Friday, November 02, 2007

Vouchers

Some folks have suggested that vouchers don't "work," by which they apparently mean that vouchers haven't, all by themselves, eliminated the racial achievement gap in education. I'd like to make two points about this:

1. Who ever said that test scores are the sole end of education? That certainly doesn't seem to be the attitude among liberals whenever the topic is anything besides vouchers and charter schools. In fact, I'd say that the strongest case for vouchers is equity, autonomy, and choice -- all of which are values that liberals claim to support in other areas. See James Forman's excellent article, "The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First.

In addition, vouchers often make parents happier and put kids in schools that have less violence; they seem to put some competitive pressure on public schools to improve; they tend to promote civic and democratic values among students; and they sometimes allow students to attend more racially integrated schools. Again, these are all values that liberals would otherwise claim to support; I've never heard a good faith explanation as to why every value except for test scores should be thrown out the window when the word "voucher" is uttered.

2. Even if you dismiss all of the above evidence and think that test scores are the sole measure of success, the scholarly literature is sometimes ambiguous but often positive on the question of test scores. There are several studies showing at least modest increases in test scores from vouchers, or from Catholic schools more generally. For example, Angrist et al. had a couple of papers in the American Economic Review; see here and here. They found that a large voucher program in Colombia, with lottery assignment, caused a 0.2 standard deviation increase in test scores, along with a 15-20% increased chance of graduating from high school. Vouchers are no panacea, but no one ever said they were. The point is, if you dismiss these results as insignificant (substantively, not statistically), you'll also have to dismiss pretty much every liberal educational policy that has ever been tried.

To be sure, there are some studies that have failed to find positive effects of vouchers, or that have played with the specifications until a positive result could be eliminated, but no one seems to think that vouchers actually harm test scores. Even Martin Carnoy -- an opponent of vouchers -- conceded in his own research on Chile that "Catholic voucher schools are somewhat more effective than public schools," and that "non-religious schools are more efficient, by virtue of producing academic achievement at a lower cost."

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2 Comments:

Blogger rtatlow said...

It seems that the liberal politicians are more interested in the Teacher's Union than than the students.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Michael Simpson said...

I think the opposition to vouchers is, in the end, more ideological than interest-based or anything else. And I don't mean "ideological" in any pejorative sense (really!) but only in the sense that voucher opponents really, truly believe that public schools (or "common schools", as many will call them) are crucial to a prospering republic. Without these "common" institutions of education, we can't have a united citizenry, they'll say. *Even if* they accept the idea that educational outcomes will improve with vouchers, they'll still oppose them on moral-political grounds. What needs deconstructing is this "myth" of public schools....

8:24 AM  

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