One of the most contentious budget debates this year may be over something the president did not include in his 2012 spending plan school vouchers. Now more often called "scholarships," vouchers have been debated for decades, but support for these initiatives is on the rise.
Let's start with D.C. After years of discussion, Congress established a plan in 2004 to give 1,700 students in Washington a voucher of up to $7,500 to attend private and religious schools in the city as alternatives to the frequently lousy neighborhood schools. The program was controversial from the start it was the first federal funding for vouchers in three decades. But in 2009, under intense pressure from the teachers unions, Congress and the Administration began to dismantle the program and no new students are participating today. New Speaker of the House John Boehner says restoring the program is a top priority.
Meanwhile, there are rumblings about voucher proposals emerging in states around the country including Indiana, Pennsylvania and Florida. In Douglas County, Colorado members of the school board want to create a voucher program just for that county. Meanwhile states like Louisiana, Ohio, and Florida already have established voucher programs and the once-landmark and controversial voucher program in Milwaukee now serves more than 20,000 students with little fanfare
What does the renewed push for vouchers mean for our education system? That is of course a matter of debate. Proponents and opponents make a lot of overblown claims about what vouchers will or won't do. But with a number of programs already in force, we actually know quite a bit about how they work. So, if this debate comes to a school system near you, here are five claims every parent should be skeptical about:
1. Vouchers skim the best students from public schools. Although many voucher proponents want universal vouchers, today, the programs are targeted to specific populations, for instance low-income students or students with disabilities. So while vouchers don't generally serve the absolute poorest of the poor, they do not skim off the most affluent or easiest-to-educate students either. Policymakers are learning as they go and these programs haven't always operated as analysts assume. For example, in 2003, educational analyst Sara Mead and I wrote a paper outlining potential problems with vouchers for special education students in Florida. Largely, those issues, like skimming the easiest to serve students, have not come to pass.
2. Students who receive vouchers do better academically than their public school peers. That depends on the measure. Overall the test scores of students who use vouchers are largely indistinguishable from students who stay behind in public schools. On the other hand, parent satisfaction is generally greater among parents whose children received vouchers. And while it's too soon to tell for sure, there is some evidence that other outcomes, for instance graduation rates, may be better for students who receive vouchers. Bottom line: Vouchers certainly do not hurt students, but promises of dramatic improvement are not supported by the overall evidence.
3. Vouchers drain money from the public schools. It seems obvious that taking money from the public schools and sending it to private schools would leave public schools with less money. But in the through the looking glass world of school finance, things rarely are what they seem. In Milwaukee for instance, Robert Costrell of the School Choice Demonstration Project analyzed the financial outcomes of the voucher program and found that it is saving money in Wisconsin. And, in Washington, D.C. there was an infusion of federal funds into the city's public schools in exchange for the passage of the voucher program.
4. Vouchers make all schools get better because they have to compete for students. It seems logical to assume that forcing schools to vie for students will improve quality. But schools are not economic entities like a store and respond differently to competition for instance by going to court or to lobby state legislators. There have been vouchers for years in Cleveland and Milwaukee yet the schools there are still generally poor quality. In Washington almost a third of the city's students were using various choice options (mostly charter schools) before the public schools began to make real changes. But, we're still learning. Researchers at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research have found evidence that competition improved schools in Florida.
5. Private, parochial, or even public charter schools are better than regular public schools. Parents should worry a lot less about the legal status of a particular school than whether it's the right school for their child. A good fit depends on a host of factors including a strong academic program, successful outcomes, a clear curriculum, areas of emphasis like arts or technology, and even lifestyle factors such as limiting time spent in transit or a year-round schedule. Just because a school is private doesn't mean it is better overall or better for your child and even in places where the public schools are struggling overall there are often hidden gems. A few years ago Bryan and Emily Hassel published the Picky Parents Guide to help parents choose the best school (public or private) for their child. It's now available free online at their website. As parents around the country start thinking about school choices for next fall, tools like this book will ultimately be a lot more useful to parents than the wild claims of both sides in the voucher debate.
Disclosure: Andrew J. Rotherham is on the advisory and review boards for the School Choice Demonstration Project as well as the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER).
Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, appears every Thursday.