It’s time to move beyond old assumptions about vouchers

School voucher critics generally approach their job reviewing the research on school choice with unfair assumptions, and otherwise insightful commentators risk recycling old canards. This is true with Thomas Toch’s critique of vouchers in the newest edition of Kappan, which concludes that voucher programs haven’t shown enough impact to justify their position in a large-scale reform effort. Questions of scale can lead to legitimate debate, but we’ll get nowhere until we acknowledge what’s in the literature.

Toch grounds what he calls “the underwhelming record of voucher schools” first with an anecdotal report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which determined that America’s first voucher program “is very much like a teenager: heart-warmingly good at times, disturbingly bad at others.” The problem is that this newspaper report is nearly seven years old. We’ve learned so much since then, and at no time has the peer-reviewed science on the subject shown the back-and-forth swing from good to bad that the Journal Sentinel implied in 2005.

John Witte and Patrick Wolf, for instance, gave us a glimpse this year into their evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Among other findings, they conclude that the competitive pressure from the voucher program produced modest achievement gains in the school district, and that the gains of the low-income choice students were comparable to a low-income sample in the school district. Notably, they also found that high school students in the choice program enroll in four-year colleges at a higher rate than do students in Milwaukee Public Schools, a factor that Toch dispatches with a rhetorical afterthought.

And if “comparable” gains between voucher and public school students are insufficient to Toch, he need only turn to more recent evidence from Northwestern University’s David Figlio, who annually studies the academic impact of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program and wrote last summer that scholarship students had modestly better gains in reading and math than similar low-income students in public schools. “The estimated effects of program participation on math performance are statistically significantly positive at conventional levels … and the estimated effects on reading performance are significantly positive in the case of reading,” Figlio said. “These differences, while not large in magnitude, are larger and more statistically significant than in the past year’s results, suggesting that successive cohorts of participating students may be gaining ground over time.”

Critiques like Toch’s have been applied carelessly by others to charter schools and other choice initiatives as well, but Toch is correct to point out that public school choice has evolved to grow more accountable to taxpayers in a way that most voucher programs have not. But this, too, ignores more recent developments that would make private school options more transparent. Toch notes that Indiana has established a sweeping new program that will significantly increase the size of the nation’s voucher population, but he doesn’t mention that voucher students will be subject to the same state testing regimen as public school students. And next summer we’ll see the learning gains of Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students according to each participating school in which there are 30 qualifying scholarship student test scores.

The picture is far from perfect, but the lessons we’re learning year by year should help inform states to develop well-regulated private school options that help us find common ground on issues of accountability, quality and scale. Toch’s commentary may have succeeded in shedding more light on the lingering political divide on parental choice, but it also seems more relevant with debates that took place years ago.  Vouchers and tax credit scholarships in Florida, Milwaukee and elsewhere are now well established in systems of public education that defy traditional notions of “public” and “private.” Enrollment in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship has grown by nearly 61 percent in just the last three years, and 95 percent of all scholarship parents rate their school as “good” or “excellent.” It’s time to graduate to a new conversation about choice where we leave old fears behind.

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