November 05, 2007
Vouchers in DC
Since I've been involved in this debate, I've been trying to read up on the various voucher programs that have actually been implemented. To that end, I just grabbed RAND's Rhetoric versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Voucher and Charter Schools. RAND, it goes without saying, is no hotbed of left wingery. But their "Academic Achievement" section begins with this:
The newest experimental voucher evidence comes from the federally sponsored voucher program in Washington DC, established in 2004, known as the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. The U.S. Department of Education released the findings of the first-year achievement impact study, led by Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, in June 2007. Because the program was oversubscribed, scholarships were awarded by lottery. To examine total program impact on student achievement, the study compared the results of lottery winners with those of lottery losers (regardless of whether the winners actually used their scholarships or whether the losers attended public schools). The authors found no impact, positive or negative, on average test scores in reading or math. Similarly, they found no impact of the effect of using a voucher to attend a private school on average reading or math test scores.
Given that a lot of this conversation has actually been about the DC public school system, this data is relatively important. Again, it doesn't mean that experimentation couldn't have positive impacts -- say, under charter schools, where pubic accountability is retained -- but this intense focus on vouchers stems from a commitment to economic orthodoxy, not because the programs have any proven results.
Update: Good discussion going on in the comments here...
But Ezra, you're totally ignoring the "equality of opportunity" these children were afforded. Their failure to use the market to their own advantage is no one's problem but their own! You're just an outcomes Nazi!
(Pre-trolled for your convenience!)
Posted by: DMonteith | Nov 5, 2007 5:52:04 PM
Since many of the same people who believe in faith-based science (no evolution, ignore facts!) and faith-based politics (no non-evangelical-Christians should be followed and all-hail the warmakers) also appear to be believers in faith-based economics and faith-based education (all market, all the time), one wonders if making, setting-up and worshipping idols has become the order of the day.
The voucher folks seem to care more about destroying the public schools and giving vouchers to enable a market approach to education than the result of this if carried out actually produces acceptable results.
I'd suggest a more modest approach since near every citizen has both a public school and a fire department. Let's give out vouchers for fire extinguishing. Let a thousand flowers bloom on marketplace firefighting. You can also opt for the firefighting equivalent of home schooling: home fire control (for the libertarians who like do it yourself solutions).
Now if your neighbor happens to have his house engulfed in flames and has selected Ideal Fire Company as a provider, and the flames leap to your house, and your provider is Stupendous Fire Control, Inc. (which has been paid by you to put out your fires) happen to disagree on which part of the total fire is their responsibility that is just a minor fault which proves that market solutions work for everything.
Let's see if vouchers really work on something really important like your house, instead of playing around with school vouchers which only deal with children and the future of the country.
Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Nov 5, 2007 6:38:24 PM
And then Floccina and others can come explain how amount of funding has no effect on the level of ability of any particular fire department to actually put out a fire, and how we should expect that we could put out just as many fires with less money.
Posted by: jmack | Nov 5, 2007 8:00:41 PM
Very good Jim, couldn't agree more--we shouldn't be having discussions over vouchers, only how to support public education better.
Posted by: Texican | Nov 5, 2007 8:01:33 PM
I don't get the reluctance of my fellow economic liberals to support injecting competition and choice into the K-12 model. I agree that libertarians have a lot of nutty ideas with respect to the role of government and the efficacy of markets (they underestimate the former and overestimate the latter). But it seems to me they're basically correct about the desirability of funding students instead of funding schools.
Now, just to clarify, I'm not some kind of concern troll here. On this and other forums I've called for an additional $600 billion in federal safety net enhancements (that's totally doable, by the way -- we'd only be looking at an additional 4-5 points of GDP, which would still leave us way south of the EU average). And I want to see this type of government funded with a rather Nordic combination of progressive income taxes and consumption taxation. Give me Denmark in America, baby. There's no question but that I'm an economic liberal of a rather robust sort.
But as long as government is willing to spend what it ought to be spending, it seems to me it shouldn't be engaged in actually owning, managing and operating the facilities that provide services (such as schools) unless there's no alternative, or unless there's some utterly compelling reason it's better to do it this way. You don't have to be a loony libertarian to like the cool things given to us by free markets. I likes me some big robust safety nettage and very free (albeit prudently regulated) markets.
It seems to me JimPortlandOR's point about fire departments is off base. I mean, I can't really imagine any circumstances where it would make sense to utilize firefighting vouchers, because it would be nonsensical to have thousands of different organizations devoted to firefighting. But why wouldn't it make sense to do this with schools? After all, lots of government benefits are portable: Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps and Social Security to name a few. I would imagine the quality of, say, grocery store services enjoyed by retirees or poor people genuinely would suffer if, instead of issuing Food Stamps and Social Security checks, we "assigned" the recipients of such programs particular stores where they were required to do their shopping (the only way out being the purchase of an expensive address in an expensive "shopping district" where they have fancier stores). Anyway, I suspect we are getting some sort of reduction in the quality of public education right now because of a similar lack of competition in public K-12. I don't think this is a liberal or conservative thing. I think it's simple human nature. Unless the possibility of failure exists (ie., losing your customers to the competition) there's simply no sufficiently powerful leverage to insure that schools -- just like, say, software companies and hospitals and law firms and universities - are constantly striving to improve their "product." The latter institutions are all capable of losing their customers. But K-12 public school mostly aren't.
I rather have the notion that school choice is for American liberalism what, say, the politics of homosexuality is for American conservatives. Surely a lot of libertarian-minded American conservatives know in their heart of hearts that, in addition to being immoral, it's simply nonsensical to base much of your platform on being nasty to gay people.
Similarly, most liberals these days are perfectly comfortable with free markets. We enjoy the better restaurants, fancy IPhones and improved coffee competition brings us. Indeed, we're quick (and rightly so) to sick the Justice Department on would-be monopolists, because we know restraint of trade harms society.
So, why, when there are no reasons based on technical feasibility or efficaciousness to oppose a market approach to K-12, are we so stubborn? After all, such liberal societies as Sweden and The Netherlands have apparently enjoyed pretty good success with allowing taxpayer money to follow students to the schools of their choice. And indeed in America we ourselves have enjoyed world-leading success with the way we structure post secondary education-- a sector characterized by competition, choice, and funding portability.
Posted by: Jasper | Nov 5, 2007 8:50:45 PM
1. Are test scores the only thing that matters? Do other factors matter at all? Can people decide themselves what they want to get out of a school, or do we have to collectively make that decision for them?
2. Vouchers sure don't seem to ever hurt anything, so if people want to use them (the program was "oversubscibed" so there must have been some demand), what's the problem? Why is giving people a choice so scary?
Posted by: Withnail | Nov 5, 2007 9:00:51 PM
Nice post, Jasper.
Posted by: Withnail | Nov 5, 2007 9:04:49 PM
Jasper, let me take a whack at your problem with public schools. Public schools have been, um, public, for like, forever, in the US. Some are good and some are bad. Some are well funded, and some are dramatically underfunded. It turns out that most of the good ones are well funded (think toney suburbs) and most of the bad ones are both underfunded and have to deal with problems like broken families, drug trade, racial conflicts, poor nutrition, and other ills of the city or rural areas.
The concept of public schools is a banner of the public commons - things we do together to unite us, and it is a liberal banner. The concept is not broken, but the funding clearly is. Vouchers do not fix the funding problem - in fact the vouchers pay only a part of the tuition in nearly every case (leading to the question of who will pay the balance).
Progressives do not want to resort to voucher's as a market solution because it is a red heering. It is similar to saying that Social Security should be privatized when the actual problems are relatively small and the private solution is not be suggested to fix the funding issues but to get the government out of the social safety net business. The motives of most voucher solution supporters is not to deal with the not-so-good schools by funding them, but to end 'socialism'. See GW Bush on S-CHIP. Those voucher supporters also are quite anti-union, and the teacher's unions drive them nuts, literally.
Public schools are our nation's melting pot in a institution. Giving them up is to give in to religious sectarianism, racism, and other divisive forces in society - before we have really tried to solve the funding issues that the underlying cause of poor performance.
How did our schools get off track? The funding source for schools, very largely, is local property taxes, and because the property tax is a reflection of economic inequality gone wild, the differences in revenue raised per pupil varyies dramatically.
If we want to keep property taxes for schools, let those funds be pooled at the state or national level and dispersed on a per-capital student basis based on grade level (high school does and should cost more than second grade). If our funding were equalized per student (and teacher pay equalized as well across districts and states), there is good reason to think that actual results will be better - uniformly.
Personally, I'm pretty sure I don't want Halliburton, Citicorp, Blackwater, or Rupert Murdock running our schools - and that scenario of rapidly increasing corporate consolidation is largely true today in health insurance and many other aspects of our society - including media.
Education is not a business and even it were so considered, public ownership, management and oversight is a public good that made us a great nation.
The god of 'competition' is only one way to achieve excellence and it has its limits. Some of the best educational (k-12) systems in the world are public institutions - see Japan, parts of the EU - so we know competition isn't the key ingredient of good outcomes in education.
Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Nov 5, 2007 9:27:19 PM
I don't think the question is with choice being scary... the problem is it's not realistic. Jasper's notions that economic liberalism would seem to argue for privatizing education... may explain why I'm one of those socially liberal economic conservatives.
And yet again, I'm really lost as to why Ezra keep going on the errand into this maze, as if the "argument" here is about statistics that definitively prove one thing or another. No, vouchers don't make a lot of economic sense. No, they don't seem to make a significant difference in educations or test scores either. So why are the people who cling to the still clinging to them? Mostly, I think, because they don't have much else,because the alternative would be trying to fix the schools we have, which we really haven't done (and which, Jasper, would be way more economically sensible than launching a whole new system). And again (and again) there are physical limitations on the voucher programs that can't be overcome. The best thing to do, really, would be to move on; or more to the point, to move to a discussion of improving public education, the one that already has 90% of the kids and isn't going to be done away with anytime soon. But everyone seems to want to bat this ball around endlessly... so let's see another round...
Posted by: weboy | Nov 5, 2007 9:27:25 PM
And again (and again) there are physical limitations on the voucher programs that can't be overcome.
Weboy: Such as? I honestly can't see any. (I can see political and ideological barriers, mind you, but I can't what physical limitations the Swedish and Dutch are capable of dealing with that we aren't).
Posted by: Jasper | Nov 5, 2007 9:45:35 PM
It is similar to saying that Social Security should be privatized when the actual problems are relatively small and the private solution is not be suggested to fix the funding issues but to get the government out of the social safety net business.
I don't see it like this at all. In fact, the status quo of how Social Security is run is just what I'd like to see done with schools. Social Security is a portable cash benefit. We allow recipients of these funds to spend the money where they see fit. It's an extremely efficient system, and it confines government to something it does very well: writing and distributing and keeping track of the checks administered as social insurance.
If we want to keep property taxes for schools, let those funds be pooled at the state or national level and dispersed on a per-capital student basis based on grade level (high school does and should cost more than second grade).
I agree with you 100% here. Indeed, I think the main problem with school choice/voucher programs as they've been implemented in the US thus far is that they tend to mirror the general disparities in funding extant with the status quo. I think for a voucher/school choice program to work well, we would need to: a) implement a centralized funding mechanism to insure all children in a given state receive funding of identical purchasing power; and b) implement the program in an area sufficiently large (ie., an entire state) to support a large number of competitors (ie, hundreds of schools). I'm not aware that any voucher program implemented in the US has enjoyed these characteristics.
Some of the best educational (k-12) systems in the world are public institutions - see Japan, parts of the EU...
School choice is widely utilized in the EU and in Japan.
FIWI, I'm not arguing we do away with public schools. I think to be remotely politically feasible, any pure school choice program in the US will (and should) be a "one way" choice program -- that is, your child would still possess the right to go the public school in his/her school district, but he/she simply wouldn't be forced to go there if it's not a good fit. I'm a fan of public schools. I agree that many (most?) are quite good. I'm a product of a good one myself. I'd just don't think it's good public policy to shield them from having to compete.
Posted by: Jasper | Nov 5, 2007 10:01:34 PM
Much of what follows can be solved if you throw money at the problem, and I know that your position is predicated on that premise, but the existence of these objections poses a large obstacle to said increases in spending, so here goes.
Kevin Drum has pointed out that government funds will require government oversight, adding a layer of bureaucracy and regulation that would eliminate much of the efficiency gains that a market might provide and pose a barrier to market entry. The classic conundrum along these lines is the question of government funds going to religious schools. There is no guarantee that a thriving market in private schools will spring up if the process of qualifying for voucher dollars is burdensome.
Also, educational infrastructure is inextricably linked to geography and population distribution, so there will always be logistical difficulties associated with "school choice" that will inevitably fall hardest upon lower income families unless a large (read: expensive and inefficient) amount of redundancy is built into the current infrastructure. Where, in short, will people go and how will they get there? Are two schools per neighborhood adequate for competition? Three?
And finally, I would argue that the efficiencies of the Scandinavian public/private model that you so admire owe much to: 1) a much more profound social consensus concerning what and how to teach than we have here in the states; 2)a linguistic, cultural, historical and ethnic homogeneity that we lack in the states; and, 3)a far smaller gap in the incomes of the rich and poor than we currently have in the states.
Again, throw enough money around and many of these problems could be solved, and markets could be utilized to solve some of them. But the fundamental solutions require more money, and "more markets" is no substitute for more money.
Posted by: DMonteith | Nov 5, 2007 10:03:20 PM
ok, so this is completely off topic for this post, but this is the site I go to for health care wonkery, so thought people might like this website:
29 year old single female with no insurance and two neurological disorders needs 2-4 surgeries. Doesn't have the money, needs about 10K after the various discounts she gets for being poor. Sets up a link where MegaUploads will pay her if enough people download a text file.
Is this a scam? Eh, you can't get a virus from a .txt file, and many people have downloaded it safely (supposedly). I did, and didn't find any viruses.
Posted by: Dan | Nov 5, 2007 10:04:20 PM
"How did our schools get off track? The funding source for schools, very largely, is local property taxes, and because the property tax is a reflection of economic inequality gone wild, the differences in revenue raised per pupil varyies dramatically.
If we want to keep property taxes for schools, let those funds be pooled at the state or national level and dispersed on a per-capital student basis based on grade level (high school does and should cost more than second grade). If our funding were equalized per student (and teacher pay equalized as well across districts and states), there is good reason to think that actual results will be better - uniformly."
Just a suggestion, Jasper and Jim, but it seems to me you could both be happy if we adopted a *single payer* educational system; reductive logic applied to the second paragraph of Jim's that I quote here leads right to that design.
Thus, we could maintain provider competition by having multiple schools available to all who wish to attend, yet make the funding equitable. It seems to work for other public goods like defense (though I admit that a $hitload of pork creeps in there). It may have its problems, but just an idea...
Posted by: Lewis Carroll | Nov 5, 2007 10:08:13 PM
For good schools, you need good teachers and good administrators, and it also helps to have good resources and facilities. I'm sympathetic to vouchers in principle, because I went to a non-traditional school I'm very fond of. However, every large voucher proposal I've seen in practice has been rubbish, complete non-solutions which would make things worse.
Since good teachers are the guts of a good school, anybody who thinks you can get better schools by "getting tough" with teachers or their elected reps. . .well, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Everybody wants to get tough, nobody wants to be gotten tough on.
The best education proposal I've seen lately is John Edwards's proposal to fund a West Point for teachers. I also think Nicholas Lemann's proposal for the feds to adminster a voluntary federal test in various subjects would be good, too.
Posted by: roublen | Nov 5, 2007 10:35:05 PM
Ezra, I think you err in quoting just that graf, from page 80. Read to the conclusion of the section, p. 94, and you'll see that "small-scale programs" are "promising for low-income African-Americans," though there is still a lot to learn, and there's a lot of contention about the various studies. If vouchers bring up results 1/3 of a standard deviation, that's meaningful.
I'm a Democrat, public school guy and AFT member, so I am not grinding an ax here. But I do think educational research is very tricky, and results are often counterintuitive.
Posted by: Dan Tompkins | Nov 5, 2007 10:45:53 PM
another point perhaps worth making: any large-scale voucher plan would be a large tax cut for parents currently paying to send their kids to private school. So any honest voucher plan must involve raising taxes substantially on everybody not currently paying to send a kid to private school.
Posted by: roublen | Nov 5, 2007 10:52:32 PM
I should say that I am not the Dan above who is trying to infect you with a virus. Also, Jasper,
"Unless the possibility of failure exists (ie., losing your customers to the competition) there's simply no sufficiently powerful leverage to insure that schools -- just like, say, software companies and hospitals and law firms and universities - are constantly striving to improve their "product."
as hairpullingly infuriating as it is to see a subset of badly underfunded schools failing a specific subset of children - largely that is, those who have lost out on the American inequality sweepstakes - it seems an even worse thing to build school failure into the system. Wouldn't you agree?
Of course, as we keep pointing out, most public schools do pretty well (certainly room for improvement, but . . .) without needing to constantly fret that their mid-middle class and up student's families' will pull them out and/or move away.
Oddly enough, it would seem the only schools who need the lash of potential failure to be whipped into competitive shape are those which are staggering along with drastically unequal local funding (topped off with often absurdly stingy state and federal contributions- and the stories of how resentfully those are given, to say nothing of how much it's taken, in a few lucky places, to push the system even slightly towards equality, will make you want to beat people with a heavy ruler), staffed with a high proportion of inexperienced and underqualified teachers, and desperately trying to help kids who write essays about how much they look forward to seeing their daddy when he gets out of jail, or who might not have an actual meal between school lunch on one day and school breakfast the next, or whose parent/s would love to help them with homework, except a) they don't know the material their kid's learning, b) they don't know general study strategies, and c) they're not there, because they're working two jobs - Or because they're a crack whore, or they don't speak English, have little familiarity with school and school culture, and may come from a culture with little tradition of basic literacy. Or etc, etc., etc.
Posted by: Dan S. | Nov 5, 2007 10:56:09 PM
John Edwards's proposal to fund a West Point for teachers
What does this mean? Don't we already have a bunch of universities that offer education degrees? How would a "West Point" be different?
Posted by: Tom | Nov 5, 2007 10:57:01 PM
"So, why, when there are
no reasons based on technical feasibility or efficaciousness to oppose a market approach to K-12, are we so stubborn? "
Fixed that for ya . . .
Posted by: Dan S. | Nov 5, 2007 11:04:12 PM
Tom, here's the link:
". . .Create a National Teacher University: While there are some successful education schools, many future teachers graduate without the skills and knowledge they need. In one survey, more than 60 percent of graduates said their education school did not prepare them. Because having great teachers is a national priority, Edwards will create a national teachers' university – a West Point for teachers – to recruit 1,000 top college students a year, train them to be excellent teachers, and encourage them to teach where they are needed most. The school will waive tuition for students who go on to teach in schools and subject areas facing shortages. It will also lead improvements at education schools nationwide by developing and sharing model curriculum and practices and serve as a forum to promote shared certification and licensing requirements across states. [Levine, 2006] . . ."
Posted by: roublen | Nov 5, 2007 11:05:17 PM
I think Jasper makes a lot of sense here, both in logic and tone. As a voucher advocate, I don't see it as a replacement to the current system nor do I see it as a panacea to solve all the problems that exist in our more troubled schools. But I do think it’s a good idea because it gives those with no options a choice and it can provide a lot of soft benefit beyond test scores.
Posted by: DM | Nov 5, 2007 11:05:59 PM
I wonder what % of people who insist on school vouchers had bad personal experiences at public schools while growing up.
I can certainly remember, some years during elementary school, feeling quite rebellious towards the government for forcing me to attend such a ridiculous institution. And I did go to private high schools when the opportunity became available (on scholarships and need-based aid).
I'm not a huge voucher proponent -- I think the solution to current problems with schools begins with a drastic increase in teacher pay in order to attract a bunch of young, brilliant people to teaching as a career. Also, smaller class sizes.
But I also think there are two different conversations to be had about changing the school system: (1) what's the ideal system, and (2) what changes should we make to the one we have now that might be politically feasible. To the extent we're having a conversation about the ideal system, I do think that substantial vouchers (enough to pay full tuition) and a diverse range of private schools would exist in an ideal system. Because I remember that it sometimes sucks to be a kid and feel like you have no choice but to be funneled through some stupid, one-size-fits-all institution. It feels nothing at all like the idealized expression of the American melting pot that voucher opponents sometimes evoke. It feels more like a prison, or a really dull office where you have a job you can't quit. The ideal system should have more choices.
Of course, whenever you try to debate libertarians, you have to resign yourself to talking about some ideal world, in terms like the above. Meanwhile, in the here and now: Screw vouchers. There doesn't seem to be good evidence that they work; they don't provide enough money to do what they're supposed to do; and many of their supporters appear to be motivated by a desire to promote religious schools and/or undermine organized labor.
I'd love to see a grand bargain whereby school funding was doubled and equalized across districts, in exchange for the creation of a federal voucher program. But I expect to see that when Republicans' love of poor children overcomes their hatred of taxes, i.e., never.
Posted by: Tom | Nov 5, 2007 11:22:14 PM
Dan Tompkins makes a good point -- you can't stop with the study by Pat Wolf's team, which just looked at seven months of a federal voucher program in DC. If you continue to page 83:
Although we do not address all of the technical points here, our bottom-line conclusion is that the New York voucher experiment provides fairly strong evidence that the voucher offer benefited the achievement of many participating African-American students.And on page 84:
Similar randomized voucher experiments have been conducted in three other cities. In Dayton, Ohio, and Washington DC (in 1998), and in Charlotte, North Carolina (in 1999), nonprofit organizations distributed tuition scholarships to low-income students, allocating the scholarships by lottery in imitation of the New York program. . . .
Averaged across the three cities, the effect was equal to approximately one-third of a standard deviation—fairly large in terms of most educational interventions, equal to about one-third of the average racial gap in achievement in the country.
Meanwhile, in Charlotte, Jay Greene used the voucher lottery to examine achievement after one year and found statistically significant advantages for voucher students in both reading and math. This positive voucher effect corresponds to 0.25 standard deviation. The Charlotte results are not disaggregated by ethnicity, but the overwhelming majority of participants were African-American. In sum, the experimental voucher findings are largely positive for African-American children (although no effects have become apparent after one year of participation in the federally funded voucher program in DC).After discussing some concerns (such as attrition in the programs), the RAND report concludes:
Despite these concerns, the findings from the experimental studies constitute the most compelling evidence available on the achievement effects of vouchers (for voucher students).If you're going to cite the RAND report, you have to acknowledge that it deems the "most compelling evidence" on the subject to be the many studies showing significant achievement gains for black students.
Posted by: Stuart Buck | Nov 5, 2007 11:28:01 PM
There's a lot of talk about how vouchers will or won't help poor kids in awful schools. I think there is plenty of reasons to think they will help, but there will be a limit on how much you can do for kids who's parents don't care about education.
But let's not forget about middle and upper-class kids in the good public schools.
I went to high-school at Rio Americano in Sacramento, one of the best public high schools in the whole state of California. And it was... really good.
... can I imagine a school being even better? Yes.
... can I imagine areas where there might be ways to make a school like that one much cheaper to run? Yes.
... can I imagine ways that a school might take advantage of radical changes in information technology, such as eLearning, that I'm sure my old school is still not doing? Yes.
... can I imagine a school that was better suited to my interests? Yes.
... can I imagine a school that better prepared me for college? Yes.
... what if I didn't want to go to college, can I image a school that better prepared me for a career? Yes.
And I'm just one dude who's prone to spend time day-dreaming about ways to make education better. Imagine if there were thousands or millions of people trying to figure this out. Imagine if they had a financial motive to figure this out.
I think schools can be better. For everyone.
Posted by: Withnail | Nov 5, 2007 11:57:57 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.