Grading School Vouchers

Saturday, June 23, 2007

THOSE WHO WOULD seize on some early test scores to declare the D.C. school voucher program a failure should talk to Tiesha Lawrence. She is the mother of a boy who, by virtue of the program, goes to a better school. He is learning and he is loving it. Of course, it's too early to predict how her 7-year-old will fare in later grades, just as it's too soon to declare D.C. vouchers either a success or failure. But anyone interested in giving choices to students who most need them would do well to keep an open mind.

Of course, those refusing to do so are those antagonists who for reasons of ideology, politics or self-interest are inalterably opposed to vouchers. They came out in full force this week when the U.S. Education Department released a study showing that students using vouchers to attend private schools did no better on math and reading tests than their counterparts in public schools. Experts cautioned that the results should not be used to draw any conclusions. It's still too early, the data is only for seven months, and the time measured was when students were in transition to new schools. The research on vouchers in other cities is mixed, although some say they show improvement in later years.

No matter. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) was quick to proclaim that "vouchers have received a failing grade." Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education Committee, hailed the report as offering proof that vouchers are nothing more than "a tired political gimmick." It's instructive that when we asked Mr. Miller's office whether the representative's position would change if results next year posted a gain, the answer was "absolutely not" (amended in a follow-up phone conversation essentially to "call when that happens.") Ms. Norton refused to answer what she called "a gotcha question."

Given that attitude, one wonders whether the future of this program -- not to mention the hopes of hundreds of parents and their children in the program -- will be given a fair shot when it comes up for renewal either this year or next. The political odds are certainly against it, now that Democrats control the House and Senate. When Congress approved the five-year experimental program in 2003, it passed the House by a single vote, with only four Democrats supporting it.

We had hoped that the mandate of a rigorous trial would help to better frame the debate about improving the schooling of children trapped in terrible schools. Certainly, test scores are important, but so, too, are the experiences of parents in knowing what is best for their children. This week's Education Department report found parents satisfied with safer and better schools. That finding echoes a recent report by Georgetown University researchers in which parents said that their children were working harder and that they themselves were getting more involved in the schools. Many of those who will be deciding this issue have never known what it's like not to have options. They might want to listen to people such as Nikia Hammond, another D.C. parent, who has four children in the program. As she told The Post, "Without the scholarship fund . . . I'd be out of luck."

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