As I have had a chance to listen to this week’s congressional testimony regarding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a consistent argument that comes against the program has been brought up by several members of the House, and it needs to be addressed.

Several members (and untold numbers of voucher opponents) argue that we should be focusing our time, effort, and money helping the public schools (who educate the vast majority of students) and the time, effort, and money that we spend on school choice programs is simply a distraction from the larger issues of education reform.  “We have a fiscal crisis”, they argue, “and this is taking money from public schools that need it!”.

My three responses:

1. The DC OSP was designed to avoid this exact problem. When the original OSP was designed, it was part of the “three sector” solution to the problems plaguing the D.C. school system.  This involved increased funding for public and charter schools and creation of the voucher program, which was funded from a completely separate budget line item.  Not a single penny left the D.C. public schools and went to a private school. In fact, the program made money for DCPS as they were given more money but had fewer students to educate!

2. Children are not Social Workers. I stole that line from a statement from Mayor Cory Bookerregarding the New Jersey Opportunity Scholarship Act wherein he argued that it was ludicrous to keep kids in failing schools while the adults figure out how to fix them.  WE (and as a taxpayer, educator, and adult I’m right there with ya’ll) are to blame for our nation’s failure to educate children, and WE need to figure out how to fix it, but while WE’re getting our act together WE need to do everything possible to help the kids currently in the system.

Former D.C. city council member Kevin Chavous used the following analogy during his House testimony:  “The house is on fire and we have to proceed on different tracks, there are firemen that have to go put that fire out, and there are firemen that have to go inside that building and pull some of those kids out, and you know what?  You may not pull everyone out of that building, but you’re gonna pull out as many as you can to stabilize the system and to save lives…I really believe that by any means necessary really means by any means necessary when it comes  to the children we are trying to save.”

If you are of the belief that we shouldn’t help some because we can’t help all, I ask you a simple question, would you send your kids to these schools? And if you wouldn’t, why in God’s name would you force someone else to?

(If you’re more about the philosophical arguments for school choice, and are persuaded by the idea that it is wrong that some people get to choose where their kids go to school and others aren’t, you can feel free to stop reading now.  However, if you are a part of that minority that wants a deeper level of argument (and haven’t lost interest yet) I encourage you to read on, because it’s about to get dorky)

3.  A Rising tide raises all boats. In a more difficult to digest journal article (and a more reader- friendly piece in Education Next), superstar economist Caroline Hoxby looked at the performance of public schools in Milwaukee, Michigan, and Arizona after the implementation of school choice programs.  The money quote:

“Taken together, the findings presented here, from Milwaukee, Arizona, and Michigan, offer a first glimpse at how public schools are responding to these new forms of school choice. They suggest that the fears of a downward spiral aren’t merely overblown. They’re simply wrong.”

As it turns out, either because public schools get worried that they’re going to lose funding when students leave their schools, or because when students and parents get to choose where they go to school they sort into environments that better fit their needs, public schools get better in response to choice programs.

In graphic form (from Education Next):

The different types of schools (“most affected” “somewhat affected” and “not affected”)  describe how much pressure these schools felt from school choice, that is, how many of their    students were eligible and able to leave if they so chose.  It turns out the more of the “threat”   that vouchers were, the better the school performed.  If you read further in the article, you can     see her comparisons for charter schools in Michigan and Arizona (they look pretty similar).

So it turns out, rather than being a “distraction”, school choice can be a mechanism to help all of  the kids that don’t take advantage of the program.

Why?  Well you don’t have to be Milton Friedman to believe that the monopoly that traditional  public schools have in most urban areas is a hindrance to innovation and progress.  By introducing competition in the form of charter schools and voucher programs, all schools have to get better or risk losing their students (and funding).  While possibly painful for the adults involved, in the end, this is in the best interest of our children.

We have to do something to help the kids that are in D.C. both today and tomorrow.   It is always important to remember with vouchers that no student is ever required to use them.  If they are happy in the schools that they are in, they can stay.  But if they aren’t, all vouchers do is extend to them the same privileges that middle-class and wealthy people all across the country have, and to be against that is just plain wrong.

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