D.C. voucher snapshot

After seven months in private schools, most voucher-using students in Washington, D.C. are doing about the same in reading and math as their former classmates, concludes an Education Department study. There were some exceptions, reports the Washington Post.

Students who moved from higher-performing public schools to private schools and those who scored well on tests before entering the program performed better in math than their peers who stayed in public school.

Each year, 1,800 students from low-income families receive a $7,500 voucher which can be used to pay private-school tuition.

Voucher opponents say the results prove the program is a failure; proponents say it takes more than a year to show results.

Parents are happy with the schools they’ve chosen, the study found.

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Comments

  1. Andy Freeman says:

    If voucher opponents think that “happier and doing about the same” is failure, that means that one goal of voucher opponents is to make them less happy.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    Each year, 1,800 students from low-income families receive a $7,500 voucher which can be used to pay private-school tuition.
    Which is less than the D.C. schools budget per child, so the
    vouchers cost the city less per student than educating the
    kids in the normal public schools …

    Voucher opponents say the results prove the program is a failure;
    Because the same results for 75% of the cost is a clear
    failure. Ask any business owner.

    proponents say it takes more than a year to show results.
    Probably true, but missing the point that even if the
    results are the same, the cost is less…

    Parents are happy with the schools they’ve chosen, the study found.

    Hmmm … no drop in measured academic performance (though no gain),
    lower cost and happier parents.

    And people are arguing about whether this is a failure or not???

    Sigh.

    -Mark Roulo

  3. Charter Mom says:

    I also wonder what type of test was compared — a curriculum based test or a skilled based test. The article doesn’t say. I know at the charter my kids attended the school would make sure that kids that were below grade level when they arrived were taught at that level so that they could master the basics and develop the foundation they needed to keep progressing. They would work on “catching up” but often that couldn’t be done in one year. Since the kids that were working below grade level, weren’t covering some of the material that is covered in the curriculum based tests used in my state, the results on those tests were sometimes less than stellar. However the students were learning and improving and this was shown on the skills based test the school used to measure each individual child’s progress. Unfortunately the results of the state tests were what was made public which didn’t reflect the good work the school did.

  4. Friedman Foundation has what appears to be the original DOE press release, with a link to the actual study:
    http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/friedman/newsroom/ShowNewsItem.do?id=80083

  5. The actual study shows a slight improvement overall, albeit not significant at a 95 percent confidence level. Given that these are early results anyway, I wonder if a lower threshold wouldn’t have been useful.

    A bigger concern is that the study appeared to lump together all private schools. One of the virtues of a voucher system is that it allows competition to weed out the under-performers over time. And the voucher schools may have been in a startup or ramp-up mode while attempting to accomodate all the new students.

    At the very least the study should have attempted to document the variation in both public and private voucher schools. It may be that there is so much variation between individual schools in either category that there can be no useful comparison between the two categories.

  6. I’m actually surprised that the kids who left didn’t do even better when removed from the DC public school environment, but I certainly don’t see performing slightly better as failure.

    Were the local system’s funds the source of the voucher funding?

    I ask because one of the concerns I have about vouchers is what will happen to the kids that I think are unlikely to find places in or be allowed to stay at private schools because of behavior issues. Part of me says, too bad for them, but part of me assumes that we’d still have to have schools for them and they might be disproportionally expensive to educate.

    Bart’s point gets at what I’d like to see done. We’d look at all schools that did a good job, and we’d allow taxpayer funded vouchers to be spent only at schools that were successfully producing good academic results for the student population that they served. (I wouldn’t expect a school for the developmentally delayed to produce gifted magnet school results, but they’d have to be getting decent results for the developmentally delayed.) It doesn’t make sense to me to let parents choose to spend taxpayer money on crappy schools when we know better schools exist anymore than it makes sense to just keep the status quo.

  7. If I can post without typos this time…

    It doesn’t make sense to me to let parents choose to spend taxpayer money on crappy schools when we know better schools exist anymore than it makes sense to just keep the status quo.

    I thought that _was_ the status quo. Anyway, if objective results were available, there wouldn’t be much need to tell parents what they were “allowed” to do. I have to think that most of them are smart enough to compare a set of numbers, or to disregard the numbers if the parents have additional criteria which weren’t addressed in the test scores.

    I’m no expert on the subject, but my general sense is that the results being collected are barely adequate for the purpose of making broad comparisons of school performance. The studies seem too blunt and fuzzy to be used to override parents’ decisions made in response to individual situations.

  8. Bart,

    I didn’t mean in this particular use of vouchers; I meant if we jumped to using vouchers universally. I think we should have some way of accrediting the schools that can accept them.

    About the parents being able to compare numbers and make choices, etc: apparently some can’t or don’t. Even in schools who have failed NCLB measures long enough that they have to offer special programs or transfers, a significant group of parents don’t make use of them. The old failing schools stay right in business as usual.

    If we’re going to make an overhaul, let’s quit paying for bad schools.

  9. I want to note that I don’t want the current educational bureaucracy to be in the school accreditation business, but if you’re going to continue to use public funds for education, completely unrestricted parent choice might not be the way to go. I think schools are going to crop up just as bad or worse than what we’ve got, so why not cut them out of the public funds picture if you can?

  10. This still begs the question of how you determine which schools are bad enough to be ineligible for vouchers. If we had a scoring system good enough for that purpose, we’d also be able to do a lot of other cool things, such as evaluating and rewarding teachers for value-added performance, and placing each student in a program best-suited for that student’s personality and ability.

    Aside from that you might have a point if it applies equally to public schools.

  11. About the parents being able to compare numbers and make choices, etc: apparently some can’t or don’t. Even in schools who have failed NCLB measures long enough that they have to offer special programs or transfers, a significant group of parents don’t make use of them.

    Using a voucher requires a parent to take the time to find a school and enroll the child, and then pay the (usually substantial) portion of tuition that the voucher doesn’t cover. I would not expect the apathetic or incompetent parents you describe to make this sacrifice of effort and expense. Instead they will follow the path of least resistance and leave their children in the failing public school.

    Therefore, if you are really concerned about spending public funds on bad schools, your focus should be on the kids left behind in failing public schools, and not on those with vouchers. For example, if you have the means to evaluate private schools, you might use your test to choose voucher schools for children whose parents are unable or unwilling to make that choice.

    Failing that, it doesn’t make sense to me to want to interfere with the choice of parents who are obviously active and involved.

  12. Bart,

    I’d apply it equally to public schools if it existed and I could.

    Have you ever read about the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System? I actually have no connection to it or any direct experience with it, but it always seems so darned close to what we’d really need. It does require yearly testing, so it’d require a willingness for voucher eligible schools to use a similar curriculum.

    Any of my criticism about how people would spend vouchers was really imagining a universal system that did away with our current failing system. Surely, it couldn’t continue to run when much of the money was gone, could it? And if we keep paying for the current bad system and vouchers, isn’t that going to be a really hard sell to taxpayers?

    With current, seemingly experimental voucher programs, I agree that the parents using them actually are the parents more likely to be involved with their children’s education and capable of making good decisions for them generally.

    I also think income isn’t the only difference between parents who pay for good private schools (or seek vouchers or scholarships to them) or parents who choose to live in a functioning school district and other parents who leave their kids in crappy schools.

    I am usually surprised when the gains made by kids using vouchers aren’t immediate and huge.

  13. Andy Freeman says:

    > if you’re going to continue to use public funds for education, completely unrestricted parent choice might not be the way to go.

    Considering that public schools are so rarely shut down for poor performance, the above is equivalent to arguing that it’s okay to force kids to go to bad schools, that there’s only a problem with letting their parents choose bad schools.

    > I think schools are going to crop up just as bad or worse than what we’ve got, so why not cut them out of the public funds picture if you can?

    Of course. We can’t let private schools threaten the public school monopoly on bad schools.

    I’ll believe that public school advocates are concerned with bad schools when they shut down bad public schools instead of defending them.

    As long as the most important thing is keeping the daily attendance money….

  14. The Tennessee Value Added system sounds interesting, but I don’t know any specifics about it. But even if it’s as good as it sounds, determining voucher eligibility would be one of the least important applications of the test.

    Any of my criticism about how people would spend vouchers was really imagining a universal system that did away with our current failing system. Surely, it couldn’t continue to run when much of the money was gone, could it?

    Why would you think that? Vouchers usually don’t pay the full cost of private tuition, so for students who seem to be progressing well in public school, there is not much incentive to switch to a private school even with the voucher. Vouchers mainly benefit students in bad schools, or who have needs that aren’t being met at the assigned public school for one reason or another. Not all public schools are bad.

    In fact the hope is that with added competition from voucher schools, public schools will also improve. I think the Friedman folks found evidence of this (although that may not have been their study). And then there is the windfall of money that didn’t follow the voucher kids (again because the voucher amount is usually less than the cost to educate a child in public school). Assuming the state continues to spend some of this money on public education, it can pay for further improvements to public education.

    Assuming vouchers ever become universal, I would expect to see a small exodus from public schools, leading to some sort of equilibrium. Probably just enough of an exodus to give the public schools the class-size reduction they’ve been demanding.

  15. Oh, Allen, isn’t this just tedious? Who is defending the present bad schools here? How is wanting to get rid of them entirely somehow a form of defense? Quit reading what you find easiest to respond to and actually consider a slightly different form of choice. Tell me why achievement based criteria for vouchers would be worse that no achievement based criteria if the money couldn’t be spent at bad public schools either.

    Bart,

    There seems to be a sentiment you run into in the comments here from a group that holds “either you support a system of parent choice where all the money follows the child or you obviously are just defending the status quo.” I think I got sucked in and forgot that some people are interested in other kinds of public school reform as well.

    I agree that not all public systems are bad and that TVAA would have benefits far beyond voucher eligibility.

    Any exodus from public schools won’t result in a class size reduction unless you leave the same amount of money at the schools that the kids left, though. You realize that, right? The “windfall” of the extra money is likely to be sucked up by regulations that the public schools will still be bound by that their competitors are not. (I’m completely open to getting rid of some of the regulations and bureaucracy, but the existence of competition alone doesn’t do it.)

    In a mixed system of some vouchers and continuing current public schools, how do you see the vouchers being allocated? Do you think simply giving them to any parent who requested one would work? I’m sincerely asking.

    We’ve recently passed a state law in Georgia giving special education students a 9,000 dollar voucher. Apparently, any student enrolled last year in public schools with an IEP will be eligible.

    It represented entirely new education funding, so although it was resisted by the usual suspects, I don’t think it changes anything about funding for the current public system.

    I’m interested to see how it works.