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Opinion D.C. school vouchers are about choice, not test scores


Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released a report detailing the findings of a study of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program, created by Congress, provides tuition vouchers (or “scholarships”) to low-income parents who want their child to attend a private school. The report examines “impacts one year after eligible families applied to the program on outcomes such as student achievement, satisfaction with schools, perceptions of school safety, and parent involvement.” To make the comparison, 995 District students acted as a treatment group (those receiving voucher offers), while 776 served as a control group (those not receiving voucher offers).

Considering how the media covered the report (e.g., here and here), a casual observer would think the voucher program was a total failure. Most trumpeted by school voucher opponents was the report’s conclusion that the program “had a statistically significant negative impact on the mathematics achievement of students offered or using a scholarship.” Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, used the study’s findings to declare once and for all that voucher programs are a bust, and that  Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos should “finally abandon her reckless plans to privatize public schools across the country.”

Given that the March for Science — with its call for “evidence-based policies in the public interest” — occurred less than a week before the report’s release, Murray and the media should know better. Characterizing the report’s findings as proof positive of vouchers’ failure is misleading. It also misses the point.

Although the mathematics scores of students using vouchers were indeed lower than those of the control group, that point alone exhausted the report’s negative findings. Differences in reading scores, although lower, were not found to be statistically significant. In addition, the study indicated parents and students receiving vouchers were more likely to be satisfied with their school than those without vouchers.

The report also found that parents and students using vouchers for private schools were more likely to think that their schools were safer — parents significantly so, with a difference of 16.6 points. Furthermore, the report concluded the involvement of parents in the education of their child who used a voucher was greater than that of non-voucher parents, particularly for students in grades six to 12.

Yet even without the report’s findings, there is something far larger at stake in the fight for school vouchers: choice.

Some have argued that school vouchers harm public education because they lack accountability to the public and take resources from public schools, thereby hurting other students’ chances at success. Others have said quality of education declines with voucher programs, as private institutions prioritize profit over their students’ welfare.

Nonsense. Parents owe no loyalty whatsoever to public education — especially education systems that are failing. Guilt-tripping low-income families who dare reach for a brighter future by suggesting their success may harm other students is the pinnacle of selfishness. Rather than letting some succeed on their own merits at other schools, opponents of school vouchers would instead have students share a fate of limited opportunity — all in the name of “maintaining accountability.”

This so-called accountability is offered as a measure of quality assurance — i.e., that without ties to Big Brother, private schools will devolve into sham schools, peddling worthless diplomas for steep tuition prices. Setting aside the lamentable quality control record of the District’s public schools, this line of thinking ignores the power of the free market, specifically, that people prefer to do business with reputable establishments. More concretely, it is why most people would rather attend Harvard than, say, the University of Phoenix.

School choice is a deeply personal decision that rightfully belongs to parents and their children. Misleading the public and confining the District’s most promising young minds to languish opens no doors for the underprivileged; it only further quells hope. Vouchers, at least, provide a way out.