Vouchers Improve Student Outcomes and School Diversity

Vouchers Improve Student Outcomes and School Diversity
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Last month, the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the American Federation for Teachers (AFT) launched a joint public relations offensive to smear school vouchers as a racist tool of resegregation. CAP’s recent report, “The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers,” highlighted some southern communities that used vouchers to resist court-ordered integration by sending white students to private schools. In a speech soon after, AFT president Randi Weingarten labeled school choice as “the only slightly more polite [cousin] of segregation.”  

Residential segregation has been, is and will continue to be the main driver of educational segregation. Yet you do not hear Randi Weingarten and her ilk complaining about that, much less proposing to do anything about it. Instead, they defend the segregated status quo system that educates 50 million students by raising the alarm bell of the hypothetical effects of a policy that serves 400,000.

CAP and AFT have modified the old advice oft given to lawyers: If you don’t have the law or the facts, pound on the table and play the race card. They are using a shameful yet fundamentally minor chapter in the history of American education to distract from the significant segregation and the lackluster results seen in our traditional, zip-code based system of public education.

For a few short months earlier this year, the anti-choice crowd could actually point to a few studies showing negative results from voucher programs. But follow-ups on those studies revealed that, after seeing an initial loss when they transferred to private schools, those students caught back up after another year or two. Hence, the lion’s share of the research literature suggests that vouchers help students, both in the short and long run. In fact, studies suggest benefits from vouchers that go well beyond academic achievement. One study of Washington, D.C.’s voucher program showed even as the program had limited effects on standardized tests, it increased high school graduation rates from 70 percent to 91 percent. In Milwaukee, researchers found that voucher students were significantly less likely to be accused of or commit crimes.

When it comes to charter schools, the most comprehensive nationwide study suggests that low-income African-American students learn the equivalent of an extra 59 days of math and 44 days of reading instruction every year. Data shared by top performing charter networks shows that their students graduate college at three to five times the national average. And studies of Florida charter schools suggest that even as the state’s charters don’t see a significant edge on standardized tests, charter students go on to enroll and graduate at higher rates and earn higher incomes.

So, left without much of an empirical case against choice, the AFT and CAP have pivoted to cherry-picking the past to slander the present. Voucher-enabled segregation in the south was a small part of a larger story: Americans in other parts of the country picked segregated schools the hard way, by buying a house in the suburbs in a phenomenon aptly named “white flight.”

For the most part, school choice advocates have countered Weingarten and CAP by pointing out that all their empirical arguments are mere hypotheticals. There’s literally no empirical evidence that modern voucher programs have caused segregation. As Trinity International University’s Greg Forster has pointed out in a literature review, eight of the nine rigorous studies on the subject find that vouchers increase integration, and the ninth finds no effect.

Yet debating purely on these terms overlooks the more fundamental question: how well are our schools teaching our students? And too often, the answer is not well enough. No matter what race they are, parents want to know that their children are learning and that they are safe. If public school parents were satisfied that the answer to both of those questions was yes, we wouldn’t have hundreds of thousands of families on waiting lists to attend charter schools.

Randi Weingarten and her ilk would prefer to debate school choice not in terms of the dreams that parents have for their children, but rather in terms of its effect on the racial composition of schools. If a black student leaves a school that’s 80 percent black for a school that’s 90 percent black, anti-choice critics will decry segregation. And if a black student leaves a school that’s 90 percent black for one that’s 80 percent black, they’ll decry the lack of significant integration.

But this racial bean counting should pale in import next to whether that student can count, whether he can add and subtract, read and write. School choice should be evaluated by how it affects the lives of students, not how it affects the racial ratios of schools. There are undoubtedly reasons why Weingarten would prefer to frame the question differently, but it does America’s students a significant disservice to debate on her terms.

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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