educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Vouchers and school “choice” — take a good look

No Gravatar

You’re probably hearing more lately about vouchers and what’s called “choice” approaches to schooling. Have your antenna up and look carefully into what these education approaches are about — and what they do to children.

As eSchoolNews reported in “What You Need to Know about School Vouchers,” voucher-type policies exist in 16 states. The story tracks their emergence back to economist Milton Friedman writing in 1997 how “vouchers were ‘a means to make a transition from a government to a market system,’ to enable ‘a private, for-profit industry to develop’ and ultimately abolish public schools.”

Track back about 40 years before that, though, in 1955, when Friedman said he didn’t believe in government-sponsored school integration, a policy Southern politicians jumped on, eSchoolNews says, to use vouchers to create “what were called ‘segregation academies’ for whites only.”

Ah, the economics lab is so neat and clean,
But realizing its concepts can be nasty & mean.

It’s worth holding this history in your mind, because beneath “choice” efforts seem to be vibes of separation, division, and inequality.

Of course, not all adherents to these ideas have shadowy motives, but it is peculiar that these ideas have stubborn adherents considering the research on the topic. Martin Carnoy, a Stanford economics and education professor, concluded in a recent Economic Policy Institute report that the predominance of peer-reviewed research over 25 years shows vouchers don’t improve student success.

Indeed, exploring these programs reveals them for what they are. As The New York Times reported back in February, early voucher study results published in 2015 found that under Mike Pence (ever hear of that guy?) Indiana’s quickly-growing voucher program showed that “in mathematics voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” The study found no improvement in reading.

Another study in Louisiana found that voucher program students, predominately poor minorities, who had entered private schools via lottery, suffered negative results in both reading and math. The Times said of these results:

This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all… Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” – not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

Smaller voucher studies have been less conclusive, but The Times concluded, “The less ‘private’ that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.” eSchoolNews said, “… vouchers purposefully transfer the responsibility for educating students, and the funding that comes with it, away from the traditional democratically controlled public school system.”

We need someone with the right background, knowledge, and educational savvy to understand these things for what they are.

Enter Betsy Devos. You remember her background, knowledge, and educational savvy from her confirmation hearings, what The Washington Post called, in a title that was probably not the kind of concise wordsmithing the editors typically learned in journalism school: “Six astonishing things Betsy DeVos said — and refused to say — at her confirmation hearing.” I mean — how else can you put it?

Some people want to be fooled. Some don’t know any better. Some love the idea of the market. I still do believe only a small group is still pushing ahead with full knowledge of the malice and harm of these concepts.

I don’t want to fall into saying I know which category those who are making national education decisions right now fall into. But all of us can do our homework and spread the word about the effect of vouchers and “choice” programs on real kids. All you gotta do is click.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
Print This Post Print This Post

Discussion Area - Leave a Comment