Fool On Parade: George Will Mouths Off On School Vouchers

Town Hall

Blogging before you today is a product of the Alabama public school system. My mother teaches for the public schools in Texas. And my grandfather was an organizer for the IBEW.

So guess where I stand on the idea of vouchers?

George Will keeps trying to make arguments, but in the end, his recent article on school vouchers flops spectacularly.

He first contrasts John Boehner's recent victory in the House (an experimental school voucher program for DC students) with Bill Clinton's veto of the ESSE Act in 1998. Clearly the Repub cares more for kids than the "dry-eyed" Clinton, correct? Well, not exactly. The ESSE Act wanted to set up tax-free education accounts that parents could set up to pay for private education. Who's going to get the vast benefit of that? People who can already afford it. The legislation was a hor deurve for the well-off wrapped as a gift for the needy, and Clinton was quite right to veto it. From CNN:

The education bill cleared the Senate last month by a margin too slim to overcome a presidential veto, and Clinton immediately said he would not sign it. It was offered as an alternative to Clinton's $12 billion, five-year proposal to build schools, hire teachers and expand after-school programs, and Clinton renewed his call for lawmakers to approve his plan.
It's been five years now - imagine the state of the DC schools if they'd been able to apply for some infrastructure and after-school program support? And there's plenty of research showing that small class size is the real dynamic behind improving pupil performance - an advantage that pricy private schools have that underfunded public schools often don't.

Then Will enlightens us on how bad the schools are in DC. He points to a real scandal in the DC teacher's union as proof of this - can we trust teachers with our tax money? The culprits in the embezzlement scandal are rightly derided and punished, but should this tarnish the thousands of teachers who buy class supplies out of their own salary for their students, who put in 10-12 hour days on a salary well below what it should be? And it should be noted that the embezzlers stole directly from the union, and only indirectly from the school system (via the dues that come out of the already strapped teachers' pockets). People who want to see justice done here should be raising the concerns of the teachers, not trying to destroy public education.

Finally, concludes Will, all the arguments of the pro-public schools people have "sunk". His summary of the sinkings are taking on some water of their own:
Choice programs that empower parents to choose religious schools are unconstitutional? Seven consecutive Supreme Court decisions say otherwise.

Choice programs take money from public schools? The D.C. program takes not a penny -- the $10 million would be new money.

Choice programs skim the best students from the public system? Davis' bill gives priority to students in D.C.'s 15 worst-performing schools.

Choice programs lack accountability? The academic progress of participants in the program will be measured against the progress of the students who sought but failed to get any of the 1,300 scholarships.
Unconstitutional: Will neglects to mention that two prominent Supreme Court decisions had to be overturned to get to this point, and that the Court is regularly divided on this issue. But this one holds for now, as long as the voucher programs adhere to the narrow set of circumstances that Zellman v. Simmons-Harris sets up. From the ADL:
While the Supreme Court has upheld school vouchers in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, vouchers have not been given a green light by the Court beyond the narrow facts of this case. Indeed, Cleveland's voucher program was upheld in a close (5-4) ruling that required a voucher program to (among other things):

* be a part of a much wider program of multiple educational options, such as magnet schools and after-school tutorial assistance,
* offer parents a real choice between religious and non-religious education (perhaps even providing incentives for non-religious education),
* not only address private schools, but to ensure that benefits go to schools regardless of whether they are public or private, religious or not.

This decision also does not disturb the bedrock constitutional idea that no government program may be designed to advance religious institutions over non-religious institutions.

Finally, and of critical importance, many state constitutions provide for a higher wall of separation between church and state -- and thus voucher programs will likely have a hard time surviving litigation in state courts.
Yeah, George. It's all smooth sailing for vouchers now...sheesh.

Takes money: The Cleveland program at the heart of Zellman v. Simmons-Harris already reports that only 33% of the voucher students were attending public schools. That means that the program is sucking money out of the school district to pay for students who were already attending private schools. The DC program is to be commended for its stance against robbing schools, but it's paving the way for an even greater bilking of the system.

Skims the best students: Will's argument is laughable here. The priority of the program is on the 15 worst performing schools, which means the best students will be taken out of them, further hobbling the schools' performance, giving the pro-voucher crowd more ammo for dismantling the whole system. Scratch laughable, and insert grossly cynical.

Lack accountability: Most school voucher programs do - check out the Millwaukee program:
What does it mean when private schools get public dollars yet don't have to be accountable to the public? Under the recently upheld legislation, for instance, private schools in Milwaukee's voucher program:

* Do not have to obey the state's open meetings and records laws.
* Do not have to hire certified teachers or even require a college degree.
* Do not have to release information on employee wages or benefits.
* Do not have to provide data such as test scores, attendance figures, or suspension and drop-out rates. In fact, the legislation expanding vouchers to include religious schools specifically eliminated the requirement that the State Superintendent of Schools conduct annual performance evaluations of voucher schools.

Regulations governing private schools are so weak that it is harder to get a liquor license or set up a corner gas station in Milwaukee than it is to start a private school.
And yet Will imagines that the DC program is accountable because it's going to measure the academic progress of program participiants against failed applicants for the vouchers. Well, guess what? They've been doing that in previous voucher programs, and studies show that vouchers don't improve performance of students.
From a research or "what works" point of view, then, the case that vouchers will work to improve the achievement of low-income African American students (but not whites or Hispanics, for whom no positive effect of vouchers has been found) is based entirely on Peterson's New York City results. Those results had already been questioned, interestingly enough by the very group contracted by Peterson to do the voucher research in New York City, Mathematica, a respected, independent research firm. And now, thanks to Mathematica's cooperation in making the full data available for further independent analysis--in keeping with scientific norms--Peterson's positive results for vouchers in New York City have been overturned.

In "Another Look at the New York City School Voucher Experiment," [download the PDF file], Alan B. Krueger of Princeton University and the National Bureau of Economic Research and Pei Zhu of Princeton University re-examine Peterson's data and conclude that the difference in achievement between the African-American students who received vouchers and the control group of students is statistically insignificant. "The safest conclusion," they say, "is probably that the provision of vouchers did not lower the scores of African-American students."
What do you think they're going to find in the DC stats?

The voucher program will be largely used by the well-off to subsize religious education they were already providing for their children, while the public school system will further lapse into an underfunded malaise. The poor will be kept poor, and the rich will be kept rich.

Any last thoughts, Will?
It is a pity that "pro-choice'' Democrats do not remain pro-choice when poor children make it past birth and reach school age.
You lay that flattering unction to your heart, Mr. Will. We who buy pencils and paper for those poor children, we the people, we'll keep working to expand their options in a way that doesn't shanghai the opportunities of a generation.

CNN: Clinton Vetoes School Voucher Bill
AFT: Vouchers Vs. Small Class Size
ADL: School Vouchers are Constitutionally Suspect
AFT: Vouchers: Where's the Public Accountability?
AFT: Another Look at the Results of the Voucher Experiments in Washington, D.C., Dayton, Ohio, and New York City