Do vouchers matter?

School vouchers don’t matter in the larger policy debate, writes Kevin Carey of Education Sector in Chronicle of Higher Education. Washington, D.C.’s program didn’t “create new competition and provide incentives for innovators and entrepreneurs to bring energy and resources to the enterprise of educating students.”

No new schools have been built as a result, no groundbreaking programs created, competition spurred, or innovators attracted. It’s basically just an exercise in seeing what happens when you take a couple thousand students out of pretty bad schools and put them in a range of other schools that are, collectively, somewhat better. Answer: some of the students may be doing somewhat better! I think we already knew this.

Remarkably, the D.C. voucher program is being taken seriously even as, right here in the same city, charter schools are actually creating the whole range of market responses that vouchers are not.

A better education for 1,700 low-income students is nothing to sneer at, counters Jay P. Greene.

While Carey doubts 17,000 vouchers would have motivated Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day to “up and build annexes in Anacostia,”  Greene responds that most voucher students attend non-elite private schools that might expand “if you offered them 10 times as many spots and long-term security of funding.” And D.C. charter schools wouldn’t be offering much competition if they’d been limited to 1,700 students and one third the district’s per-student funding.

Reason TV has video of the D.C. school voucher rally, which pushed President Obama to announce that currently enrolled students will continue to receive vouchers through high school. No new students will be allowed to enter the program.

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Comments

  1. Mark Roulo says:

    I got this summary of the program from the Heritage Foundation:

    The new program will provide $13 million to offer vouchers to nearly 1,700 Washington, D.C., students from families whose annual income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. The vouchers will be worth up to $7,500, a little more than half of the approximately $12,000 spent per pupil in public schools.

    Unless I’m missing something, Kevin Carey is suggesting that saving 40% of the cost of educating these kids while providing a similar or slightly better education is “basically just an exercise in seeing what happens when you take a couple thousand students out of pretty bad schools and put them in a range of other schools that are, collectively, somewhat better. Answer: some of the students may be doing somewhat better! I think we already knew this.”

    Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t spending only 60% of the money to get the same result a good thing? Doesn’t it free up money for more welfare programs or something?

    Why the insistence that lower cost for the same result is not worth doing?

    -Mark Roulo

  2. Ragnarok says:

    Hmm, looks like Mr. Carey just shifted the goalposts and declared vouchers a failure.

  3. Hunter McDaniel says:

    Even if the results and costs were only the SAME, isn’t their a basic American value in letting parents have what THEY want rather than what the school bureaucracy wants?

    Seems to me that the burden of proof is being set 180 degrees opposite where it should be.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    Even if the results and costs were only the SAME, isn’t their a basic American value in letting parents have what THEY want rather than what the school bureaucracy wants?

    I think there is a lot of precedent in favor of the school bureaucracy …

    -Mark Roulo

  5. Foobarista says:

    New school startups wouldn’t appear unless vouchers were permanent, and had been in place long enough for startup capital to trust that they won’t go away at the whim of a bureaucrat.

    Which is exactly what happened in DC…

  6. That’s because you [i]are[/i] missing something Mark.

    You’re looking at the situation as if education and responsible use of public money were important considerations in the public education system. They’re not.

    Which stakeholders benefit when the same educational result is obtainable for less money? The tax-paying public obviously does but that’s a pretty diffuse benefit and there are stakeholders with a much more immediate and urgent interest in maintaining, if possible increasing, funding regardless of performance.

  7. There’s not, in any way shape or form, enough capacity in the private school sector in the US to absorb the numbers of children who need a better education than they’re getting. In many areas, there are no private schools at all, even parochial schools. There are no resources to start them. I’m thinking mostly of rural areas, but there are cities, too, where this paradigm just doesn’t work.

    Existing, stable private schools can (and do) absorb limited numbers of voucher-holding children in places like DC and the other places where they’re in use; but really, we’re talking about the need to start thousands of new schools. The charter school movement is the clearly superior option in that case.

    And I say this as someone who thinks that private schools do fill a need in our society

  8. That’s called “the Lizzie Borden” defense. Create a situation and then use that situation as an excuse or defense for your behavior.

    The reason there aren’t more private schools then there are is because of the effective monopoly enjoyed by the public education system. To use the dearth of private school seats as an excuse to continue the current public education system is disingenuous.

    Besides, whatever the future course of education, we won’t see a Soviet Union-style collapse of the public education system. But I’m not sure that we wouldn’t be better served by just that sort of sudden end precluding any hope of resurrection.

  9. Andy Freeman says:

    > There’s not, in any way shape or form, enough capacity in the private school sector in the US to absorb the numbers of children who need a better education than they’re getting.

    The way we get capacity is by letting people provide it. After all, we didn’t get the current stock of public schools overnight. We didn’t say “we’re not doing public schools because there isn’t sufficient capacity” – we built out.

    Suppose that we gave every parent in the US a voucher for each of their kids. Today, most of them would have to spend it at a public school, so they’re no worse off than they are right now.

    Some of the remainder would stay in public schools because their parents don’t like the private choices that are available to them. Again, they’re no worse off than they are today.

    However, some of the remainder would switch to a private school that their parents prefered to their current public school. They’d be better off.

    Next year, new private options would appear. The bad ones will wither and the good ones will expand. Capacity will grow to satisfy demand.

    At the same time, some/many public schools that lose students to private options will do what they can to make themselves more attractive. To the extent that they succeed, they’ll keep more students. This seems like a good thing.

    What is the social benefit of keeping kids in bad public schools when there are alternatives? What is the social benefit in making it impossible to increase the number and capacity of alternatives to bad public schools?

  10. If vouchers are unacceptable we should consider means-testing free public education. Those of us who are rich enough to deserve tax increases also deserve to pay for the privilege of sending children to public school. This would both raise revenues and introduce competition to the school system.

  11. Ragnarok says:

    “There’s not, in any way shape or form, enough capacity in the private school sector in the US to absorb the numbers of children…”

    I assume this is satire.

  12. Ragnarok says:

    “If vouchers are unacceptable we should consider means-testing free public education. Those of us who are rich enough to deserve tax increases also deserve to pay for the privilege of sending children to public school. This would both raise revenues and introduce competition to the school system.”

    Why not let the money follow the child?

    Damn, I forgot! That would create trouble for the highly-unskilled drones who man the public schools.

  13. No, Ragnarok, that was not satire. You seem to be assuming that new, excellent private schools would spring up to serve the students escaping from bad public schools, and I think that assumption is far-fetched. Schools are harder to create and replicate than restaurants and other local busisnesses.

    Where do you live? think about Southern Illinois (for a rural example). Almost no private schools; those that exist are Catholic. They do spend less than the public schools do to educate their students, but they certainly can’t expand to accomodate any significant portion of the (currently) public school students. Nor have they ever said that they want to. Vouchers would allow some small portion of the public school parents to afford their tuition (nice for the parents, nice for the schools), but most students (all of the poorer ones) would still be in the public schools, unless you envision a total tuition subsidy rather than a voucher. And even then, many students who left the public schools would be attending hastily put-together, for-profit schools in strip malls. They might be OK. They more probably would not.

    Now, for an urban example, take St. Louis. There are certainly some high-performing private schools in the area (religious and secular), but they could not accomodate many more students without distorting their model. So again, the private schools would be hastily assembled, for-profit, and operating behind a curtain.

    As others have said, the charter school model is already showing promising results. It makes more sense to work to improve what’s already on the ground.

  14. Ragnarok says:

    Jane,

    “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

    What’s important is that these kids are getting at least as good an education as the public schools provide, at considerably less cost.

    That’s a good thing.

    One shouldn’t assume that public funding implies public schools; let the money follow the child.

    As for where I live – I live in the Bay Area, home of the free-range progressives, where everyone understands that the raison d’etre of the public school system is teach transgender/lesbian/gay/bisexual issues, not to mention sensitivity/diversity/sympathy/empathy, along with a dash of insect rights.

    Of course the wants and desires of that oppressed but noble minority, the public school teachers, comes first; but that seems so obvious that I hesitate to mention it.

    ‘Fraid that’s a bit of a rant, but it’s quite disgusting to see the state paying ~$12,000 per kid in California, and seeing the dismal results.

  15. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Hmm. As far as I can tell, the Catholic schools are closing, not expanding. Seems to not be enough demand for them.

  16. “Well if they impose a tax on me for insurance when I have it through employer anyway to cover someone else that doesn’t, that is infringing on my freedom.”

    Restating what others have already said: if you open up a lemonade stand that charges 50¢ a glass, and I open one next door that offers free lemonade, your stand will probably close even if the product is slightly better.

  17. Sorry, I had junk leftover in my clipboard. Corrected:

    “Hmm. As far as I can tell, the Catholic schools are closing, not expanding. Seems to not be enough demand for them.”

    Restating what others have already said: if you open up a lemonade stand that charges 50¢ a glass, and I open one next door that offers free lemonade, your stand will probably close even if the product is slightly better.

  18. Andy Freeman says:

    > Hmm. As far as I can tell, the Catholic schools are closing, not expanding. Seems to not be enough demand for them.

    There’s plenty of demand. The problem is that many folks who want to put their kids in Catholic can’t afford them because their tax money goes to public schools even if their kids don’t.

  19. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Typical property tax around here is about $2,000/year. I’m not sure that’s the reason.