On Vouchers and Accountability

When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Zelman v. Harris, I thought the ruling would have little impact on the school choice debate because it dealt only with constitutionality, not the politics of actually passing a voucher bill. Now events in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere make me think I was wrong.

The voucher debate has changed since Zelman. Previously, only Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida had publicly funded voucher programs. Now, in addition to the proposed D.C. program, Colorado has adopted a voucher plan despite a history of resistance to the idea, and proposals are pending elsewhere as more politicians consider vouchers a plausible option. In addition, policy intellectuals on the left are floating voucher proposals of their own. Citizens Commission on Civil Rights chairman William Taylor and Berkeley law professor and former Clinton Department of Education aide Goodwin Liu recently proposed limited and targeted vouchers to help increase school integration.

What has not changed are inconsistencies and hypocrisies on all sides of the issue. The support for vouchers among minorities and political elites means that voucher proponents will likely carry the day in Washington (it now seems more a question of 'when' than 'if'). So their inconsistencies deserve more attention, especially to the extent that vouchers in D.C. are viewed as a model for the nation.

To start, the legislation is weak on accountability. Although it requires some data collection and evaluation, these provisions are weak and it is missing many "hard" accountability elements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which many voucher proponents insisted be applied to public schools. Soft accountability measures such as parental satisfaction have limited usefulness, but don't substitute for hard data. It is not asking too much for private schools that seek taxpayer dollars to meet the same standards that we're asking of public schools. Even President Bush-who just this month, in unveiling an NCLB-related grant, said, "What we're interested in doing is laying out the facts for people to see, so people can make informed decisions" about schools and education-is unwilling to apply the same standard to vouchers and the schools that receive them.

Schools are notoriously opaque. This is in part because teaching and learning cannot be fully quantified, but also because it is often difficult to get accurate and accessible basic information about educational performance, finances, and personnel. If you want to buy a car or DVD player, plenty of information is available. Want to choose a school in D.C. or most other locales? Good luck, try checking with a realtor.

Conservatives know that information helps markets work. In education this means, as NCLB requires, common assessment and clear, accessible reporting about schools for parents. Researchers need one kind of data but parents don't care about z scores and p values. They want straightforward, comparable information. Let's remember, achievement gaps, which national policy is now focused on closing, are found in public, private, and parochial schools. NCLB represents the new consensus that holding schools accountable for closing that gap is a national priority.

Of course, "accountability" is at once a legitimate policy issue and a political Trojan horse used by choice opponents (including charter school opponents) to undermine these proposals. Cynicism abounds. Too many choice supporters resist every sort of public accountability, misread how markets work, and regard unfettered parental choice as a final good. Likewise, the sincerity of many choice opponents is questionable because they resist not only vouchers but also charter schools and public school choice plans. They claim to love accountability, until it is put into practice. NCLB's accountability framework never has as many friends as when vouchers become a serious possibility.

The pending D.C. measure caps vouchers at $7,500. While that is not an insignificant amount, it breaks faith with the notion of giving D.C. parents the same educational buying power or choices as members of Congress. It also means that it is unlikely that the voucher program will lead to the creation of many new schools. As Paul Hill has written, the school choice debate can be considered through the lens of "who chooses" and "who provides." This proposal changes the provision landscape very little, necessarily limiting choices.

This shortcoming is compounded by another flaw. Under the proposal, D.C. parents can't use their vouchers at schools in neighboring Maryland and Virginia, where there are good public and private schools. Even if they could, those public schools annually spend more than $7,500 per student and do not offer scholarships offsetting the additional costs. Though often framed as public versus private/parochial, most poor parents care more about school quality than governance. A dearth of public higher education opportunities in Washington led Congress to subsidize the tuition of D.C. college students at colleges and universities in other states. A serious plan for offering D.C. school children real choices would include a similar provision regarding Maryland and Virginia schools.

For these and other reasons, I don't support vouchers, at least not as currently conceived. The issue is not choice per se and I do not think the D.C. proposal will "destroy" the public schools. On the contrary, I think it will do little and in the end be the latest in a sorry tradition of raised expectations and dashed hopes for District residents.

I'd rather see the enormous energy and resources of voucher proponents put toward creating more accountable choice options like public charter schools and contract schools in low-income neighborhoods. Charter schooling has greater potential than vouchers because more generous financing and public oversight mean it can address the supply-side problem in low-income communities. At the same time, policymakers must directly focus on fixing low-performing public schools rather than hoping they fix themselves through secondary effects of competition. This work involves tough issues affecting teachers, leadership, teaching, curriculum, and intra-district finance, issues that do not capture the interest of the media or most voucher proponents. (To its credit, the Fordham Foundation is somewhat unique among voucher supporters because it puts forward ideas, analysis, and proposals on a host of issues besides choice.)

In a few years, there will be more evidence to test claims on all sides of the issue. In the meantime, in this debate to the victors go not spoils but responsibility. Choice advocates in Washington and elsewhere must now make vouchers work, not as a handy political wedge but as a public policy that improves education outcomes for children. After all, vouchers were touted as a systemic change-change much needed in cities like Washington. Unfortunately, if the D.C. voucher bill and experiences elsewhere are any indication, things are not off to an encouraging start.

Andrew J. Rotherham is director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute.

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