Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Imagine if we only passed legislation that simultaneously slashed spending, boosted income equality, shrunk government, protected the environment, and ensured that pandas didn’t go extinct. That’d be a recipe for do-nothing lawmakers who failed to solve any of our pressing problems, just because they couldn’t find a quixotic policy that solved them all.
So why do we insist on such an idealistic standard for educational voucher programs?
Right now, a series of voucher initiatives are being proposed across the nation:
But if history is any indication, Washington will be the exception, and many or all of these other efforts will fail, despite the crucial difference they could make.
That’s because, while vouchers have commanded the policy equivalent of Lindsay Lohan-like level of attention over the past decades, they’ve been implemented about as frequently as Lohan churns out a successful movie. States as blue as California and as red as Utah have rejected vouchers. Only 12 states and Washington have vouchers or similar programs, and a mere 190,000 students (out of 54 million) participate in such programs.
The kill-the-vouchers crowd
Of course, vouchers have often faced the type of strident opposition usually reserved for proposals to, say, hike gas taxes. Teachers unions have actively campaigned against them. Parents, worried that the good public schools their children attend could lose funds, are wary. Others point to failure of vouchers to consistently raise test scores as a reason to maintain the education status quo.
That’s unfortunate, because vouchers are helping boost students’ high school graduation rates. For anyone who wants to see low-income students have a shot at climbing the economic ladder, that fact alone makes vouchers worth fighting for.
In Washington, D.C., a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that there was a 21 percentage point gap between the graduation rates of those in the voucher program (graduation rate: 91%) and those who had applied, but had failed to win the placement lottery (70%). A study released late last month by the University of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project showed a similar pattern in Milwaukee, with those using vouchers in the 9th grade graduating at a rate (77%) eight percentage points higher than their peers in public schools (69%).
Both the Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee voucher programs serve low-income students, for whom educational success is not the norm. According to Teach for America, an organization that recruits recent college graduates to teach at failing public schools, onlyhalf of low-income students graduate high school by age 18.
But without that degree, young adults’ chance at career success — and economic mobility — is much slimmer. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, 1.3 million teens drop out of high school every year. The financial consequence for that decision is real: Among adults lacking a high school degree, the unemployment rate is 15.2%, compared to 10.5% for adults with a high school degree (but no additional education). Dropouts also face lower wages when they do nab jobs, making an average of about $10,000 less than high school graduates annually, according to the 2008 numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.
When teens abandon their education, it’s not just teachers who love giving math pop quizzes who lose. It also impacts everyone who wants to see the American economy thrive. The Alliance estimates that if the dropout rate was halved, those unexpected high school grads could earn an extra $7.6 billion annually. By the mid-point of those students’ careers, those extra earnings could have added $9.6 billion to the U.S. economy, creating as many as 54,000 jobs.
Vouchers can’t hurt
Widespread voucher usage could help make that economic surge happen. And for all the backlash, there is no serious downside to increasing vouchers. While vouchers have failed to transform struggling students into Harvard-bound prodigies, not one study has showed that vouchers students do worse than their economic peers in public schools, according to University of Arkansas education professor Patrick Wolf, a researcher on both the Washington and the Milwaukee studies.
“It’s either no significant difference or a positive effect,” says Wolf. He also notes that evidence supports the notion that vouchers boost academic outcomes more than other, less controversial reforms, such as class size reductions and additional mentoring.
Nor will vouchers hurt public schools: a March report by the Foundation for Educational Choice showed that in 18 out of 19 studies done on the impact of vouchers, public schools improved after the introduction of a voucher program.
Like all teens, low-income students have plenty to worry about: driving lessons, acneand whether it’s OK to like Justin Bieber or whether he’s strictly for the tween set. What they shouldn’t have to worry about is having access to good schools. It’s time to increase voucher availability, ensuring that all children, regardless of whether their parents flip burgers or manage hedge funds, have a chance to soar to the top.
Katrina Trinko, a former editorial page intern at USA TODAY, writes for National Review Online.