Sol Stern, longtime scourge of the New York City school system, recently caused a stir in the education reform movement by denouncing school vouchers. Oh, he says he still supports them — except that he doesn’t think they’ll ever produce improvements in public schools, and they’re a political loser, and they have a host of other problems as well. With friends like this, who needs teachers’ unions?
Ostentatiously switching sides and denouncing your former allies as ideologues who want to silence your brave dissent is a great way to get fawning MSM profiles. But none of this changes the facts, which are against Stern.
Unfortunately, there’s no space here to refute everything in Stern’s long article. In fact, a complete point-by-point demolition of Stern’s claims would take almost 3,000 words. How do I know? Because Jay Greene wrote one, and that’s how long it is.
But let’s look at Stern’s two most important claims: that school vouchers don’t improve public schools, and that they’re not politically successful.
There is a large body of very high-quality empirical research on this question. Studies have been conducted by researchers at Harvard, Princeton, Harvard again, Cornell, and the Fed, as well as at the Urban Institute and by Greene at Stern’s Manhattan Institute. The most recent study, conducted by your humble servant, was published last month by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
This research, using rigorous statistical analysis to ensure accuracy, consistently finds that public schools exposed to vouchers improve in response to the healthy competitive incentives they provide. Sometimes the improvements are dramatic — Florida’s voucher program produced huge gains in the state’s very worst public schools.
The only exception is in Washington, DC’s voucher program. And that’s exactly what you’d expect, because the DC program actually bribes the public schools to make up for the kids who leave, undermining the program’s competitive incentives. Since DC is the only voucher program built this way, that’s hardly an indictment of vouchers.
You’d never know about this research from Stern’s article. Instead, Stern just points out that schools in voucher cities like Milwaukee remain generally bad. But Milwaukee’s voucher program isn’t evenly spread across the city. Due to income eligibility requirements, it’s concentrated in some neighborhoods. The public schools actually exposed to vouchers are getting better.
And what about the claim that vouchers are a political loser? Stern writes that “voucher programs for poor children … have hit a wall.” (emphasis added) He observes that there haven’t been new “voucher programs for poor children” (emphasis added) since the Supreme Court gave its blessing to vouchers in 2002.
If you read Stern’s article without knowing the facts, you’d think there had been only one new voucher program since 2002 — he mentions only the DC program. What Stern doesn’t tell you is that there have been no other new voucher programs “for poor children” because vouchers are now so successful that the programs enacted since 2002 are no longer restricted to poor children. They’re broader in scope. Another factor is the rise of tax-credit scholarship programs, which accomplish the same result as vouchers but are administered differently.
Counting all school choice programs that send kids to private schools using public funds, since 2002 the number of programs has grown from 11 to 22, and the number of participants has grown from about 90,000 to almost 190,000.
More important, the political success of school choice is accelerating. In just the last three years, nine programs have been enacted and ten existing programs have been expanded.
School choice racks up new legislative wins every year. Louisiana just enacted a new program in March, and Georgia, after enacting one last year, may get another one this year.
School choice is also crossing the aisle. Democratic legislators, tired of sacrificing children’s lives to the teachers’ unions — or under pressure from angry constituents — are increasingly voting for choice. Five new programs were enacted in 2006 in states with Democratic governors or legislative chambers. Even Barack Obama had to make friendly noises about vouchers when campaigning in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, other education strategies like pedagogical reform and accountability testing are stalled or in retreat. The “Massachusetts miracle” idolized by Stern is rapidly being dismantled by a new governor.
That doesn’t happen to voucher programs, because the families and constituencies that benefit from vouchers defend the programs. Ohio’s extremely anti-voucher governor, after riding into office in a landslide, has nonetheless been unable to touch any of the state’s three voucher programs.
Vouchers are more successful than ever. And no wonder, because the research consistently shows that they improve education both for kids who use them and in public schools, they reduce racial segregation, they improve tolerance and other civic values, they improve services for the disabled, and have other beneficial effects. Only the teachers’ unions and other special interests lose. That’s a deal legislators are going to keep taking for years to come.
Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.