The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, April 17, 2009

First String First

Vouchers Are Actually the Antithesis of School Choice

On Wednesday, I posted in rebuttal to Christina Hoff Sommers’s fears that Title IX would wreak havoc with high school and college math/science programs in the same way she felt it had messed up athletics at these institutions. On the very same day, another op/ed piece appeared in the Washington Post, penned by former Democratic Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and former Democratic Washington D.C. Council Member Kevin Chavous.

While Sommers argued against implementing federal programs to promote gender parity in the sciences, Williams and Chavous made a case not to end a federally funded school voucher program in the D.C. public school system.

Officially known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, this initiative is an experiment providing payments for low-income children to attend private schools. Begun in 2003 as a brainchild of the former Bush Administration, in hopes of demonstrating the viability of vouchers, the experiment ended in 2008. Some were vocal in demanding for its renewal but the incoming Obama Administration, no fan of vouchers, declined to do so. Hence, Williams and Chavous public plea.

About 1,700 to 1,900 students participated each year during the program’s five year run. During that time, mandated follow-up testing measured whether children receiving vouchers performed better academically than their public school counterparts.

D.C. had voted against vouchers on several occasions prior to 2003 and opinion polls at the time showed a majority of parents still opposed them. The Bush Administration sweetened the deal by making vouchers one prong in a three-part $50 million federal funding package that also benefited D.C. public schools and D.C. public charter schools. In its earliest days, the program had more scholarships than it had applicants. Its popularity grew and most families receiving vouchers in 2008 did not want them to end.

Testing performed as part of the program was not encouraging. Voucher children at private schools performed only modestly better in reading and showed no significant differences whatsoever in math as compared to public school children. Even Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, conceded the results were “not the slam-dunk that some voucher supporters might have hoped for.”

Voucher programs operating in Cleveland and Milwaukee formed the basis of the D.C. trial and it suffered from some of the same operational problems and frauds as they do.

The program gave vouchers to students already attending private schools. Some schools accepted vouchers that normally charge no tuition for non-voucher students. Students from the most struggling D.C. schools consistently ended up underrepresented within the program when they were supposed to have highest priority.

A random sample of eighteen participating private schools found three lacking a building occupancy permit, six with building occupancy permits but without permission to operate as private schools or childcare centers, and seven with permission to operate only as childcare centers.

A random sample of fifty participating students revealed sixty percent of families spent voucher funds on before- and/or after-school care but the GAO usually found no evidence of any academic support activities during them, as required by the program. The GAO identified voucher payment problems of one type or another with nearly fifty percent of students in the sample.

However, any of these criticisms are potentially fixable. The biggest problem with vouchers in most school districts and certainly within D.C. public schools is their limited impact on the district as a whole. The D.C. program assisted 1,900 kids in a district with 70,000 students – less than three percent.

Even if the metrics were so wildly positive as to justify the program’s continuation and expansion, such an expansion would not be possible because vouchers simply are not scalable. There are not enough private schools in the D.C. area to handle many more students than those already attending. One of the experiment’s shortfalls was that few students could continue in it beyond the eight grade, due to a very limited number of available seats at private high schools.

What is more, parents found vouchers meant as much choice for private schools as it did for them. Just as in Cleveland and Milwaukee, D.C. private schools returned some voucher students they initially accepted, labeling them as “non-teachable,” a luxury their public compatriots do not have.

Despite all this, there is no denying that D.C. parents of voucher students are largely enthusiastic about the program. Although attending different schools has not improved their children’s test scores, these parents see other benefits. Their kids are in a safer and generally cleaner environment. They are more articulate, well mannered, disciplined, and self-assured. We often call such qualities “intangibles” but they are very noticeable to these D.C. parents.

Williams and Chavous have still another reason for promoting vouchers. They say society must not put off doing anything now for doing something later, even if the latter is better.

“Ensuring that every American child receives equal access to high-quality education represents our last civil rights struggle,” they write. “By any objective measure, the educational offerings we provide for our children, particularly children of color, do them a disservice.”

After chronicling an impressive list of horrible conditions and performance by the D.C. public schools, they assert, “We must find ways to educate every child now, by any means necessary,” and use this to justify the voucher program.

We should admire their passion but their logic is the equivalent of forsaking Title IX as a tool for parity in high school and college athletics and promoting revenue-generating sports like football and basketball in its place.

The demand by young men desiring to play these sports consistently far outstrips the number of available scholarships and varsity slots. As a result, a select few, through a combination of talent, hard work, and luck will play varsity, a few more will ride the bench in the relative obscurity of the reserves, and the vast majority will find themselves consigned to watch from the stands.

Instead of athletics serving as one component to a well-rounded education for as many as possible, it will be eliminated from the educational experience of most students and become the overriding factor in a few. This works well if you are one of a handful of schools with a shot at a state or national championship in a given year but actually serves to minimize opportunity and participation for most student bodies.

The situation will never change, however, so long as school administrators (i.e. the chief money raisers) seek to please alumni (i.e. the chief money suppliers). Unfortunately, far too many alumni feel that if they must support their alma maters financially, through either taxes or donations, then they want to be entertained and feel school pride in the most vicarious ways possible. Even if it is unintentional, selfishness rules.

The frustration and disappointment of those who were not good enough for those few varsity slots is readily understandable to most of us. However, even for the select varsity, the situation is not always an exultant one. They are under tremendous pressure to perform and most of them find their school athletic experience does not translate into their dreams of multi-million dollar NFL and NBA contracts. They often find themselves left with little to fall back on, their academics regarded with a wink and a shrug by all.

To the extent that voucher programs have been successful, it is because they have been small enough not to swamp participating private schools. Their proponents tell us they bring the competition of free markets into education such a way that will ensure choice and opportunity for all. In reality, vouchers are the very antithesis of school choice.

Instead, they apply to the individual inherent selfishness that is also a factor in free markets. Too many of us seek the most out of public education for our own children while simultaneously striving to pay as little as possible to fund the education of other children. However, children – any children – always pull at our heartstrings when held up for display and voucher activists know this.

Williams and Chavous know it too. Even the Washington Post buys into their pitch of “anything if it is to help kids.” In a January editorial, they opined, “Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, say they [will] eschew ideology in favor of what serves the interests of children. Here's a chance to help 1,716 of them.”

Sounds good . . . until we ask what about the other 68,284 or so children in the D.C. public schools alone. Holding up the kids lucky enough to receive vouchers is like telling the student body to show school spirit and put the First String first. That group might well serve as inspiring role models for others but this seems almost cruel when the very structure of the environment will never even allow those inspired to get onto the field.

Is there any way out of this conundrum? Maybe.

More about that on Monday . . .

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