Vouching for Excellence

by Blair Sullivan | 4/2/09 12:39am

Last month the United States Senate, by a vote of 58-39, rejected an amendment to the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Bill (H.R. 1105) that would have continued federal funding for Washington D.C.'s school voucher program. Congress initially funded the program, which was established under the Bush administration in 2004, for five years as an experiment. The program was due to expire this year, but some Republican senators had been pushing for its continuation. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) had proposed an amendment to the bill that would have resulted in the extension of the voucher program, but in the heavily partisan vote, the amendment was easily defeated. This is terrible news for the former beneficiaries of the voucher program, as they will now be forced to attend the poor quality Washington, D.C. public schools.

Publically funded school voucher programs began in the early 1990s as a means of expanding educational opportunities for children whose families could not otherwise afford a private education. Voucher programs provide low-income families with superior education alternatives to inadequate, local public schools. Despite its benevolent intention, the concept of school vouchers has been vehemently opposed, particularly by Democrats, who are beholden to their large and powerful constituency of teachers unions, including the National Education Association.

The N.E.A. and others opposed to voucher programs contend that by taking money out of public schools to subsidize private educations, the government is depriving public schools of badly needed resources. With less funding and fleeing students, public schools have no chance of improving. This argument assumes that additional funding will yield improvement. The real problem, however, is that increases in government funding have not historically led to the improvement of public school quality. According to long-term studies conducted by The Heritage Foundation, increased spending has not led to increased student academic achievement in recent history. While per pupil spending has more than doubled from 1970 to 2004, test scores remained flat. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average freshman graduation rate for American public schools has also remained fairly stagnant. The average graduation rate in the 1990-1991 academic year was 73.7 percent, and was 73.4 in 2005-2006.

A number of studies have indicated that private schools are, in general, superior to public schools. A study published in Educational Researcher found that private schools tend to have higher standardized test scores, graduation rates and college matriculation rates than do public schools. This is the case even when factors such as social background, past achievement, demographic variables and school selection are taken into account. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that the educational achievement gap between public and private school students grows with increasing length of time spent in private school. These effects reach beyond the classroom, as private school students also tend to demonstrate higher degrees of political participation and tolerance than do students educated in public school systems, according to Jay Green, author of "Education Myths."

Opponents of vouchers argue that they hurt public school systems by undermining efforts to promote teacher quality and raise educational standards. The opposite is true. Vouchers foster a competitive environment among schools, encouraging downtrodden public institutions to raise their standards in an effort to retain both students and funding. An analysis of preexisting voucher programs by the U.S. General Accounting Office indicates that areas in which public and private schools compete for the same students have seen pronounced academic improvement.

With all of the emphasis that Democrats put on the importance of education, it seems counterintuitive that the party of equality is so united against voucher programs that have been proven effective in helping poor, mostly minority students. The public schools in the areas where voucher programs exist are terrible and are not likely to show significant improvement any time in the near future. Even if additional funding was guaranteed to yield positive results over the next ten years, what would this mean for the students currently attending low-quality public schools? Should they, because of their families' low incomes, be forced to attend failing school systems, while wealthier families escape this problem by sending their kids to private schools? That doesn't sound like "change" to me.