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'Hypocrisy,' Mobility, and Milwaukee School Choice

To the Editor:

I am frequently amused by the hypocrisy of some anti-voucher advocates. Your article ("New Studies on Private Choice Fan Flames," Sept. 4, 1996) is a case in point. First, let me say that I am 100 percent opposed to government-funded vouchers--but, I dare say, not for the same reasons as the National Education Association and other government-school advocates.

The very idea that anti-voucher advocates would say Milwaukee's school-choice program does not work because a recent study shows no significant superiority in the city's 6-year-old program to the woeful status quo is the height of hypocrisy.

There have been hundreds of studies decrying the pitiful condition of American public schools for decades. Yet I hear no one from the NEA calling for an end to public education because "it does not work." Why am I not surprised?

Matthew Chancey
Winchester, Va.

To the Editor:

In their letter on the alleged benefits of the Milwaukee choice program, Paul Peterson and Jay Greene accused the program's evaluator, John Witte, of comparing apples to oranges ("Milwaukee Choice Studies: Compare Apples to Apples," Sept. 11, 1996). I disagree. But even if it were true, their own study at best compares apples to pebbles.

The children chosen for the program and the children turned away did, indeed, form comparable groups--but only at the start of the experiment. After four years, the only children remaining in the control group were those few that the Milwaukee Public Schools could dig up test scores for. But most of the children in the initial control group did not attend Milwaukee public schools: They went to other private schools. Mr. Peterson and Mr. Greene have no way of knowing if the control-group children who left for private schools were similar to those who remained in the Milwaukee school system.

I do not believe the data show any advantage for the choice children, but even if they did, Mr. Peterson and Mr. Greene have overlooked the most parsimonious explanation for the results, an explanation that has nothing to do with choice. The explanation is actually implicit in their paper. In trying to explain why the effects took four years to show up, they write, "The disruption of switching schools and adjusting to new routines and expectations may hinder improvement in test scores in the first year or two of being in a choice school. Educational benefits accumulate and multiply with the passage of time." Just so. But it is this very stability that the control kids lack. They are typically mobile urban students and experienced the "disruption of switching school" over the entire four-year period.

Thus, the Peterson/Greene study is lacking the control group it most needs to draw any conclusions: a group of students demographically similar to the choice students but who have attended the same school for four years.

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

When Choice Is No Choice: Free Markets Need Freedom

To the Editor:

Frederick C. Thayer, in his letter to the editor ("Voucher Plans to Date Amount to 'Pure Fakery'," Sept. 4, 1996), contends that previous Commentary authors have overlooked "what should be the most obvious problems with voucher systems," inadequate supply of spaces. If there are not enough spaces, he contends, "there is no real choice."

Markets tend to address supply problems, rapidly if demand is sufficient. But I'll not tangle with that contention because it seems self-evidently ridiculous. But I will challenge Professor Thayer on the major point of his letter, contained in the following passage:

"To my knowledge, nobody has advocated real choice, choice that includes vouchers that cover full costs and such incidentals as transportation, prohibition of any extra charges levied on parents, schools that are required to accept all applications from those living in their district, regardless of type of school, and schools that must provide facilities for 'special education.' ... This, of course, is only part of a very long list of such difficulties."

On the contrary, this is the opposite of "real choice." It is a perfect formula for producing no choice. Free markets are difficult to understand. They do not operate according to a design. We don't know where they are going. But we have enough experience to know that free markets produce superior results. Who, for example, could envision in the early 1980s the telecommunications innovations now flowing from the end of the monopoly in long-distance telephone service?

Would we be better off if, in 1982, government planners had prescribed what services telecommunications companies could offer and how they could deliver them? Would that have given us the choices we have today?

If it is choices we want for our young people, Mr. Thayer and those of a central-planning bent must give way to those who are not fearful of freedom, who have a high opinion of the inventive spirit and creative capabilities of the many outstanding teachers and principals who have so much to teach if they are given the chance.

Tom Shuford
Bayville, N.Y.

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