Vouchers are back in the news. Several conservative governors are pushing them, and Republican members of Congress—in a showdown with President Barack Obama—have succeeded in restoring funding for the District of Columbia’s voucher program, which was cut by the previous Democratic-controlled Congress. In a post-colonial mood, the House leadership insisted on reviving funding for vouchers and eliminating funding for abortions, although the mayor of the District opposed both decisions. Just a few days ago, Indiana’s legislature endorsed a voucher program, cheered on by Gov. Mitch Daniels and Michelle Rhee.
The issue is especially interesting in Milwaukee, because its voucher program is the longest-running in the nation. Launched in 1998 in response to the low academic performance of African-American students, the voucher program survived legal challenges and now serves some 20,000 low-income students in 111 non-public, mainly religious, schools. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, hoping to cement his reputation as an education reformer, wants to remove all income limitations from the program. His support for the expansion of vouchers and charters is coupled, however (perhaps I should say, of course) with a proposal to cut $900 million from the state’s budget for public schools.
The resurgence of vouchers comes at the same time that evidence for their lack of efficacy grows stronger. Originally, voucher proponents claimed that vouchers would accomplish two things: first, they would provide better education for poor children, especially African-American children, trapped in bad public schools; second, competition with voucher schools would cause regular public schools to improve. A rising tide, they said, would lift all boats.
That was the theory, but the reality has been disappointing.
The latest state test scores for Wisconsin revealed that students in Milwaukee public schools got higher scores than those in the voucher schools. Among low-income students, those in voucher schools scored the same as low-income students in the Milwaukee Public Schools. Some voucher schools did better than the Milwaukee public schools, but most did no better or worse. But voucher schools do not have as many high-needs students as the public schools in Milwaukee. According to state data, only 1.5 percent of voucher students are in special education, while in the public schools, the figure is about 19 percent.
By coincidence, the University of Arkansas released the fourth-year portion of its five-year study of the Milwaukee voucher program a day after the Wisconsin state scores were reported. Once again, the Arkansas research group, led by Patrick Wolf, found no difference in test-score performance in reading or math when comparing matched students from voucher schools and public schools. The voucher students had slightly higher rates of graduation and college enrollment, but some part of the difference may relate to their family background, especially their mothers’ higher levels of education.
Gov. Walker responded to the latest reports by reiterating his intention to expand the voucher program. He also wants to exempt voucher schools from their obligation to take the state reading and math tests. That way no one will know how well or poorly the voucher students are doing and will certainly relieve the voucher schools of future embarrassment.
Milwaukee’s 21-year experiment has demonstrated that competition did not cause all boats to rise. Milwaukee participated for the first time in the 2009 NAEP. African-American students in the Milwaukee public schools scored below their African-American peers in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana in both reading and math.
Voucher advocates are unfazed. They no longer claim that vouchers will close the achievement gap or produce miraculous academic gains for poor and minority students. Instead, they now say that choice will increase parental involvement or that choice is a good in itself or that choice will save money. That last argument is the one that really moves policymakers in these tough fiscal times. Imagine that: voucher schools may not educate kids better, but they can do the job at half the cost. That’s powerful, and it reveals what matters most these days: not improving education, not encouraging creativity and innovation, but cutting costs.
The voucher schools are no silver bullet. They should not be embarrassed. But our policymakers in Washington and in the statehouses should be.
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