The Pointless DC Voucher Debate

Kevin Carey has a good post on the basic pointlessness of the DC school vouchers debate:

That said, there’s a strong element of artifice to this whole debate. The DC voucher program does not represent serious public policy. It was a P.R. move, a bone thrown by the previous administration to the privatization crowd it marginalized by supporting NCLB. The voucher dream (setting aside the obvious anti-labor agenda for the moment) has always been to introduce market dynamics to public education — to create new competition and provide incentives for innovators and entrepreneurs to bring energy and resources to the enterprise of educating students.

The DC voucher program does none of these things. No new schools have been built as a result, no groundbreaking programs created, competition spurred, or innovators attracted. It’s basically just an exercise in seeing what happens when you take a couple thousand students out of pretty bad schools and put them in a range of other schools that are, collectively, somewhat better. Answer: some of the students may be doing somewhat better! I think we already knew this.

Kevin notes that the real action in terms of choice and innovation in the DC school universe is happening through our large and growing public charter school sector. That’s correct. I would also note that during the voucher era, the number of private schools serving low-income children has actually declined as some private schools have converted themselves into charter schools. The other thing happening in DC, of course, is Mayor Fenty and Schools Chancellor Rhee’s continuing efforts to get the Washington Teacher’s Union to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement that will let the most effective teachers earn more money than they currently do, while making it easier to fire bad teachers.


Neither Rhee nor Fenty are exactly pawns of the union, but neither of them are investing tons of time and energy in the voucher fight. It’s symbolically important for folks on the right who enjoy acting like know-it-alls while, in fact, knowing nothing about education policy. But in terms of the future of DC schoolchildren, it’s just a distraction. If you want to pressure politicians to do something the union doesn’t like, press them to support the Fenty administration’s position in the collective bargaining agreement fight.