For most of this nation’s history, black people have had too few allies in the struggle for better schools. Brown v. Bd. of Education tried to change that by tying the fate of black students with their white classmates. Although that effort has not turned out like Thurgood Marshall had hoped, the underlying point remains true: as a minority group, African-Americans need allies.

In light of this, I welcome the various folks now demanding better schools for low-income and minority students. At the same time, it is imperative that education reformers of all colors and sizes recognize that for African-Americans, the school struggle is part of a larger demand for equality and justice.

This point, which Sara Mead made well, might seem obvious. But then education reformers start talking and I realize it is not. A jarring example is The Education Gadlfy’s recent statement about the D.C. voucher program and voting rights for District citizens. Here it is in full:

Gadfly has heretofore expressed no opinion about the District of Columbia’s lack of representation in Congress. But the latest crusade of Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, makes one think that perhaps D.C. shouldn’t have a vote. Norton is trying to kill the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which turns federal dollars into private school scholarships for 2,000 of the District’s neediest students. Her stance is, at minimum, odd, because parents whose children have received scholarships like the program (see here and here). So who is Norton representing? Evidently not her D.C. constituents. She recently said that the program “was experimental, it was never meant to be permanent.” But Deborah Green, whose daughter Tanisha is thriving in her new private school, disagrees. Green said, “We’re going to have a battle. I’m ready to do that because they need to keep the program going. Without it, the students don’t have a choice, and I don’t think that’s fair.” It’s not fair. Whether or not you think Norton should win a vote in Congress, here’s hoping she loses this particular fight and that the parents prevail.

The bottom line here: Gadly thinks that the District of Columbia citizens might not deserve the vote because our elected representative disagrees with the Gadfly (and the parents receiving vouchers) about the merits of the program.

This is illogical, bizarre and offensive. The illogic begins with the premise that because the parents of the children receiving vouchers like the program (studies show they do), Norton is acting against her constituency by opposing the plan. Of course, Norton’s constituency is broader than the parents who benefit. Other constituents don’t like vouchers. This is how democracy works; it is why a representative might choose to oppose needle-exchange programs for IV drug users even though addicts like the program, or might oppose tax breaks for businesses even if the owners appreciate the rebate, etc.

The Gadfly’s post is bizarre because suggesting that Norton is not being true to her constituency ignores the particular history of the D.C. voucher program. The voucher program was passed by Congress, not by the elected representatives of the District of Columbia. Everyone knows it would not have passed if D.C.’s elected officials got to vote on it–indeed, that is why voucher advocates went to Congress in the first place.

Would the Gadfly endorse Congress denying the citizens of Dayton, Ohio the right to vote and then passing a law that applied only to Dayton and that most of Dayton’s elected officials opposed? Of course not.

The difference is that the Constitution prohibits Congress from doing this to the citizens of Dayton, or any other part of the U.S. But it allows it with D.C. But even if it is constitutional to treat D.C. this way, there is simply no moral justification for legislating on local concerns. This point was eloquently made by Republican lawyers Lee Casey and David Rifkin Jr. at the time the voucher law was passed (available behind NY Times subscription wall). In discussing pending voucher and gun control legislation, they said:

Congress has the constitutional right to impose a school voucher program on the District of Columbia. It also has the legal power to relax the district’s strict gun control laws. But that doesn’t mean it should. In fact, doing so — as some senators are now proposing — violates the basic social compact the Constitution’s framers envisioned between Congress and the district.

The issues at hand are Republican-led efforts in the Senate to establish a school voucher program in the district and to repeal its 27-year-old ban on handguns. But while the Constitution grants Congress ”exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever” over the national capital, it lacks the moral authority to impose policy choices over purely local matters like these, matters that otherwise do not affect the federal government’s operations.

In light of this history, many District residents oppose the voucher plan on process (i.e., democracy) grounds. For many, the merits of vouchers are beside the point, because the principle (again, democracy) has been violated.

The Gadfly’s argument is offensive too, and especially so to the precise constituency that the Gadfly and other education reformers purport to defend. D.C. is a majority black city in a country that denied blacks the right to vote for centuries. Even if Norton were dead wrong on vouchers, that is irrelevant to the question of whether the franchise should be extended to this majority-black constituency. We do not have to prove our worthiness to vote. D.C. residents deserve the right to vote in Congress unconditionally, because morality, political philosophy, and basic human rights say so, not because the Gadfly likes what our rep has to say about vouchers.

In fact, the Gadfly has it exactly backwards. Voting rights and democracy matter more than a single issue. The fact that the Gadfly reverses the order and privileges vouchers over equal citizenship buttresses the oft-made claim that, despite the racial justice rhetoric, the education reform community has concerns other than the health of the black community.

And at the end of the day, that’s why this is so important. I care about the education reform movement. A lot of African-Americans distrust education reformers like those at the Gadfly. Many believe they want to privatize the schools, they want free-markets to rule, and they use black families and children as pawns. I don’t know the folks behind the Gadfly, but I know many of their fellow travelers, and I don’t believe this is the case in general.

I think most ed reformers are well-meaning people who have, for a variety of reasons, been drawn to an issue that is unquestionably urgent–the quality of schools in low-income communities. It is hard enough to convince people of this as is. Posts like the Gadfly’s make it much harder.


Today’s Washington Times reports on DC voucher program. Representative Norton predicts it is going down:

Congress authorized the program for five years, and must reauthorize it next year if it is to continue. Mrs. Norton said she will do her best to make sure that doesn’t happen, and now that her party holds the majority in Congress, she could be more successful than she was in 2004.

“I think there’s very little chance that, when this runs out, it will be renewed, ” she said.

Mrs. Norton met with officials from the Washington Scholarship Fund, which administers the scholarships. “I have said to them that I think the only responsible thing to do is to prepare the parents to understand that the program is unlikely to be funded, that it was experimental, it was never meant to be permanent.”

My views here. Eduwonk also noticed inconsistencies in how voucher proponents defend the program.

John Kirtley (a leader of the private school choice movement in Florida) and I started discussing whether vouchers should be part of Obama’s education plan. The conversation has now expanded to include the question of choice across school districts. John’s original post and my response are here, and John’s response back to me can be found here on Whitney Tilson’s blog. John’s main point is worth quoting:

My comments amount to a single claim, but a different one: unless a candidate supports parental choice for low income parents, reform oriented Democrats should be pissed off. More importantly, low income parents who are being asked to support such candidates should be pissed off.

Your friend I think is getting caught up in a word. The real question to ask him (or her) is: why don’t you, or the Education Trust, support the idea of using taxpayer dollars to help a low income parent send their child to a particular school, perhaps even on their block, that works for that child? Don’t just say that it should be OK for you or the Education Trust not to support that — say why it’s OK to deny that parent that chance.

Remember the example of Miami Union Academy. It graduates 99% of its kids, and 95% go to college. Tuition is $4,000. All its kids are poor and minority. Per pupil spending in Dade County Public Schools are more than double that, and they graduate less than half of minority children.

That low income parent deserves to know why she can’t send her child to that school. She won’t accept an answer that “it should be OK that we deny her that opportunity.”

Your friend says, “To suggest that reform-oriented Democrats have to support vouchers (or even charters for that matter) is to incorrectly impose an ideological straight-jacket on people.” This statement gets to the heart of the problem most Democrats (and many Republicans) face on education. I believe that giving parental choice to low income parents will help drive improvement in the public schools that serve low income children. I believe that it will make every other reform method work better, because it will be an external catalyst for those reforms to be adopted.

To which I offer this . . . .

Whitney: One of the things I love most about your e-mail list is the quality of your comments and the responses they engender. Too often the blogosphere is full of rantings and accusations. So thanks for sending out John’s response to my comments, and your own questions.

Let’s remember how this all started. John criticized Obama’s speech to the NEA. Basically his critique was that Obama should support vouchers and tax credits, or private school choice if you prefer. I responded by saying, more or less, that lots of smart reform-oriented people don’t support vouchers, and we should not attack Obama for not making this part of his education agenda.

John’s response focused on the mom who wants to send her kid to the private school down the street, and what do we say to her. I will address that in a minute, but first Obama. Obama is running for president, and as a candidate he has to decide what his agenda is going to be. As I have written previously (which might surprise John, as he seems to believe I am a voucher opponent), I support vouchers because I’m in the camp of “let’s try anything that might work,” and I support vouchers as an experiment until we do enough research to see whether they work. On this issue, as in education policy generally, I have my gut instincts and core beliefs like everyone else, but I try to be driven by what we can learn from the research.

However, I think reasonable people can disagree on whether vouchers are worth pursuing. This might be where John and I disagree; he may view the case for vouchers as a slam-dunk. I think reasonable minds can differ because I’ve read many (but not all) of the studies, and I think the research findings so far have been mixed. Similarly, I think it is reasonable for people to be worried about a host of other issues–church/state, hurting the public system, etc.

I also believe Obama, like any candidate, has to pick his priorities, and if he wants to endorse improving teacher quality but not vouchers, I think that is ok, and certainly not a reason to back away from him. Indeed, my reference to your slides was meant to show that you and a lot of other people think that if we have to pick one reform, teacher quality is likely to have a bigger pay-off than vouchers. So for all these reasons, I am a reform-oriented Democratic who is not “pissed off” that Obama does not support vouchers.

Now, to the mom you discussed. I agree, 100%, that she has a powerful moral case. It is the main reason I support the voucher experiment, because I want to find out what happens–to the kids who go and those who stay behind–when we let kids like her child go to private schools using public money.

But here’s another mom I want to ask you about, a mom that I have hardly ever heard voucher supporters talking about, and a mom largely absent from the discussion of choice in NCLB (even my friends at Ed Trust don’t talk about her). This mom is African American and lives in a big city, near the border of a boundary with a suburban district. Her neighborhood school is full of kids that, like her child, qualify for free lunch. And the school is lousy, no place any of us would want to send our child to. A long walk or short bus ride away is another school, really good, high test scores, good climate. The main reason she wants to send her child there is because she thinks he will learn more math and english, but she also likes the fact that this school has a good number of Asian and white kids (along with a few blacks and Latinos). She believes in integration–she herself grew up in a mixed community, and she believes her son is being denied the chance she had. She is fearful that as an adult not only won’t he be well-educated in the 3 R’s, but he won’t have friends of different races and backgrounds.

She can’t go to that other school, though, because a line on a map that she can’t even see says that it is a different school district. And she can’t afford to move there. She has heard about NCLB and even received a letter offering her a transfer, but it was to other schools in her own district, which are as racially isolated as hers, with lower test scores and further away than this nearby school she wants to attend.

Whitney, to re-state your question and John’s question, in all my life, as I have read and talked about choice, charters, vouchers, etc., I have never heard a good answer to what do we say to that particular mother. But whenever I bring the question up in the choice community–the place where I would assume everyone would be on board–people change the subject, talk about political difficulties, money, etc.

Why do I bring her up? Mainly it is because I really want an answer. What do we say to her? And why is the choice movement not working on this issue?

Secondarily, I want to point out that Obama did not talk about her either, and I want to know if John thinks we should be pissed-off about this? I’m disappointed personally, as I always hope that my favored reforms will get pressed, but I’m not pissed off. Per my comments above, I understand that Obama and other candidates have to pick an issue or two, and I get why he might pick teacher quality over inter-district school choice.

Thanks again Whitney for keeping this conversation going.

Update: Jonathan Kozol discusses NCLB and choice across school district lines in today’s New York Times. I know Kozol tends not to be popular with the voucher/private school choice community, but this is well worth reading if you care about the mom we’ve been discussing.

Paul Peterson and Leo Casey kindly accepted my invitation to respond to my recent posts about the Washington D.C. and Florida voucher programs. Paul is one of the nation’s leading experts on vouchers (and a voucher supporter), and he offered this analysis of what the voucher research has shown so far.

I just reviewed all the literature on public and private schools, much of it excellent work published in economics and sociological journals of the first rank, though unfortunately not promoted in the media, so only a few people know about the findings.The findings are remarkable consistent across a wide range of studies.

What I found is sort of interesting: Private schools have much more beneficial effects on educational attainment (High school
graduation and college going) than on achievement, as measured by test score performance. When it comes to test scores, private schooling is more beneficial for students in middle and high school than in elementary school. It is also much more beneficial for minorities than whites.

That is to say, minorities benefit in elementary school but not as much as they benefit in middle and high school, and they benefit the most when one looks at high school graduation rates and college going rates.

I cannot endorse or challenge Paul’s claims here, as I have not read all of the studies to which he refers. But based on what I have read, I do question the idea that the results are “remarkably consistent.” My memory of the research the last time I looked at it (over a year ago) was that there were studies finding a voucher benefit and others finding no benefit (though I did not find anything showing that voucher students did worse). In any event, I am going to get the latest studies from Paul and take a look at them.

Paul’s comments also introduce a level of nuance into the research findings that is new to me. While the argument about minorities benefiting more has been out there for awhile, the idea that the effects were greater in middle and high school is new to me, as is the idea that vouchers have a greater impact on graduation rates than on test scores.

Leo Casey read my same reference to the research on vouchers, and came to the exact opposite conclusion as Paul Peterson. According to Leo,

There is a contested research, on both sides of the issue, on the effectiveness of the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, certainly two of the two largest scale experiments. On Milwaukee, for example, Witte and Rouse v. Peterson and Greene; on Cleveland, Metcalf v. Peterson. I have my own take on the value of the contending research, but I also think [the Social Studies teacher in me] it is best to let people know the contending sides of the research, so the reader can make up his or her own mind independently. A good compilation of the different research, whether or not one agrees with the particular take, is here.

One could argue that one should go further, and point out that Witte, Rouse and Metcalf were all academics chosen to do official evaluations because they did not start with an ideological commitment, one way or the other, on the question, while Peterson and Greene enter the field as advocates for vouchers, much as I would enter the field as an advocate against vouchers. A fair point to make, but one which does not change my predisposition to give the reader access to all of the research.

As I mention above, Leo’s point about the researchers not agreeing is more consistent with what I thought I was the case.

Putting to one side the historical research, and turning to the DC program first year results, Paul also makes the point, which I wholeheartedly endorse, that one year is not enough time to assess a voucher program.

Now, the DC study is for one year. It actually shows small positive impacts of the kind that one would expect at the elementary school level after one year. But those impacts barely missed being statistically significant, so they are counted as nil. I would not draw strong conclusions (as I got nil effects after one year in several of my voucher studies as well).

Finally, Paul argues that Sara Mead’s (and my) complaint about the McKay program not testing special ed kids is unwarranted, because most special ed kids in public schools are exempt from the state tests.

Sara is a careful researcher, but her complaint is that testing is not being done for special education students. But they are also largely excluded from testing in the public schools.

On this one, I think Paul is wrong, but I am going to follow up with him to understand his thinking. At Maya Angelou, for example, all of our special ed kids take the DC-CAS (some with accommodations, but they take it). And a recent report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities makes clear that since NCLB the number of kids taking the state test has increased dramatically, so the Maya experience is typical. There are state by state variations, but the vast majority of special ed kids now take the tests.

Former Mayor Anthony Williams, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton and I have short pieces in today’s WaPost discussing the DC voucher year-one results. Later today I will share some reactions from Paul Peterson and Leo Casey to my earlier posts on this topic.

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.

I am interested in seeing how the latest results of D.C.’s high profile voucher plan get spun. According to the Washington Post (I have not yet read the report itself, so keep that in mind), test scores have not gone up. One valid response: this is the first year of the evaluation. You might not expect to see improvement right away, especially given that when students change schools they typically struggle in the first year. So let’s wait and see; it is too early to call this a failure.

But I want to address the other argument that loomed large in the Post and the New York Times stories on this report. Some voucher supporters are arguing that because parents are satisfied with the program that is enough to vindicate the experiment.

Wait a minute. Let’s get very clear on what metrics we are going to use to evaluate vouchers, or any educational reform for that matter.

The dominant view in education policy–enshrined in No Child Left Behind–is that schools will be judged by how students do on reading, math, and science tests. A public school that would otherwise be labeled failing does not get a pass, no matter how satisfied the parents say they are. So if parental satisfaction measures are sufficient to justify a voucher program with mediocre test score results, they should be good enough for a public school. Which would mean re-writing NCLB, among other accountability laws.

Having said that, let’s look on the bright side. Perhaps the debate over how to measure the success of a voucher program will ultimately have an positive impact on how we evaluate educational reforms generally.

I for one like that schools are increasingly paying attention to reading, math and science scores, and I support increased accountability. But ultimately I would like us to look at a broader range of data.

Voucher proponents are correct, parental satisfaction should count–but for all schools, not just voucher schools. But let’s not stop there. There are other important things that thoughtful educators try to teach. For example, many of us are trying to foster resilience, creativity, perseverance, empathy, caring, and courage. But I haven’t figured out a way to measure whether we’ve succeeded. These things are as hard to assess as they are essential to teach.

But we don’t have a choice. We have to start figuring out ways of measuring and proving that students have learned these things. The data-driven world is here to stay in education. The challenge, I believe, for educators today is to figure out how to capture, and measure, some of things that we know matter, but aren’t currently assessed.