Vouching for Vouchers


Al Gore has admitted that he used to smoke pot, saying he realized it was a mistake and resolved not to do it anymore. Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman, recently came clean about a habit Democrats consider even more shameful: supporting school choice.

After Lieberman confessed his sin to the Democratic Convention's Black Caucus, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) announced: "He told the truth that he had experimented with vouchers. He made it clear that he's not going to do that in the future."

Black politicians almost uniformly oppose school vouchers, even though polls show their inner city constituents feel differently. School choice is also anathema to the teachers unions, and therefore to Gore.

So it's not surprising that the Democrats' vice presidential nominee would feel pressure to repudiate his middle-aged flirtation with the idea that parents should have more say about where and how their children are educated. But if anything, a review of the evidence indicates the need for more experimentation with vouchers rather than the moratorium Gore and Lieberman favor.

In a recent report from the Manhattan Institute, education researcher Jay P. Greene concludes that "the finding of positive effects…is remarkably consistent across all studies of existing choice programs." These include taxpayer-funded programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland as well as privately funded initiatives in New York, Dayton, San Antonio, and Washinton, D.C.

The most impressive evidence comes from parent surveys conducted during the last few years, the results of which Greene calls "unambiguous and overwhelmingly positive." A study of Milwaukee's program, for example, found that the "satisfaction of Choice parents with private schools was just as dramatic as dissatisfaction was with prior public schools."

In Cleveland, almost half of the parents using vouchers said they were very satisfied with the academic program, safety, discipline, and moral instruction at their children's schools, compared to less than a third of parents with kids in public schools. A survey in Washington found that "46 percent of the private school parents gave their school an 'A,' as compared to just 15 percent of the public school parents."

Ordinarily, such measures of consumer satisfaction would be considered decisive. Indeed, the very fact that, given a choice, so many low-income parents prefer private schools indicates that public schools are not serving them well.

But as Greene observes, "many in the education and policy communities suspect that parents are stupid and that reports of parental satisfaction are of little value." These critics prefer to look at test scores. Here, too, the results are generally positive, though not as strong as the survey findings.

In Wisconsin, where a lottery system allowed Greene and his colleagues to compare children who applied for vouchers but didn't get them to the randomly selected students who did, the latter group showed substantial gains in math and reading scores. Another Milwaukee study confirmed the gains for math but not for reading, while a third found "no substantial difference" between public school and voucher students.

Two studies in Cleveland, where the data were more limited, found significant gains in at least some test scores among program participants. In Washington, Dayton, and New York, where students were randomly assigned to public or private schools by lottery, those receiving scholarships generally showed improvement on standardized tests.

"Perhaps the most striking finding from the review of school choice research," Greene writes, "is the absence of evidence [that] school choice harms students or society." Not only are there virtually no declines in test scores, but research indicates that school choice does not impair and actually seems to improve both social integration and civic values such as tolerance and voluntarism.

Greene also finds little evidence that voucher programs increase the burden on public schools and worsen the learning environment there by "creaming" the best students. Before voucher recipients start attending private schools, their scores generally put them in the bottom third of students tested.

"Given that vouchers cost about half as much as conventional public education," Greene argues, "the absence of harms is proof enough that school choice is an attractive option." He nevertheless emphasizes that more research is needed to confirm the test score improvements and measure the long-term impact of vouchers on public schools.

That means expanding the existing programs, establishing new ones, and continuing to track their success. It does not mean renouncing an innovation that shows considerable promise because of fears that so far have not materialized.