Is the Case for School Vouchers Dead?

The answer to the question above: hardly. While the news pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (subscription required) made hay out of a recent government study that allegedly shows private schools really aren’t outperforming public schools, the bigger point has been missed. Some good and thorough responses have come from respected and knowledgeable voices on the free market side of the debate.

A clear example of someone prematurely jumping on the vouchers-are-dead bandwagon comes from the editors of today’s Palm Beach Post – who also saw the study as an opportunity to throw darts at President Bush. First, they identify the conspiracy:

The ultimate goal of the Bush administration in Washington, like the Bush administration in Florida, is to use as much public money as possible to pay for private religious schools. Whether all private schools actually provide a better traditional education isn’t the issue, which is why Gov. Bush always has refused to make private voucher schools administer the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to all voucher students and why his brother’s administration tried to drop the new study into a black hole.

Then they give a filtered summary of the study’s results:

The study looked at reading and math scores from 2003 in grades four and eight. The one area where private schools did better was in eighth-grade reading. But religious conservatives, who are some of the strongest voucher supporters, wouldn’t like the details. The study found that children in religion-oriented Christian schools did no better than their public school counterparts in eighth-grade reading and did much worse in math.

Then they reveal their ignorance about the true value and possibilities of vouchers, namely opening up K-12 education to the power of competitive market forces that could transform and improve both public and private schools:

If public and private schools are in a virtual dead heat, creating a system of voucher-mill private schools wouldn’t help to improve American education. Rather than waste more time and political effort on creating broad voucher programs, politicians who really want to improve public schools should focus on reforms that take place within public schools. For example, if Lutheran private schools are the best at teaching math, as the study suggests, find out why and try to replicate it in public classrooms.

Andrew Coulson over at the Cato Institute had already articulated the simple logic of the free market response quite well in a blog post titled “The School Choice Movement’s Greatest Failure”. Notable is his apt summary of the current state of the American K-12 education system:

A vigorous free market in education requires that all families have easy access to the schools of their choice (whether public or private); that schools are not burdened with extensive regulations on what they can teach, whom they can hire, and what they can charge, etc.; that consumers directly pay at least some of the cost of the service; that private schools not be discriminated against financially by the state in the distribution of education funding, and that at least a substantial minority of private schools be operated for profit.

This set of conditions does not exist in any state in the nation. Instead, American education is dominated by a 90 percent government monopoly that is funded entirely through taxation. The private sector occupies the remaining 10 percent niche, is almost exclusively operated on a non-profit basis, and is forced to charge thousands of dollars in tuition in the face of the “free” monopoly schools that spend an average of $10,000 per pupil per year.

This is not a market.

No study was necessary to point this out.

One of the most intriguing points Coulson makes relates to the level of funding:

The first problem with the study is that it collects no data on per-pupil spending in public versus private schools. Private school tuition, according to the NCES itself, is about half of the average public school expenditure per pupil. While private schools have some other sources of revenue, they still spend thousands of dollars less per pupil than public schools even after taking these other revenues into account, and so may be dramatically more efficient even if their absolute achievement levels are comparable to those in public schools. Hence it is possible that, if spending were equalized, private schools would raise student learning substantially compared to current levels (while it has been shown that spending and achievement are largely unrelated in the public sector, this has not been demonstrated in the private sector. In fact, evidence from developing countries suggests that higher spending in private schools DOES increase student achievement).

Read his post to assess the rest of his arguments, but his conclusion was pointed:

In a nutshell: this study does not say what some reporters think it says, and it may not even say what its own authors think it says.

At the same time, Dr. Greg Forster, research director at the Friedman Foundation, quickly and thoroughly undresses the study’s methodology – and places it in the context of a larger body of studies – to demolish the wild-eyed claims made.

Finally, Ryan Boots at Edspresso reminds us of a larger philosophical point that tends to get overlooked:

Per-pupil spending, church-and-state sparation, taking posthots at the “privatization” bogeyman–all these sideshow fistfights tend to obscure a bigger principle: the right of parents to make decisions for their children. We all seem incredibly interested–frankly, in some cases a bit desperate–to cling to some statement from the latest policy wonk wiseman of the minute who has descended from on high with some pronouncement. But parents–well, parents just can’t be trusted to know what’s best for their children, what’s really best or most effective, or believed when they say that a given school or teacher just isn’t working for his or her child. That’s a facet of the debate that, oddly enough, just keeps getting lost in the shuffle.

So when you hear the latest union/educrat apologist say that a scientific study has debunked the need for vouchers, you can take and file that statement where it needs to go: in the folder marked “Grain of Salt.”

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