Vouchers: Still Waiting For Evidence

We haven’t checked in on the DC voucher program lately so let’s see what they’re up to. You might recall that this is the program imposed on the District of Columbia by it’s alternative city council/school board and general nanny (aka Congress) two years ago. Federal funds were provided for up to 1700 students (out of about 65,000 in District public schools) to attend private school.

Among the problems the administrators of the program had during their first year was that the majority of students who got the money didn’t come from schools in the "needs improvement" category and many already attended private schools. This year 67% of the students are from low achieving schools and none attends private schools so it looks like that part is working. Applications are also way up, which is a big change from last year when they were begging parents to apply.

However, they still have the problem of not enough places for students to go. Some of the District’s private schools have declined to participate and most of the others were close to capacity to begin with. The problem is especially bad for middle and high school students.

But this is all just administrative stuff. There’s an important question that no one seems to want to address: Are the students who transferred to private schools with vouchers doing better than those who didn’t? Voucher supporters want everybody to buy into their assumption that private schools are better just because they aren’t public. In DC that’s probably true in many, but certainly not all, cases. However, let’s see some evidence.

Beyond the issue of students being better educated by default at private schools, there is another claim of voucher supporters that needs some proof. Time after time I’ve read where voucher programs (and often charter schools) are supposed to improve public schools by offering "free market" competition. Show me the evidence of that claim!

Finally, please also explain how we are supposed to compare academic achievement between students in public and private schools in the first place. The tests required of public school students by No Child Left Behind can’t be mandated in private schools. If all-testing-all-the-time is the standard, then at least add the voucher recipients in private schools and charter schools to the mix so we have something to base all the claims on.

In the end, however, I guess we’re just supposed to take the word of the anti-government types that privatization is always better than government. There certainly are some things that should move to the private sector (Post Office!!), but an excellent public education system is equal in importance to national defense and a strong economy. And I would argue is a major factor in having both.