Posted at 12:04 PM ET, 04/12/2011
Vouchers making a comeback, but why? — Ravitch
By Valerie Strauss
This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch for her Bridging
Differences blog, which she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the
Education Week website. Ravitch and Meier exchange letters about what
matters most in education. Ravitch, a research professor at New York
University, is the author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of
the Great American School System,” an important critique of the flaws
in the modern school reform movement.
Vouchers are back in the news. Several conservative governors are
pushing them, and Republican members of Congress—in a showdown with
President Barack Obama—have succeeded in restoring funding for the
District of Columbia’s voucher program, which was cut by the previous
In a post-colonial mood, the House leadership insisted on reviving
funding for vouchers and eliminating funding for abortions, although
the mayor of the District opposed both decisions. Just a few days ago,
Indiana’s legislature endorsed a voucher program, cheered on by Gov.
Mitch Daniels and Michelle Rhee.
The issue is especially interesting in Milwaukee, because its voucher
program is the longest-running in the nation.
Launched in 1998 in response to the low academic performance of
African-American students, the voucher program survived legal
challenges and now serves some 20,000 low-income students in 111
non-public, mainly religious, schools.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, hoping to cement his reputation as an
education reformer, wants to remove all income limitations from the
program. His support for the expansion of vouchers and charters is
coupled, however (perhaps I should say, of course) with a proposal to
cut $900 million from the state’s budget for public schools.
The resurgence of vouchers comes at the same time that evidence for
their lack of efficacy grows stronger. Originally, voucher proponents
claimed that vouchers would accomplish two things: first, they would
provide better education for poor children, especially
African-American children, trapped in bad public schools; second,
competition with voucher schools would cause regular public schools to
improve. A rising tide, they said, would lift all boats.
That was the theory, but the reality has been disappointing.
The latest state test scores for Wisconsin revealed that students in
Milwaukee public schools got higher scores than those in the voucher
schools. Among low-income students, those in voucher schools scored
the same as low-income students in the Milwaukee Public Schools. Some
voucher schools did better than the Milwaukee public schools, but most
did no better or worse. But voucher schools do not have as many
high-needs students as the public schools in Milwaukee. According to
state data, only 1.5 percent of voucher students are in special
education, while in the public schools, the figure is about 19
By coincidence, the University of Arkansas released the fourth-year
portion of its five-year study of the Milwaukee voucher program a day
after the Wisconsin state scores were reported. Once again, the
Arkansas research group, led by Patrick Wolf, found no difference in
test-score performance in reading or math when comparing matched
students from voucher schools and public schools. The voucher students
had slightly higher rates of graduation and college enrollment, but
some part of the difference may relate to their family background,
especially their mothers’ higher levels of education.
Gov. Walker responded to the latest reports by reiterating his
intention to expand the voucher program. He also wants to exempt
voucher schools from their obligation to take the state reading and
math tests. That way no one will know how well or poorly the voucher
students are doing and will certainly relieve the voucher schools of
Milwaukee’s 21-year experiment has demonstrated that competition did
not cause all boats to rise. Milwaukee participated for the first time
in the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
African-American students in the Milwaukee public schools scored below
their African-American peers in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana in
both reading and math.
Voucher advocates are unfazed. They no longer claim that vouchers will
close the achievement gap or produce miraculous academic gains for
poor and minority students.
Instead, they now say that choice will increase parental involvement
or that choice is a good in itself or that choice will save money.
That last argument is the one that really moves policymakers in these
tough fiscal times.
Imagine that: voucher schools may not educate kids better, but they
can do the job at half the cost. That’s powerful, and it reveals what
matters most these days: not improving education, not encouraging
creativity and innovation, but cutting costs.
The voucher schools are no silver bullet. They should not be
embarrassed. But our policymakers in Washington and in the statehouses