It seems that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is weighing-in in favor of continuing the federally-funded DC school voucher program that many House Democrats are trying to kill.
This is always a bit of an odd issue because the perceived ideological stakes are a great deal higher than the practical stakes on the ground. The DC public school system is terrible, one of the very worst-performing in the country. It’s burdened by a large proportion of disadvantaged children, but it does a worse job of educating disadvantaged children than do almost all other big city school systems. It also does a worse job of educating middle class kids than other big city school systems. And though DC has a lot of poor children in it, it’s not actually an especially poor jurisdiction overall—the system is funded at a reasonable level, though perhaps not a fully adequate one given that the metro area contains a number of super-wealthy counties that outbid us for resources. Meanwhile, the Washington Teacher’s Union has adopted an unreasonable posture in the face of Michelle Rhee’s efforts to reform the compensation structure, so nobody’s really interested in standing up for them. As a result of all this, support for the voucher program is something of a litmus test of reformyness.
On the other hand, actual evaluation of the program reveals what most studies of such programs reveal—namely that recipients of randomly assigned vouchers are a lot happier with their school, but don’t actually learn more than those who applied for the vouchers and didn’t get them.
Customer satisfaction isn’t nothing, and the fact that families are happy with attending bad, voucher-funded schools rather than bad, DCPS-administered schools is a reason to continue the program. And from an inside-the-District perspective, the voucher program is great—it’s a federally funded giveaway to DC driven by the right-wing’s relentless crusade to destroy public services in the Untied States. If we wanted congress to give us an equivalent amount of money to do something else with, they’d never do it. And there’s no reason to think the voucher program is doing any harm so no responsible DC resident or official would want to look this gift horse in the mouth. But in terms of solving DC’s systemic education problems, there’s not a ton of reason to be optimistic. Among other things, at its current size the vouchers don’t actually cover the cost to the schools of educating the children—they lose money when they take kids in. In part as a result of this, a healthy number of DC private schools are busy reorganizing themselves as charter schools in order to get on a sounder financial footing. And at the end of the day, this is where the action is in DC in terms of school choice—continuing to expand the capacity of our charter school system while working to maintain or improve its level of quality. Charter schooling has done a lot of good for DC, and could do more good in the future. But unfortunately, it doesn’t particularly do anything to pique the interest of conservative members of congress in giving us extra money. So insofar as we can get the vouchers, I’ll be very happy for it.