I think it was Talleyrand who said something along the lines of “language has been given to man to enable him to conceal his thoughts.” Nowhere is this observation more apt than in the debates over school voucher programs.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that many public systems are underperforming, and that people of good will are working on a variety of reforms intended to improve them. Reform is not a dirty word; it is also not a specific description. Some reforms show promise; others do not. Some are consistent with the democratic mission of public education; others are not.
Thus far, the scholarship evaluating voucher programs suggests that participating schools perform no better than public schools when you control for student population–that is, if the children in the public and private classrooms all have the same socio-economic characteristics, voucher schools do no better (and sometimes far worse) than their public counterparts. I should also note that despite careless rhetoric used by proponents and opponents of this or that reform, vouchers and charters are different animals. Charters–whatever their merits or problems–are public schools.
Indiana, under Mike Pence, has vastly expanded its voucher program, and the funds for that expansion have come at the expense of the state’s underfunded public schools. So it is understandable that members of local school boards have gotten “a bit testy,” as the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette put it.
Things have gotten a bit testy between several members of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
Last week the foundation sent a new report extolling the virtues of vouchers via email to Mark GiaQuinta, president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board.
He responded with “more distortions and lies.”
The ensuing back-and-forth was not a model of civil discourse, but it certainly highlighted something that many of us who consider ourselves pro-reform but anti-voucher have long recognized: this is a fight to which people bring different weapons. Voucher proponents use framing (it is hardly an accident that the Friedman Foundation’s vice-president is a PR professional). Voucher opponents, by and large (and with some exceptions), counter with facts.
Voucher proponents frame these programs as a means of getting poor children out of failing public schools and into private schools that will give them a better education. That may even be their sincere intent, but it is a frame, a proposition for which, thus far, there simply is no evidence. Quite the contrary; as the Brookings Institution reported a few days ago:
Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions.
Fort Wayne School Board members responded with several facts inconsistent with the “frame”:
- A majority of children using vouchers in Allen County go to religious schools at taxpayer expense, raising troubling questions about family motivation and public oversight.
- Fewer than 10% of Allen County children using vouchers ever attended public schools.
- Three times more students left Fort Wayne Community Schools that had earned an “A” rating from the state than left “D” schools.
At its base, the voucher debate is an argument about democracy, and the role of public schools in creating a polity–an “us”–out of the diverse populations that make up our nation. As I have previously written, in an article titled Privatizing Education: The Liberal Democratic Idea, Constitutionalism, and the Politics of Vouchers,
Arguments about the education of the young are at least as old as Socrates. However, it is fair to suggest that the voucher debate that has erupted over the past few years is qualitatively different from many that have preceded it. Rather than arguing about whether public schools are deficient, and if so, in what respects; rather than debating the merits of one “reform” over another, the issue has become whether America should continue to support a system of free, publicly controlled schools or whether government’s educational role should be reduced to dispensing vouchers to families, enabling them to “buy” educational services in the marketplace. It is a classic political confrontation, engaging partisan strategies and implicating political ideologies.
And all too often, giving short shrift to facts and the actual consequences of ideologically motivated reforms.