The Century Foundation’s Greg Anrig, author of the recently-published The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right-Wing Ideas Keep Failing, has good piece in this month’s Washington Monthly declaring the decline and fall of school vouchers. Whether they’re quite as dead as Greg suggests is probably a matter of legitimate debate, but his essential points are correct: like many bad conservative policy ideas, vouchers have foundered on errors of both concept and execution. Those who blithely say “give everyone a voucher and the free market will take care of the rest” are obviously not paying attention to what’s actually happened when vouchers have been tried.
Beyond serious problems relating to church/state separation and the inherent value of public schools, vouchers just don’t seem to work very well. Which shouldn’t be surprising: voucher policies are built on the assumption of well-functioning markets, which require informed parents making smart choices on behalf of their students. But that means parents have to make judgments about relative school quality, which is actually a very tricky and complex thing to understand. Studies show that parents with vouchers are often satisfied with their choice, but on some level that’s simply because they’ve been given one–anyone would be happier to go from being mandated (A) to having a choice between (A) and (B), particularly when (A) is often pretty bad to begin with.
Charter schools, as Anrig notes, address nearly all of the biggest problems with vouchers–they’re public, not private, and they operate under additional accountability relationships beyond parental choice. That’s why charter schools are so much more popular than vouchers, and while evidence on charter school performance remains mixed (I suspect this will change in the next couple of years), there’s certain no reason to think vouchers are a better reform. As of now, in 2008, being an unreconstructed voucher supporter is tantamount to proclaiming one’s lack of seriousness when it comes to education policy.
For some recent smart thoughts on these and other matters, see this from AEI’s Rick Hess.
The same issue of the Monthly also has a “Ten Miles Square” piece from yrs. truly, describing one day in the life of a woman named Margie Yeager, who spent some time working here at Education Sector before going on to more worthwhile pursuits as an all-purpose problem solver in Michelle Rhee’s current efforts to reform and improve the DC Public Schools. I’m not sure if it’s going to be posted on-line, so you should play it safe and go buy several copies on the newstand for you and your friends.