W was on the road last week promoting the federally-funded voucher program he recently signed. W and his friends are obviously sold on the concept of vouchers as a tool for school reform. However, being a serious amateur skeptic (I’m not paid enough to be a professional :-), I have still have some questions about these programs. They fall into three basic categories:

Accountability – The supporters of No Child Left Behind say that law is all about making the public schools accountable for giving every child a good education. But the private schools the vouchers students move to are not required to meet the testing and teacher quality standards of NCLB. How are the private schools going to be held accountable for the students attending using public funds? In the DC voucher plan, many of the private schools in this area objected to the idea of giving students the same standardized tests as used in DC public schools. (I’m not sure if that provision was written into the final version of the law.) If we’re going to have accountability for these students, shouldn’t these schools fall under the same NCLB laws as the public schools? Shouldn’t there be ways to judge if students in the program actually are getting a better education than that provided by the public schools?

Non voucher students – Again coming back to NCLB, how do vouchers help the students who don’t move to private schools? I’ve heard supporters of the concept, including W, state that the competition will force the public schools to improve but I’ve never seen any evidence supporting the claim. Competition by itself doesn’t automatically and universally improve products in the business world. Another thought: since the parents who choose to take advantage of the voucher are probably the ones who are most involved with their kids education to begin with, wouldn’t their move further weaken the schools they leave? I know that’s not a reason to force kids to stay in a bad school, I’m just asking how moving these students will help the situation they’re leaving.

Making choices – How are parents of the voucher students going to make an informed choice of private schools for their kids? As much as voucher supporters would like to think that all private schools are better than any public school, there are good and bad private schools as well. Will there be some uniform way for parents to judge the programs and quality of the schools they can choose? This will be especially important in a large scale voucher program since the demand will likely lead to the foundation of many new private schools. (Some of the advertising I’ve seen for local private schools is rather misleading.) A friend suggested that high schools could use SAT and AP scores to help parents assess the differences. Fair enough, but what of elementary and middle schools, especially since there doesn’t seem to be any standard for accountability.

That’s all the questions I have for right now. I’m not even going into the issue of financial accountability, which has been an issue in some places like Florida. But the issues I’ve raised deserve some serious answers if we are going to spend tax money on voucher programs. I refuse to take it on faith that transferring students to private schools will automatically improve their education – or that of the students who don’t.