Grasping At Straws

Monday, April 26, 2010
Illinois is sure to be disappointed if it continues to move forward with a private voucher program (SB 2494) for Chicago Public Schools. Just ask Wisconsin-- and Milwaukee.

Clearly, the Chicago Tribune editorial board ('Liberate the kids'), which is cheering the process on, has not done its homework, not checked its sources, and not looked to its neighbor to the north for guidance. Or it is simply drinking the Kool Aid mixed by Voucher Inc.:
And there's evidence that vouchers improve public schools. A 2009 report by The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice examined 17 studies on the impact of voucher programs. Sixteen studies found that vouchers improved student achievement in public schools; one study found they had no positive or negative impact. In other words, competition works.
There is also plentiful evidence that vouchers do NOT improve public schools, including the on-going evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program -- the longest-standing voucher program in the country, just a short drive up I-94 from Chicago.

To look to the Friedman Foundation for guidance on this issue is akin to turning to Karl Rove's new book as a definitive history of the George W. Bush administration. From a University of Illinois professor, Dr. Christopher Lubienski, here's a critique of the Friedman report cited in the Tribune editorial:
[T]he report, based on a review of 17 studies, selectively reads the evidence in some of those studies, the majority of which were produced by voucher advocacy organizations. Moreover, the report can’t decide whether or not to acknowledge the impact of factors other than vouchers on public schools. It attempts to show that public school gains were caused by the presence of vouchers alone, but then argues that the lack of overall gains for districts with vouchers should be ignored because too many other factors are at play. In truth, existing research provides little reliable information about the competitive effects of vouchers, and this report does little to help answer the question.
Competition does not work. Plus, what evidence exists to suggest that these Chicago-area private schools will do any better a job of educating the students who would be taken out of the public system? I can't wait to see that evidence because I'm fairly certain that it doesn't exist. That raises questions about the Tribune's utter disregard of this issue: "What if student performance doesn't improve in private schools? Simple: Parents will vote with their feet." But if there's no comparable evidence of student performance between public and private schools, how can parents (consumers) make informed judgments about their child's education? In addition, what if there are insufficient openings at private schools for students wanting to go? Will the voucher be sufficient to cover the tuition and associated costs at these schools for low-income students?

What would be preferable to this exercise in grasping at straws would be energy directed toward a more difficult series of conversations about school-based policies like teacher quality, school leadership, teaching and learning conditions and overall school improvement, in addition to community-focused strategies such as early childhood education, after-school programs, quality child care, and school health in the city of Chicago that get to kids' readiness to learn when they come to school.

Vouchers are not the answer, but a major distraction from more efficacious approaches that should be the focus of the Illinois Legislature.

Image courtesy of Laura Lee.