Good News for School Choice

Despite the fact that the country is still in the statist grip of the Obama regime, several recent reports offer some evidence that school choice is inching forward.

The first was the report last month that Obama, under pressure to get a budget deal done with the Republicans in Congress, reluctantly agreed to allow the renewal (indeed, the expansion) of the selfsame voucher program for D.C. schools that he killed when he first took control of the Oval office -- even as he and his wife selected the toniest private school for their own children.

Obama accepted the compromise with his usual surly and hubristic lack of humor.  And in truth, his attitude was understandable.  After all, it was only a few weeks earlier that Chairman Obama, whose soaring intellect grasps all issues, stated unequivocally that "[p]rivate school vouchers are not as effective way to improve student achievement. The Administration strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students." Of course, when Obama used the royal phrase "The Administration," he really meant "the rent-seeking rodents in the teachers unions."

Obama's key claim -- i.e., that vouchers don't work -- has been exploded repeatedly.  The recent piece by Jason Riley, for example, reminds us that three years ago, Obama throttled the D.C. voucher program, despite knowing full well that his own Education Department had conducted a study showing that students in the voucher program made significant gains in their reading scores compared to the students who didn't get vouchers and had to stay in public schools.  (The report showed that the students in voucher schools scored the same in math.)  Obama kept that report from getting to Congress before it voted at his urging to end the program.

While Obama later pooh-poohed those reading score gains, he touted an even smaller one as reason to expand the boondoggle known as Head Start. 

Moreover, Riley notes that a recent study by Patrick Wolf, a professor at the University of Arkansas, shows that the graduation rate of the D.C. voucher school kids was 91%, much higher than that of the kids who applied for vouchers but didn't receive them (70%), and vastly higher than that of the other kids in the D.C. public schools (56%).  The statistical confidence level for this study is about 99%.

Additionally, Riley notes that a recent study of the Milwaukee voucher program (which has been around much longer than even the D.C. program) shows again much higher rates of graduation among voucher students (94%) versus public students (75%).  The study also shows that the existence of voucher schools was a competitive force that improved the regular public schools.

Again, Riley points to the meta-research done by the estimable Greg Forster (at the Foundation for Educational Choice) that surveys ten other studies that have been done on voucher programs.  All of them were "random-assignment" studies, which are statistically preferable because they more fully rule out confounding variables, such as the ambition or drive of the students or parents seeking vouchers.  Nine of the studies show the same thing: that vouchers significantly improve students' educations.  The one exception shows no statistically significant improvement, but no negative impact, either.  (For an extensive review of the data on voucher systems on education, there is no finer book than Jay Greene's classic, Education Myths).

Riley apparently concurs with Terry Moe, a Stanford professor (and author of the new book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools), who says, "I think Obama and Duncan [Obama's Education Secretary] really care about school reform[.] [...] On the other hand they have to be sensitive to their Democratic coalition, which includes teachers unions. And one way to do that is by opposing school vouchers."

However, I dissent.  I see absolutely no evidence that Obama truly cares about education in particular or children (other than his own) in general.  Rather, all the evidence I have seen paints a picture of Obama as a narcissistic ideologue who wants only to win elections and advance his hard-left agenda.  So if denying thousands of minority children a chance at a decent education -- and thereby stultifying their minds -- gets him millions of dollars in campaign donations, as it did in this case, he has no compunction about doing it.

Turning now to cheerier news, Governor Mitch Daniels just signed into law wide-ranging reforms to Indiana's educational system passed earlier by the Republican state legislature.

These reforms include desperately needed improvements in the way teachers are assessed, such as looking at how much their students actually improve during the semester.  It enacts performance-based pay and ends the vicious, heartless policy of retaining terrible teachers and firing brilliant ones because the former have more seniority than the latter.  The details of all the reforms need to be worked out, and no doubt the tricksters in the teachers unions will be trying to gut the reforms every step of the way, doing their best to keep denying hapless children a chance at a decent education.  But at least there is hope for change, if I may employ some Obamababble.

Most exciting, though, is the expansion of school choice the bill affords.  The state will hand out 7,500 vouchers -- excuse me, I meant "publicly financed scholarships"! -- of up to $4,500 a year for elementary school kids who have attended a public school for two semesters and feel the need to move to another school (public or private).  The number of these vouchers doubles to 15,000 in the second year, and then there is no cap after that.

For high school students, there will be vouchers of up to 90% of whatever the public school system pays per capita in the student's own district.  The vouchers -- unfortunately, in my view -- are means-tested, with families earning over $60,000 per year not eligible.  Why middle-class parents, most of whom can't send their kids to private schools after paying taxes and other necessary expenses, should be locked out of the program is beyond me.

But you have to celebrate victories when you have them.  The Republicans got these reforms passed, having waited out the corrupt, craven, and callous Democrats, who hoped to kill the initiative, for weeks.  Those Democrats lost, and the children of Indiana (and Washington, D.C.) won.

Gary Jason is a contributing editor to LibertyUnbound.

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