Vouchers: Time for Thinking, Not Rhetoric

A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research is one of the relatively few recent studies reporting a negative voucher effect—students using vouchers in Louisiana learned a good deal less than similar students in regular public schools. The reason: students with vouchers had few good choices, since the available schools were weak and had lost large numbers of tuition-paying students.

empty classroom

Will this set off another round in the polarized debate over whether vouchers work? It’s an article of faith on the right that vouchers are always a good thing, and on the left that they always do harm. These extremes are silly: vouchers are simply a way of giving parents the freedom to choose, and whether students benefit depends less on the ways money flows from the government to the school than on the quality of schools available and how well informed parents are.

Vouchers apparently benefit students in localities where students can get access to well-established and effective schools, for example, Catholic schools that already had strong records of success with poor and minority students. Vouchers work a lot less well when the available schools, as in Louisiana, are not particularly coherent, well-run, or effective. To be more effective than Louisiana’s program, vouchers also have to be well-funded: those that pay a lot less than the tuition private schools charge benefit the parents who are already paying tuition but don’t do much for students who need to get out of district-run schools.

Identifying the causes of success and failure should be enough to turn an ideological debate into a practical one, but it’s not. The left persists, refusing to give up on the belief that vouchers inevitably lead to discrimination, re-segregation, and propagation of divisive ideas. This, despite strong evidence that good private schools are effective with poor and minority students and that their graduates are more likely to vote, join civil society institutions, and endorse principles of tolerance and free speech.

But the right indulges in its own fantasy—that vouchers will inevitably call forth a new supply of schools. It’s okay, some voucher advocates claim, to offer vouchers even when existing options are bad, because good ones will emerge. That reflects the triumph of belief over evidence. Even in localities where the average voucher effects have been positive, most new schools created from scratch to take vouchers drag down the average. And, existing private schools will fill their available seats but are unlikely to build new facilities or replicate.

To date, most voucher programs have provided too little money and have been too politically unreliable to generate a strong supply response. In theory, vouchers could be better designed. They could, for example, provide as much money per pupil as surrounding school districts get, public agencies could be bound by law to keep funding the vouchers as long as schools are effective and parents want to enroll their children, and voucher redeeming schools could be guaranteed fair access to publicly funded facilities and services. Then, popular high-performing schools could expand and new entrepreneurs could see opportunities to create successful schools.

Of course, a voucher program with those characteristics sounds a lot like a charter school program. Charter schools also offer family choice, ability to offer a distinctive instructional program, control over budgets and staffing. They also have significant, if not quite equitable, public funding and some program stability. Charter operators can be regulated in ways that violate free market principles and might discourage people with some of the most imaginative ideas for educating students whom traditional schools aren’t serving well. But they demonstrably offer a deal strong enough to attract some entrepreneurs and encourage efforts to scale up successful models.

Vouchers in some states could expand the options available to students in need (e.g., sound religious schools, innovative schools not likely to seek charters). To open up that possibility, pro-voucher think tanks and philanthropies should set an explicit agenda, figuring out how much money a voucher must provide to stimulate a supply response, how philanthropy could encourage entrepreneurs and replicators who think charters give them too little freedom, and how voucher-redeeming schools should regulate themselves in order to avoid charges of discrimination or misuse of public funds.

Without such explicitness and candor from voucher proponents, an effective voucher program is but a dream, while charter schools are a reality. Unless voucher proponents are willing to get down to practicalities in the ways described above, policymakers and philanthropists who want poor children to get the benefits of choice and innovation will need to continue doing the best they can with charter schools.

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