for public education and this despite the fact they don’t provide better outcomes and as I have said many times, if a private school who can pick and choose who they take and keep is performing as well as the local public school, who takes everybody that shows up, then the private school is a failure.

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