The Voucher Revival

In the last-minute horse-trading and compromising before reaching a budget deal, House Speaker John Boehner won from Democrats a small, weird concession: the renewal and expansion of the District of Columbia's school voucher program. Known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, it was the first federally funded voucher system. Congress ran it from 2004 until 2009, when the Obama administration began to wind it down. The District -- already the epicenter of aggressive school-reform measures -- woke up last Saturday morning and found that its old voucher program had returned.

For years, conservatives preached the virtues of vouchers programs as a solution to the country's ailing education system (D.C.'s program always played a large role in that mythology). But in the last few years, Democrats and Republicans have largely reached a consensus on the issue of school reform. Charter schools and teacher accountability have now replaced vouchers as the new cause célèbre. In this sense, D.C.'s renewed voucher program seems anachronistic.

Vouchers are no longer even touted as the cure-all education solution conservatives once thought them to be. For example, during the 2000 election when voters ranked education as one of their highest national priorities, presidential hopeful John McCain made a $5.5 billion nationwide voucher program the cornerstone of his education platform. Compare this to Boehner's talk now. His website says mildly that the new budget will give low-income students "an opportunity to a quality education while the District of Columbia takes steps to reform its public schools." What was once the centerpiece of conservative education reform is now championed as a stop-gap measure while other reform efforts take the lead.

"It's an old ideology they've been interested in for a long time," says Cynthia Brown, vice president for Education Policy at the Center for American Progress, "but they've lost a lot of steam. The notion of vouchers for all kids is almost dead."

One of the reasons conservatives have had to modify their hard-line stance on vouchers is that they've been successful in installing voucher programs across the country, which means we actually have hard evidence showing that they don't work very well. Underwhelming studies of voucher programs have damaged their reputation, even among conservatives prone to liking them. The first incarnation of D.C.'s voucher program came with an evaluation requirement, and the Department of Education produced detailed reports on the program's success -- or lack thereof. The final report found "no conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement overall." While there were small improvements in graduation rates and test scores, the program failed to improve results for its "high-priority group of students who applied from … schools in need of improvement."

And those results aren't just coming out of D.C. In Milwaukee, home of the oldest city voucher program in the country, researchers are in the middle of the five-year study of the program that is expected to shed light on the potential of voucher programs. But three years into the study, results are unimpressive. High school graduation and college enrollment are up 5 percent to 7 percent among voucher recipients, but overall performance between public school and voucher recipient cohorts is virtually the same. No matter, the infamous Scott Walker has put forth a proposal to dramatically expand Milwaukee's program so that any child, not just low-income students, can get a voucher.

"Vouchers aren't particularly good public policy," says Brown. "They're based on the notion that you can magically have a supply of private schools" solve the problem. These private schools are rarely rigorous institutions, and there's no quality control.

Voucher programs have hit roadblocks in the courts as well. In Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush implemented the nation's first statewide voucher program, making it the central element of his effort to improve Florida schools. But in 2006, the state's Supreme Court ruled the program unconstitutional on the grounds that the program violated the state's constitutional mandate to provide a "uniform … system of free public schools" by funneling "public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools." The ruling was considered a setback for vouchers across the country. Since leaving office, Bush has become an advocate and consultant on school reform. He is still a strong proponent of vouchers and states like Florida and Indiana, and several other states are currently pushing for voucher programs per his advice, but only in tandem with charter schools and teacher accountability.

Though vouchers are no longer a viable school-reform strategy on their own, they did play a big part in shaping how we think about school reform. In short, rhetoric around reform is now discussed using a term that used to be synonymous with vouchers: "school choice." That term has become broadened, says Erin Dillon, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector. "Vouchers are a very narrow way of looking at school choice," she says. When you value choice, though, no matter how you define it, that keeps voucher programs in the discussion as one of many options.

Whether vouchers work at all and should be part of a policy tool kit, conservatives don't want to let them die. Boehner bringing vouchers back to D.C. shows how conservative proponents are trying to keep vouchers alive by integrating them into the larger school-reform movement. While many on the policy side have ceased to take vouchers seriously -- and did not foresee the return of D.C.'s program -- there remains a group of dedicated politicians who, like Boehner, make them their pet projects. Today, even school reformers who promote charter schools and accountability still believe vouchers are a good third option because they give parents another choice. Republican governors Rick Scott in Florida, Chris Christie in New Jersey, and Mitch Daniels in Indiana have all appeared with reform guru Michelle Rhee, the nation's leading voice for charter schools and teacher evaluation programs, to consult them on school reform. They all plan to use vouchers as one of many aspects of reform in their states. Rhee's new organization, Students First, cites the Florida voucher program as a notable example of expanding parental choice.

So while Boehner's insistence on vouchers in a city knee-deep in charter and accountability-based reforms appears uncalled for, it actually makes sense when we consider vouchers' new role as a piece of the larger reform puzzle. As a sign that vouchers are intended to work in tandem with other reform measures, the new budget allots more money to charters and D.C. public schools than vouchers; it does not take money away from public schools which has been an issue of contention in the past.

Still, the idea of choice itself as the mantra of reform is odd, and it's disturbing that this is the aspect of the voucher-program idea that survived. Though it begins with progressive rhetoric about giving poor families the same choices wealthier ones have, the necessity for choice arises out of a situation in which public education is failing. The goal should be a system in which all schools are good schools, not creating a two-tiered system of good versus bad.

All the talk about choice rings especially hollow in D.C. No one in the city voted for or approved their new voucher program.

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