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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, April 12, 2010

More about the new (same-old) voucher study

by folkbum

For those who need to catch up on the matter, see Friday's post.

Via Matt Yglesias, it seems that pro-voucher (and American Enterprise Institute think-tanker) Rick Hess is spinning and spinning what he calls the "non-effects" of Milwaukee's voucher program:
What to make of the results? First off, 20 years in, it's hard to argue that the nation's biggest and most established voucher experiment has "worked" if the measure is whether vouchers lead to higher reading and math scores. Happily, that's never been my preferred metric for structural reforms--both because I think it's the wrong way to study them [. . . and], more importantly, because choice-based reform shouldn't be understood as that kind of intervention. Rather, choice-based reform should be embraced as an opportunity for educators to create more focused and effective schools and for reformers to solve problems in smarter ways.
If that leaves you saying, "Wha?" then get in line behind me, Yglesias, and other observers like Kevin Carey:
Since “more focused and effective schools” are properly defined as “schools where students learn more” i.e. “schools with higher reading and math scores,” if vouchers didn’t result in more such schools then vouchers failed. One might argue that vouchers created the opportunity for educators to create such schools and educators didn’t take advantage of it, but what’s the difference? The whole point of structural reform is to change incentives and conditions; if the change was insufficient to create desired behavior then ipso facto the reform failed. A purely structural metric for evaluating purely structural reforms misses the point altogether.
What Hess is attempting to do is what Milwaukee's pro-voucher faction did for many years: define mere existence as success. Back when no real metrics were available to gauge vouchers' success--the bulk of the middle of the program's 20-year history--supporters would point to growing enrollment as evidence that the program worked. "See?" they asked. "If the voucher program were such a massive failure, parents wouldn't be choosing these schools, would they?"

This, of course, overlooked a number of factors, many of which have been made plain by the Public Policy Forum's work on vouchers over the years. For example, it became clear that market forces never shut school doors: Even when huge waves of parents would abandon bad schools (most years there was turnover between 1/4 and 1/3 of the students), there was a bigger wave of parents behind them willing to sign up. Parents, it was revealed, did little if any research to determine what voucher school to send their children to, or even if the voucher school they wanted was really any better than the local public school. And PPF has consistently found than many voucher parents would be sending their children to religious schools regardless of the existence of the program. In fact, in years when enrollment requirements changed and numbers soared (after the 1998 court decision, after the 2006 deal raising the enrollment cap), the biggest growth in enrollment came from students already attending voucher schools but paying previously paying tuition.

So even trying to claim existence as success was a misleading effort.

(The current, and getting very tired, effort to redefine success as something other than success is the whole "voucher schools do it for half price" myth--which Hess even tosses into his post. But, again, see what I have written previously on that.)

Thankfully, Carey and others, including the authors of the study that was out last week, recognize that defining success down--defining success as anything other than solid student achievement--is a fruitless exercise.

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