Politico has built an impressive audience by bringing intellectual heft to pinched political debates, but Stephanie Simon’s treatment of school vouchers followed a more predictable narrative: left vs. right, public vs. private, us vs. them. Not surprisingly, the result was tendentious.
Though the original headline’s claim that vouchers offer “no proof they help kids” was later amended to allow that “vouchers don’t do much,” the account was infused with the kind of righteous attitude that mars our political discourse. By paragraph three, Simon was presenting the “inconvenient truth,” as if to signal her impatience with complexity.
Yes, it is true that “Jindal, GOP allies back vouchers,” but it is also true an increasing number of Democrats are joining the fight. Louisiana’s voucher expansion had the support of 19 Democrats (a third of all Democrats) in the state legislature. In Florida, nearly half the Legislature’s Democrats, and a majority of the Black Caucus, supported a major expansion of tax credit scholarships for low-income students in 2010. In North Carolina, a new voucher plan enacted this year was introduced with bipartisan sponsors. One of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, came to the vigorous defense of private options when challenged on the issue in his U.S. Senate primary.
Yes, some voucher students have produced what Simon called “miserable” scores on standardized tests, but that doesn’t necessarily distinguish them from some students in traditional public schools. Students who come from impoverished homes face enormous challenges, and their educational success is an obligation we face collectively as a nation. The test is whether each school is helping or hurting that progress, not whether it is run by public or private educators.
Yes, voucher students in some states don’t take the same standardized test as district students, but that does not make it “impossible to compare academic results.” In Florida, noted Northwestern University researcher David Figlio has used various techniques – including concordance and regression models – to compare between nationally norm-referenced tests and the state test. In 2010, he wrote of low-income scholarship and public students: “The results are consistent with a finding of small but positive differences between program participants and non-participants.”
By seeing mostly through the lens of good and evil, Simon robbed readers of the kind of nuance that enriches political debate. Her reporting on testing data suffered accordingly.