Florida Voucher Program Criticized–With Good Reason

June 26, 2007

Sara Mead, formerly of Ed Sector and now at my old stomping grounds The New America Foundation, is one of the most thoughtful and honest writers in a field that is too polarized for its own good. So when she writes something it is worth reading. Her latest report, released today, criticizes the Florida McKay voucher program for special education students.

Money Quote:

But many of the most important policy questions about McKay—in particular, what influence it has on student achievement—are virtually impossible to answer, because the state collects very little information from schools and students participating in the program. Students utilizing Florida’s other school choice options—including charter or magnet school students and those receiving corporate tax credit vouchers—must take the same state assessments that are used to measure student performance and hold
schools accountable within the public school system. But McKay students are not required to take such assessments, and, as a result, we cannot know whether McKay students perform better, worse, or the same as special education students in public schools.

It is a really big deal if a voucher program does not lead to improved student outcomes using traditional academic testing measures. This is true now more than ever. Once upon a time, vouchers were defended on religious freedom grounds. But the modern voucher movement has staked its claim on racial justice. The racial justice claim for vouchers has always required evidence that private schools were more effective than public ones at teaching academic skills.

To this end, voucher supporters have cited James Coleman’s High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Private Schools; Andrew Greeley’s Catholic High Schools and Minority Students, John Chubb and Terry Moe’s, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, and William Howell & Paul Peterson, The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools. This research has caused people like Whitney Tilson to argue that “every multi-year study ever done shows much higher gains by children receiving vouchers.”

This was the heart of the argument that voucher defenders made to the Supreme Court in the Zelman case upholding the Cleveland voucher program. They said that voucher plans would provide better academic outcomes for black and low-income children, thereby vindicating Brown v. Board of Education.

The lawyers, led by Clint Bolick, offered a litany of statistics documenting the dire educational prospects for low-income minority children in inner-city school districts. In Cleveland at the time, fewer than 10% of ninth graders passed a basic proficiency test, two-thirds dropped out or failed out before graduating, and those who graduated could not compete academically with students from other Ohio schools. Bolick then cited studies—including the ones I mentioned above–showing that private schools, including religious schools, achieve better academic results with similar students.

Just last week the DC voucher plan took a hit when first year scores showed no improvement over public schools (big caveat: you cannot, in my view, judge a program based on one year of test scores). Leo Casey and I both argued that if test scores are going to count for public schools, voucher defenders cannot claim an exemption. But the McKay plan is even worse, because the kids are not even being evaluated using the same tests.

If the progressive elements of the pro-voucher community do not stand up here and demand real accountability for this program, the movement simply cannot remain credible.


One Response to “Florida Voucher Program Criticized–With Good Reason”

  1. Amd2183 Says:

    The problem with any voucher program is that it’s about me and my child, not about us as a society. It is impossible for our society as a whole to improve our education system until we actually take responsibility for this problem and start investing in the education of these kids. By taking away money from poorer schools (which is exactly what vouchers do…let’s not kid ourselves about that), we are creating a never ending cycle of ill funded and ultimately ineffective schools. Vouchers are a selfish “solution” to a problem that impacts everyone, even is you pull your child out of a public school.

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