According to the New York Post, the federally funded voucher program, which effectively started this month, is a roaring success. As near as I can tell, they base this assessment on the fact that a small group of parents were given a choice of schools and not that the students were actually learning more in their new schools.
Leaving aside the factual errors in the opinion piece (for example, DC has about 64,000 students not 80,000), it is way too soon for anyone to say whether this program is a success or failure. But the writer goes on to rave about the beauty of parent choice.
Now, this does point to a quirk of school choice, one which its supporters must keep in mind: Only the most engaged parents will step forward to actually make choices when offered the chance. It takes a lot of effort to apply for vouchers and spots at charter schools — filling out paperwork, keeping track of deadlines, visiting schools, etc.
But whereas voucher opponents point to this as some sort of indictment of the school-choice movement, it must be seen as one of its key advantages. It’s offering parents power: the power to take their kids out of schools they don’t like and the power to choose between competing alternatives.
I actually agree that parents should have some choice in where their children attend schools. What’s missing from the DC program, many other voucher programs, and from this writer’s argument is a knowledgeable way to make that choice. Without an understanding of a school’s philosophy or approach to education, parents have nothing more than a list of school names on which to make their decision. Some, including I suspect many in this relatively small group, will take the time and effort to do the research. With a larger group of parents, most will not, instead relying on reputation, rumor, and advertising. Hardly the way to make such an important life decision (although it’s also how many students choose a college).
But the bottom line is that voucher advocates cannot declare victory until it’s actually shown that the students involved are more successful than they would be in the public schools. Beyond that, I’d also like to know if these kids are more successful than they would have been if the same money had been used to improve their home school (a tougher question).
Finally, there’s my continuing question that this writer and many other voucher advocates seem to ignore, how is this program going to improve schools for all children? And don’t fall back on that all-mighty free-market-improves-all crap. Schools are not businesses no matter how often someone chants that mantra.