A friend of mine who’s of the libertarian persuasion and who has a lot of interesting things to say on the subjects he’s knowledgeable about Twittered yesterday “I love how the White House is ‘not fond’ of a program that lets the riff raff send their kids to the same private schools as Obama’s kids.” An almost shockingly large number of people seem to have a similar attitude to this issue, so I think it’s important to clear up how ignorant this is.
Virtually none of the recipients of the DC voucher program could go to Sidwell Friends like Barack Obama’s kids. For one thing, they couldn’t get in. And for another thing, they couldn’t come close to affording the tuition. But the former point is actually more fundamental. Elite schools—be they colleges, high schools, or whatever—are largely in the business of selecting their own students. Sidwell has a lot of interest in having Barack Obama’s kids as students. Sidwell has virtually no interest in having your typical disadvantaged, low-achieving kid as a student. Most fancy schools do admit a handful of unusually high-performing low-income students as charity cases and give them some financial aid. My understanding is that there’s one such student at Sidwell currently who is, in fact, a recipient of a voucher. One can speculate as to whether absent the voucher that student would just get more financial aid or not. But ultimately when people talk about the problems in the DC public school system—or urban school systems at large—we’re talking about the problems of low-income kids who, vouchers or no vouchers, aren’t going to Sidwell Friends one way or the other. This is just a complete red herring.
As I said before, I’d rather see the program continue than not continue. But people shouldn’t fool themselves. The private schools that the bulk of voucher recipients go to aren’t clearly superior to the public schools they’re leaving, and the student achievement isn’t much higher. The trend in DC is for the kind of private schools that had been getting the vouchers to reorganize themselves as charter schools. And this is where the substantive action is in terms of school choice and improving performance for low income kids. Charter schools. Shutting down the low-performing ones and letting the high-performing ones expand and replicate while some additional brand-new flowers bloom.
On the subject of liberal hypocrisy, though, I will say this. I think there’s a decent case to be made that fancy schools—say, schools that charge over some amount per year in tuition and practice selective admissions—should have their tax exemption taken away from them. A place like Sidwell, or Dalton where I went to high school, is not performing a legitimate charitable function. It’s more like a private association of parents and alumni for their own advancement. It wouldn’t be consistent with freedom of association to shut such institutions down, but there’s no particular reason for the tax code to subsidize their existence.