Vouchers! Now With More Sol Shine…

Over at Washington Monthly Greg Anrig declares the school voucher movement dead. I’m pretty skeptical of vouchers as a policy reform, but this is too tidy and I suspect he’ll regret writing:

From all appearances, then, the voucher movement may not long outlive its founder, Friedman, or its most vigorous advocate and funder, Michael Joyce, who both died in 2006. How did one of the conservative policy world’s most cherished causes crumble so quickly?

I’ve actually been struck at how fast, since 1990, vouchers have expanded. Multiple statewide programs, a federal one, etc…Considering that it is an idea that cuts against the grain of a cherished public institution and is opposed by an array of influential groups, that programs have even passed in so many states strikes me as noteworthy. And, there is that small issue of the voucher movement winning a major church state victory at the U.S. Supreme Court…

Where vouchers have not delivered as promised is around dramatically changing student achievement or school district behavior. There is a lot of cherry picking out there in terms of what studies people cite, but overall the results are not as grim as critics claim but nor are they nearly as encouraging as voucher proponents would have you believe. I think the best you can say is very modest measurable improvements.

All that said, while I wish the energy that was now going into vouchers were put into expanding parental options through public charter schooling, public choice plans, incentives to better integrate school districts, and the like, politics is a funny thing and I sure wouldn’t count the voucher movement out at all. If for no other reason than there are a lot of groups out there working hard on the issue and today’s political environment will eventually change, the issue is not dead. Add into that stew the persistent underperformance of urban schools and the general trends in American society and I think we’ll be having this debate for some time.

Besides, where former voucher enthusiasts Sol Stern, Chester Finn, and others are recalibrating their ideas are not in terms of vouchers themselves but the relationship between vouchers and other policies. Anrig conflates the two here and in the process misreads the environment.

Meanwhile, speaking of Sol Stern, Greg Forster is pushing back on newly converted voucher skeptic Stern. Background on all that here. I’ve been stunned that throughout the whole Stern debate it’s rarely been pointed out that a lot of people, E.D. Hirsch chief among them, have been saying basically the same thing about choice and curriculum for years.

8 Replies to “Vouchers! Now With More Sol Shine…”

  1. Greg Anrig’s take on all the voucher studies is, as usual, incomplete. There are several studies that find positive test score effects, but he mostly ignores them. Moreover, he ignores the studies showing gains in parental satisfaction, gains in racial integration, and even small gains in public school improvement when threatened by vouchers (most recently Figlio/Rouse/Hannaway/Goldhaber’s Florida study).

    Even more oddly, Anrig’s suggested solution — which he flogs at every opportunity — rests on a single anecdotal story that Rick Kahlengerg tells about Wake Forest. As has been pointed out to Anrig before, if you’re going to demand that vouchers meet a high empirical hurdle in experimental studies, it makes no sense to turn around and wax eloquent about the hope presented by a anecdote that didn’t control for anything.

  2. Ah, Stuart, we meet again! Two large-scale publicly financed voucher programs have been implemented in the United States over an extended period, one in Milwaukee and the other in Cleveland (a third, in Washington DC, has been in effect for a shorter period). If you think my article misrepresents the research into the results in those cities, please be specific as to how.

    As for Florida’s A-plus program, there’s considerable disagreement about the extent to which the positive results there relate to pressures induced by the stigma of being labeled as a failing school versus the threat of vouchers. It is also is unclear how sustainable the observed effects will be and why they occurred. Now that the Florida Supreme Court struck down the voucher component, that uncertainty will remain.

    The “anecdote” is about Wake County, NC — not Wake Forest — and my colleague’s last name is spelled “Kahlenberg” with a “b.” To my knowledge, no one has questioned the validity of the positive results either in my article or in Rick’s much more extensive work.

    More generally, there is a broad consensus based on abundant research over decades that low-income students who move from high-poverty to middle-class schools demonstrate improved performance. Cross-district voluntary integration plans like those in St. Louis, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and elsewhere have been both academically successful and popular.

    Since moving low-income students via vouchers from high-poverty public schools to high-poverty private schools doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much, isn’t it time to move on to strategies that have actually worked that are oriented toward enabling low-income children to attend middle class schools?

  3. Greg —

    Thanks for correcting my typos.

    1. We’ve already had this discussion before (on the TPM Book Club site that seems to have disappeared). You know full well that there are lots of other voucher studies out there — the Florida study I mentioned; Angrist et al., etc. — so there’s no need for me to rehash all of that here. True, none of them promise that vouchers are a silver bullet, but it’s still incomplete to try to suggest that the research is uniformly negative. The research is neutral at worst, and mildly positive elsewhere.

    And that’s just on test scores. I presume you don’t think education is solely and exclusively a function of test scores, do you? Most liberals claim to value autonomy and private choice, which are good in and of themselves even if they don’t produce higher math scores.

    2. As to Wake County, you say, “To my knowledge, no one has questioned the validity of the positive results either in my article or in Rick’s much more extensive work.”

    I’m not “questioning” the results.
    Kahlenberg’s anecdote sounds great, and I’m all for socioeconomic integration. That said, you don’t deny that it’s one anecdote, not an experimental study that controlled for other factors. No hardheaded empirical thinker would hold a preferred policy to such a low standard while demanding that another policy (vouchers) be shown in 100% of experimental studies to raise test scores.

  4. Actually, the TPM site seems to have been moved. Here is the comment wherein I made the following point (Mr. Anrig never answered it): After dismissing vouchers based on his dissatisfaction with experimental study after experimental study, Mr. Anrig’s book plugged this same socioeconomic integration idea, even claiming that the “research is so clear” that such integration “improves [poor kids’] performance.”

    But the book cited only one source here: A Century Foundation report by Rick Kahlenberg that 1) merely eyeballed a chart of 2005 NAEP scores (not even trying to account for selection effects), and 2) lauded Wake County’s plan even while admitting that he couldn’t compare scores from before and after the plan!

    As I pointed out — again, with no answer — Mr. Anrig would rightly be upset if a voucher advocate said that the “research is so clear” that vouchers raise test scores, but then cited nothing other than an anecdotal report that compared raw test scores without either controlling for other factors or even looking at pre-voucher scores.

  5. Nor is it that difficult to tell the difference between a shaming effect under A+ and a competitive impact. The Manhattan study teases this out by isolating the improvement of D-minus schools with higher scores than F schools. The F-schools made greater gains.

    More recently, the Friedman Foundation has shown that progress in the F schools slowed after the Florida Supreme Court disbanded the program.

  6. Well, if Mr. Anrig doesn’t intend to answer the point specifically, I can at least hope that if he recycles this same “vouchers bad, socioeconomic integration good” column yet again, he at least includes some sort of caveat or qualification. Such as, “To be sure, my evidence for socioeconomic integration is anecdotal, not experimental, and any broader program might not produce any benefits.”

  7. I wonder if you would care to look in on Jay Greene’s latest blog entry about special ed vouchers in Florida. He touts the number of private schools within the vicinity of voucher users as a key factor in their success in public schools.
    I wonder if Andrew’s and Sara’s 2003 report on the McKay Scholarships still is relevant to Greene and Winter’s research there.

    The article was posted today and is at:


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