Third Way promises fresh thinking, but that’s what seems to be missing in the centrist think tank’s recent rehash of familar talking points against school vouchers.

Authors Tamara Hiler and Lanea Erikson Hatalsky argue against a federal policy supporting “taxpayer-funded scholarships that can be used by parents to send their children to private or religious schools,” and peg their post to proposals to allow federal Title I funds to follow children in poverty to whatever public school they attend (which may not pass this year).

It’s an issue that deserves a nuanced look, but the authors resort to blanket statements that echo tired arguments about school choice.

Here’s a look at what’s missing in their five main claims.

1) “Voucher programs have not proven an ability to deliver on the promises of academic success”

Orange Juice

The evidence cited by the authors indicates small but positive benefits for low-income and minority students. It also shows some school choice programs resulted in small, but positive, achievment gains for students in nearby public schools.

Choice has been shown to have other benefits, like higher graduation rates, higher college attendance rates, and a correlation with stronger civic values.

The authors contend these marginal improvements don’t “justify the diversion of resources away from districts and schools that sorely need it,” but vouchers also divert the cost of educating those students.

Since private school choice both saves taxpayers money and seems to help public school achievement more than it hurts, could someone making this argument actually present evidence of harm to public schools?

2)”Voucher programs escape accountability and obscure how students are doing.”

Forget for the moment that the authors conflate true accountability with everyone taking the exact same test.

Each voucher and tax-credit scholarship program is regulated differently. Some require state testing, others don’t. Some require testing to be reported to the parents. Others require schools to report test results to the state. In fact, a new report finds that “accountability” has been increasing in private school choice programs.

It’s worth looking for ways to give parents and taxpayers better comparisons of student performance across schools, and balancing that against concern that excessive regulations might cause some schools not to participate. Those are issues to weigh while creating and managing a program, not as an easy talking point against one.

3) “Voucher programs wreak havoc on school district budgets”

With more than a quarter-million K-12 students (see p. 5) using vouchers or tax-credit scholarships (compared to 50 million public school students) one might think they could at least point to an example of a place where vouchers wrought havoc on a district budget.

Instead, they focus on objections to a system in which federal money follows the child made by the national association of school district superintendents.

This raises the question: Should education policy be dictated by making the job of district employees easier, or education quality for students better? Also, contrary to what some opponents of student-based funding claim, not every cost in education is fixed.

4) “Voucher programs undercut support for schools with high concentrations of poverty-support which is at the very core of Title I’s purpose.”

Title 1 is supposed to help schools with high concentrations of poverty, as the authors argue, but the existing formula has its own problems.

It was intended to supplement the budgets of high-poverty schools, but major funding gaps between rich and poor schools suggest that in some places, Title I is being used as a substitute for required equitable state and local funding. Furthermore, the existing formula allocates nearly half of all Title I funding ($6.4 billion) to districts with a minimum of a 2 percent poverty rate — hardly concentrated poverty.

Rather than allowing states and districts to skirt their responsibilities to children in high-poverty schools, fresh thinking might look for ways to  better meet their needs.

Ensuring Title I funds follow the student to whatever school they attend is one such idea.

5)  Voucher programs are not the education fix Americans want?

The authors cite the 2013 PDK/Gallup Poll which found the vast majority of Americans oppose vouchers. Yet, a poll conducted the same year by Harvard University found just the opposite.

Why the discrepancy? The PDK/Gallup poll reached a different conclusion by switching from using a nuetral question that delivered positive support for vouchers to a loaded question that used the word  “expense” to describe vouchers.

While polling varies on the popularity of different forms of school choice, what voucher opponents tend to ignore the fact that if no parents saw benefits in vouchers, they wouldn’t use them, and the issue would be moot. In typical broadsides against parental choice, the decisions of those parents continue to get short shrift.

No matter what ultimately comes of federal discussions around Title I funding, building a system to serve the needs of every student is an area where where the center-left intellectual establishment could use some real fresh thinking, as opposed to tired talking points.

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