A study published last year found that D.C. voucher recipients had graduation rates of 91%. That’s significantly higher than the public school average of 56%.
‘Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement,” said the White House in a statement on March 29. “The Administration strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students.” But less than three weeks later, President Obama signed a budget deal with Republicans that includes a renewal and expansion of the popular D.C. program, which finances tuition vouchers for low-income kids to attend private schools.
School reformers cheered the administration’s about-face though fully aware that it was motivated by political expediency rather than any acknowledgment that vouchers work.
When Mr. Obama first moved to phase out the D.C. voucher program in 2009, his Education Department was in possession of a federal study showing that voucher recipients, who number more than 3,300, made gains in reading scores and didn’t decline in math. The administration claims that the reading gains were not large enough to be significant. Yet even smaller positive effects were championed by the administration as justification for expanding Head Start.
In any case, the program’s merits don’t rest on reading scores alone. In a study published last year, Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas found that voucher recipients had graduation rates of 91%. That’s significantly higher than the D.C. public school average (56%) and the graduation rate for students who applied for a D.C. voucher but didn’t win the lottery (70%). In testimony before a Senate subcommittee in February, Mr. Wolf said that “we can be more than 99% confident that access to school choice through the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and not mere statistical noise, was the reason why OSP students graduated at these higher rates.”
The administration downplays these findings. But the students who attend D.C. public schools are overwhelmingly black and poor, and the achievement gap has a particularly devastating impact on their communities. High school dropouts are eight times more likely than someone with a diploma to wind up behind bars. Some 60% of black male high school dropouts in their 30s have prison records. And nearly one in four young black male dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention.
Mr. Obama says he wants to help all students—not just the lucky few who receive vouchers. But that’s an argument for offering more vouchers to those in need, not for reducing school choice. Policies ought to be weighed against available alternatives, not some unattainable ideal. The alternative to a voucher for families in D.C. ghettos and elsewhere is too often a substandard public school.
The positive effects of the D.C. voucher program are not unique. A recent study of Milwaukee’s older and larger voucher program found that 94% of students who stayed in the program throughout high school graduated, versus just 75% of students in Milwaukee’s traditional public schools. And contrary to the claim that vouchers hurt public schools, the report found that students at Milwaukee public schools “are performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.” Thus can vouchers benefit even the children that don’t receive them.
Research gathered by Greg Forster of the Foundation for Educational Choice also calls into question the White House assertion that vouchers are ineffective. In a paper released in March, he says that “every empirical study ever conducted in Milwaukee, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Maine and Vermont finds that voucher programs in those places improved public schools.” Mr. Forster surveyed 10 empirical studies that use “random assignment, the gold standard of social science,” to assure that the groups being compared are as similar as possible. “Nine [of the 10] studies find that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit and three that some benefit and some are not affected,” he writes. “One study finds no visible impact. None of these studies finds a negative impact.”
Such results might influence the thinking of an objective observer primarily interested in doing right by the nation’s poor children. But they are unlikely to sway a politician focused on getting re-elected with the help of teachers unions.
“I think Obama and Duncan really care about school reform,” says Terry Moe, who teaches at Stanford and is the author of a timely new book, “Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools.” “On the other hand they have to be sensitive to their Democratic coalition, which includes teachers unions. And one way they do that is by opposing school vouchers.”
The reality is that Mr. Obama’s opposition to school vouchers has to do with Democratic politics, not the available evidence on whether they improve outcomes for disadvantaged kids. They do—and he knows it.