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October 15, 2019

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For complex question of education reform, school vouchers aren’t making the grade

Betsy DeVos’ favorite education policy keeps looking worse. Recently, the Education Department, which she runs, released a careful study of the District of Columbia’s use of school vouchers, which she supports. The results were not good.

Students using vouchers to attend a private school did worse on math and reading than similar students in public school, the study found. It comes after other studies, in Ohio and elsewhere, have also shown weak results for vouchers.

The question for DeVos is whether she’s an ideologue committed to prior beliefs regardless of facts or someone who has an open mind. But that question also applies to all of us trying to think about education, including her critics. And the results from Washington are important partly because they defy easy ideological conclusions.

Before diving into those results, I want to make two broader points. First, education isn’t just another issue. It is the most powerful force for accelerating growth, reducing poverty and lifting middle-class living standards. Well-educated adults earn much more, live longer and are happier than poorly educated adults. When researchers try to tease out whether education does much to cause these benefits, the answer appears to be yes.

Second, the charged debate over education often lapses into misleading caricature. On one side are defenders of traditional public schools, who believe in generous funding, small class sizes and teacher training. On the other are so-called reformers, who believe in vouchers, charter schools and standardized tests.

Unfortunately, this caricature mixes several ideas that do not necessarily go together. In particular, it conflates vouchers (coupons that let parents use their tax dollars for private schools) with charter schools (public schools that operate outside the usual bureaucracy).

Hard-core reformers, like DeVos, support vouchers and charters. Hard-core traditionalists oppose both. The rest of us should distinguish between them, because their results differ.

Vouchers have been disappointing. They are based on the free-market theory that parents will choose good schools over bad ones. It’s a reasonable theory, and vouchers can have benefits, like allowing children to leave dangerous schools.

For the most part, though, identifying a good school is hard. Conventional wisdom defines a good school as one attended by high-achieving students, which is easy to measure. That’s akin to concluding all of LeBron James’ coaches have been geniuses.

Unlike most voucher programs, many charter-school systems are subject to rigorous evaluation and oversight. Local officials decide which charters can open and expand. Officials don’t get every decision right, but they are able to evaluate schools based on student progress and surveys of teachers and families.

As a result, many charters have flourished, especially where traditional schools have struggled. This evidence comes from top academic researchers, studying a variety of places, including Washington, Boston, Denver, New Orleans, New York, Florida and Texas. The anecdotes about failed charters are real, but they’re not the norm.

Douglas Harris, a Tulane professor, says the difference between charters and vouchers boils down to “managed competition” versus the “free market.” Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan talks about charters’ successfully combining flexibility and accountability. Joshua Angrist of MIT says, “Flexibility alone is not enough.”

Crucially, many charters are open to all comers, which means their success doesn’t stem from skimming off the best. And the schools’ benefits extend beyond test scores to more meaningful metrics, like college graduation.

The study highlights the charter/voucher contrast in a neat way. The voucher results look so weak — even worse than elsewhere — partly because the city’s charters are so strong. That is, voucher recipients are being compared with children at higher-performing public schools than in the past, and the voucher schools aren’t keeping up.

It’s an argument for a political compromise: fewer vouchers, more charters. If you’re a progressive, I realize that this compromise may make you squeamish. Progressives often prefer to spend more on traditional schools — which are still crucial — and to trust them.

But I would encourage you to look at the full evidence with an open mind. Charters have the potential to help a lot of poor children in the immediate future, and it’s hard to think of a more important progressive goal.

As for DeVos, I hope she is similarly open to new facts. It seems a reasonable expectation for somebody whose title is secretary of education.

David Leonhardt is a columnist for The New York Times.

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