In voucher debate, who can we believe?

Two articles appearing close together in the same prominent newspaper illustrate the problem in trying to make sense of school choice programs.

These articles are Voucher plan would help sponsor, not students (February 4, 2009 Atlanta Journal-Constitution), which is opposed to vouchers, and Will School vouchers improve public education? Yes: New studies show all students’ scores rise (February 12, 2009, same newspaper).

Here’s an example: The pro-voucher article contains these paragraphs:

A second 2008 study, this one by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, analyzed two phases of the Milwaukee voucher program and showed student achievement increased with the availability of school choice.

When the Milwaukee program was initially launched between 1990 and 1996, there were never more than 1,500 students using a voucher. That’s because the state forbade children from using the scholarship to attend a religious school, and the voucher amount was very small.

After Wisconsin court rulings declaring vouchers constitutional, changes were made to the program. Milwaukee pupils were then allotted a $4,900 voucher and could apply that to a secular or religious school of their parents’ choice. That enabled more families to participate in the program.

The New York Fed study found no effects of vouchers —- positive or negative —- on any students when the Milwaukee voucher program did not provide much competition or choice. However, once students were given larger voucher amounts, once students could choose from a variety of schools, and once public schools actually faced competition, then students using the vouchers and students who remained in public school both earned higher test scores. This study confirms a 2003 study on this topic by Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby. (emphasis added)

From reading this, you’d conclude that vouchers are good for all students, for both those who use a voucher, and those who don’t.

Then, read this in the anti-voucher article:

An ongoing five-year examination of the nation’s oldest voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, uncovered little difference in test scores between voucher recipients and their public school counterparts …

It’s difficult to reconcile these two authors. Both pieces present additional conflicting evidence to support their authors’ position.

The author of the anti-voucher article accuses a supporter of vouchers in Georgia of “[proposing] to dismantle public education.” If your goal is to preserve public education at all costs, then I suppose that vouchers and other school choice programs are a threat. These programs, however, don’t threaten publicly-funded education. They do, however, pose a risk to the power of the existing education bureaucracy and teachers unions, and that’s why newspaper editorialists — allies to these forces — continue to oppose school choice programs.

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