Earlier this month New York Times columnist David Leonhardt joined the nationwide conversation with his article — “School Vouchers Aren’t Working, but Choice Is”—tackling the crucial issues of charter schools and vouchers in the broader school choice debate.
Mr. Leonhardt is right on point when he writes that charter schools “have the potential to help a lot of poor children in the immediate future.” Indeed, school-age kids have no time to spare when it comes to academics. Falling behind a few months in any grade can put them permanently behind.
Unfortunately, while we praise Mr. Leonhardt for acknowledging the many triumphs of charter schools, his analysis of the success of parental choice vouchers, which grant tax dollars to families to allow their children to attend private schools, falls short of the mark.
There are several glaring shortcomings with the study cited by Mr. Leonhardt. Conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, the study examined voucher use among public schools in the District of Columbia. Mr. Leonhardt uses the study’s findings to repeat a number of myths surrounding the question of parental choice vouchers.
First, Mr. Leonhardt praises random lottery selection for public charter schools and claims a major flaw in voucher programs is the ability of private schools to choose only the best students. But he fails to acknowledge that the voucher students examined in the Department of Education study received vouchers by winning a random lottery as well—the same way students get into public charter schools.
Secondly, the study only measured student performance after one year. Anytime a child shifts to a new education environment, the initial disruption frequently stunts test scores in the short term—partly due to a more rigorous curriculum and higher standards than the school they came from.
Students generally don’t switch schools unless there is a need, so those receiving vouchers or other forms of choice are usually already playing catch-up academically—and are doing so in a new school environment.
Along the same lines, the study compared apples to oranges by failing to track and evaluate these students before they switched to a new school via a voucher. Many students seek a different school environment—be it a public charter school or a private school through a voucher—because they aren’t learning well in their current environment.
Academic performance is best measured over a longer period of time. At a minimum, students should fully transition to a new school climate before measurements take place. In order to reach an accurate conclusion, a study would need to measure the same students before receiving a voucher and after—not just comparing to a control group that remained in public schools.
And finally, this point is crucial to remember: The D.C. voucher program is only one of many across the nation. So the research must be reviewed as a whole before declaring the whole idea of school choice vouchers a failure.
We commend Mr. Leonhardt for acknowledging the numerous successes of charter schools in helping students and families. And we applaud him for encouraging opponents of school choice “to look at the full evidence with an open mind.” But we also encourage Mr. Leonhardt to take his own advice by keeping an open mind on private-school choice through vouchers, even as he urges progressives to do the same with public charter schools.
All of us would do well to remember that education policy is not a zero-sum game. We need to stay focused on what kids need most—immediate access to a quality education.