WASHINGTON, D.C. – Spend a few weeks in “education reform world” and you’ll find that every time you turn around, there’s another study examining the latest voucher or tax-credit scholarship program.
If I’m not reporting on the results of a study, I’m calling study authors to see what they have to say about the latest school choice legislation.
So I was surprised to find that Stephanie Simon of Politico wasn’t able to locate any. Earlier this week, she argued that “Vouchers don’t do much good for students.” That would be a remarkable claim if she offered good evidence to support it.
“Taxpayers across the U.S. will soon be spending $1 billion a year to help families pay private school tuition — and there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains,” she claims.
Simon could have started with Greg Forster’s study for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Forster examined the results of at least a dozen other studies on school choice.
“The empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy,” he concluded.
Critics like Simon “are ignoring a broad swath of the research we’ve done over the years,” said Patrick Wolf, a professor of education and endowed chair in school choice at the University of Arkansas, who’s studied voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.
Wolf also shed some light on some of Simon’s information — she compared Milwaukee voucher students to Milwaukee public school students; apparently, the voucher students aren’t scoring as high on their tests.
“It’s an apples to zebras comparison,” Wolf told me. “The population of public school students is advantaged relative to the students in the voucher program,” he said.
And the $1 billion Simon says taxpayers will shell out to private schools? Very few voucher programs actually hike taxes to fund vouchers. They almost always redirect the money from the public school to the private school the student attends.
“It’s not new dollars. It’s a rethinking of who’s making the decisions about the dollars we spend,” said Lindsey Burke, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
That seems to be the root of the disagreement over school choice and education reform: Who ought to take the lead role in educating children?
School choice proponents argue that parents should take the lead role. This makes sense. Who, other than parents, are most invested in their children’s success?
“They have the most to gain if their child is well-educated, and the most to lose if their child is not well-educated, so they definitely have plenty of skin in the game,” Wolf told me.
Parents, as a rule, know their kids and care about their kids in a way no one else does or can. I spent much of last year helping several local families with homeschooling — I tutored math and writing for the older students and helped more broadly with the younger kids. I got to know one of the moms especially well and chatted with her frequently about how her kids were doing and what she had planned for the following year.
It was early in the year when she started considering how to educate her kids this fall. She has two elementary-school sons who are also close friends, but whose personalities are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Their mom knew what I learned during the school year, that the boys need very different approaches to learning — different kinds of attention and different challenges.
She compared some of the area academies, schools and homeschool groups and weighed factors like academic rigor, class size, cost, location, schedules, structure, teachers, the social environment and how all that fit with her kids’ needs. She made a decision and her boys are doing great.
That’s not how bureaucracies work.
The National Education Association opposes vouchers and other choice program but “supports real school improvement within the existing public school system that will address the individual needs of ALL children,” according to a statement by President Dennis Van Roekel.
But what of the students who just aren’t wired for a sit-down-and-listen-to-teacher approach? I attended an excellent Catholic elementary school, but some of my classmates struggled because they needed a more active, hands-on approach. What of the families that switch schools for more diversity, or who don’t want their kids in a school where all the students are black and all the teachers are white? What about kids who are bullied in one school but not in another, or whose personalities conflict with some teachers but not others?
“The number one reason parents give for choosing their child’s school is some indicator of academic quality,” Wolf said. “Safety is generally second, but there are dozens of studies and national surveys that show that parents place academic quality at a very high level when making their school choices, but for some of them, there are other things that are important. A lot of it’s going to depend on the individual, the particular needs of their student, and [parents] know those needs better than anyone else.”
Is there evidence that school choice “yields academic gains” and benefits children in other ways? Yes, plenty. We can point to test scores and graduation rates and taxpayer savings, but much of what makes an education excellent or mediocre are all those things that can’t be measured.
If we’re going to entrust children — read: the future of this country — anywhere, let’s think for a minute about who will reliably make the best decisions for them and fight for the best opportunities for them.
It’s their parents, who love them in ways no one else ever will. There may be no metrics for love, but love is a powerful force.
Authored by Mary C. Tillotson – Watchdog.org