Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Why DC's Vouchers Are Failing

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has been one of the flagship programs in the world of voucherizing education, the only one funded by the federal government-- and its vital signs are not looking good.

2016-2017 applications to the program were up, but the number of students actually using the vouchers is down. In fact, one third of the students who received vouchers didn't use them, more than half of voucher-winners didn't use them for private school, and the total number of voucher students has dropped from 1,638 to 1,154 over the last four years.

What happened to the system that Mike Pence called "a case study in school choice success"? The folks at Future-Ed (a thinky tank at Georgetown U) looked into it and released a study of that very question.

The short answer is that everything that can be, that is likely to be, or is unavoidably bound to be wrong with a voucher program is wrong with the Opportunity Scholarship Program. It is, in fact, a test-case demonstration of why vouchers are a bad idea. Let's dive into the details.

The Politics

For DC, the problem is that the program's purse strings are held by Congress, so it is blown to and fro on the political winds. It started in 2003 under the GOP, was allowed to sputter quietly in 2009 under the Democrats, then resuscitated by the GOP again in 2011.

We don't talk about this enough with school choice, but one of the effects of choice systems is to gut local control of finances. Choice puts the purse strings in state capitals, where legislators can make decisions based on political wheeling and dealing and, unlike locally school boards, don't have to look their victims in the face when they decide that, for instance, voucher price tags will just stay static for ten years.

Enrollment (Whose Choice Was It, Again?)

The report notes that voucher use has been declining in DC for ages, and there have always been people who receive vouchers and don't use them:

This isn’t a new problem. Between 2004 and 2009, for instance, 22 percent of D.C. students receiving vouchers never used them. The most common reason cited was that students couldn’t get a spot at a preferred private school, according to a survey conducted by researchers for the U.S. Education Department. Other parents cited a lack of resources at private schools for students with special learning needs or admission to a preferred charter school. Some students simply didn’t want to leave their friends.

Emphasis mine. Once again, the basic promise of school choice-- that parents will get to choose the school they want fro their children-- turns out to be inaccurate. In a choice system, it's the schools that choose which students they will admit.

Nor did voucher students pile into the "high-performing" schools-- only 51 vouchers were used in the top schools. And while vouchers provide $8,653 for elementary students and $12,981 for high schoolers, some of DC's top schools charge in the neighborhood of $40K for tuition.

Transparency (Not)

One recurring note struck in the study is that parents did not have access to information about the quality of the schools involved in the voucher system. That was also a problem for the writers of this report-- the voucher system (Serving Our Children) wouldn't provide information about how many students attended which of the private schools in the study citing "student privacy."

Schools involved in the program are not required to tell anybody anything. The school choice notion that parents will pore through data rich reports to find the high-quality school of their dreams is itself a dream. DC public schools must publish detailed test result data:

By contrast, little information is available for parents about private school performance under D.C.’s voucher program. While Serving Our Children offers a handbook describing each of the schools involved, it does not provide information on performance. By law, private schools in the program must prove only that they are accredited and meet health and building codes, not that they are successfully educating students. The District’s elite private schools, worried about devaluing their brands, made it a requirement of their participation that they would not have to disclose test score information on voucher students—despite the use of taxpayer funding to support the vouchers.

Not only is data not available to the "customers," but voucher schools have made that a requirement. But larger studies have repeatedly shown that voucher-using students don't do better, and often do worse. Meanwhile, the report notes new voucher students opening in store fronts and shopping malls, "some relying on voucher students for more than half of their population." In other words, the K-12 equivalent of predatory for-profit colleges-- but with no information available about their actual success at schooling.

Tax Subsidies for the Not-So-Needy

There is a bit of a complication in that voucher awarding doesn't quite synch up with private school admissions. But look at how one school suggests that be handled:

One admissions officer from an elite private school told us he counsels interested students to apply in the fall and gamble that they will receive a voucher in the spring lottery. If the school really wants the student, it will offer a scholarship—then deduct the amount of the voucher from the scholarship. In such instances, the voucher program is merely subsidizing the financial aid offices of elite schools.

Church and State

As we have seen in many voucher programs, DC's vouchers are primarily a means of funneling public tax dollars to private religious schools. 47% of the vouchers went to Catholic schools; another 21% went to religious schools of other denominations.

Satisfactory Segregation

The report finds that voucher schools do better on graduation rates (it would be surprising if they didn't) and that voucher parents are more satisfied with "safety," which I suspect may translate easily into satisfaction that their children don't have to go to school with Those People's Children any more.


The study is pretty brutal in the end:

Congress has justified its multi-million dollar investment in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program by claiming it gives parents the choice of a high-quality educational experience for their children. But the data on the 13-year-old program suggests there is neither robust demand for the private school choices on offer nor firm evidence of educational improvement for the students receiving vouchers. 

Far from serving as a case study for expanded federal investment in private school choice, D.C.’s experience points to the shortcomings of voucher systems with complicated admissions processes, scant information on school quality, and little access to the best schools.

There it is. Far from being a Proof of Concept system, DC's voucher program is a stark display of everything that can be, and I would argue is likely to be, wrong with a school choice system.


  1. <<< In a choice system, it's the schools that choose which students they will admit. >>>

    You're looking at the group of all students. But think about it from the perspective of 1 (hypothetical) student.

    9 year old Quinisha used to go to her local public DC school. It was falling apart, understaffed, gang-ridden, and dilapidated. The playground was condemned, the roof leaked, and there were patched bullet holes in several classroom walls.

    Her parents got a voucher and now she goes to a private school that has a lower class-size ratio, stricter discipline, a computer lab, and no reports of guns on campus in the last 3 years.

    How is Quinisha worse off? How has Quinisha's change of school made anyone else worse off?

    As is so often said: if it saves just one life, it's worth it. If it improves 1 kid's chances, it's worth it.

    1. Except that what we see so many times, including in this study, is that Quinisha's parents get a voucher, and she still can't go to the nice private school because the voucher doesn't pay enough or Quinisha has special needs that the won't meet, or the school just plain tells Quinisha, "No, we won't accept you for enrollment here."

      So how is Quinisha better off?

      Meanwhile, a couple of kids from Quinisha's school get into the private school, taking money away from Quinisha's school so now it is even more poorly maintained and staffed.

      How is Quinisha better off?

      In fact, much of the voucher money goes to students who have never set foot in a public school; this just lets them attend the private school they were going to attend anyway. And a couple of those schools are schools where students are taught that Quinisha and her family are Less Important and maybe should be kept or thrown out of the country. And every one of their vouchers drains more money from Quinisha's school, which becomes more run down and understaffed because it simply doesn't have teh funds.

      Tell me again. How is Quinisha better off?

    2. Why can't the school that Quinisha already goes to have a decent roof and a computer lab and a lower class size?

      And why does Quinisha need "strict discipline"? Is it because she's poor or because she's black or both? Why can't she have the same kind of compassionate understanding of her needs that rich white kids get?

    3. From the perspective of one child/one parent the charter/voucher option makes a lot of sense in the case of the underfunded, understaffed, dilapidated, unhealthy and chaotic public school option.
      I cannot argue against any parent if they are fortunate enough to be chosen by their local charter/private school in such situations. However, public policy must act in the best interest of all – and that’s where the charter/voucher advocates lose their credibility – and their argument. The charter/voucher movement harms the majority in favor of the chosen few and public institutions funded by taxpayer dollars cannot favor the few.

    4. Dienne: because government agencies are never as efficient as private businesses. They can't be. Most large school districts in America consume more than half the ADA money before it ever reaches the classroom.

      NY Teacher: So you agree that Quinisha gets a better shot at life, but for "public policy" reasons, who want to deny her that? The ship is sinking and you have 10 life jackets; is it better to save 10 or let all drown? What if she was your daughter?

      Peter: Obviously if she doesn't get in, she's not better off. If she's a behavior problem and gets kicked out, she's not better off. But if she does get in and stays with the program, she gets a great shot at raising her family out of poverty. There are hundreds of charter schools (and some inner-city public schools) that give thousands of Quinishas this opportunity every year.

      I believe denying those students who do make it in and stick with it the opportunity to improve their lives is simply immoral. Considering the drug and crime problems in many inner cities, for some students, it would literally be murder by depraved indifference.

    5. Oh please, Brian. One word: Halliburton. As for charter schools specifically, here's how "efficient" they are with your money: http://charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com/

    6. Private businesses are "efficient" because they don't serve all customers. That doesn't make them evil, but it makes them very bad at delivering services to the entire population. You slid right past half of my point-- she might be kicked out for a great many reasons, none of them having to do with her being a "behavior problem." She might not get in the first place for many reasons. The notion that charter seats will be delivered only to those who are "deserving," and that a private company will decide who those deserving few are is a problem, and folks who make this case usually quietly dismiss all the students who are left behind.

      But businesses-- because they are businesses-- are bad at deciding who is "deserving" because for businesses, that is a business decision-- who will best meet the needs of our edu-flavored company. So when some students are denied that opportunity by the company for business reasons, I see something worse than depraved indifference. If we really want to talk about depraved indifference, let's talk about the people who want to ignore her public school, keep it starved of funds and support, and say it's just on her to prove she's worthy of a chance to escape.

      I believe that denying any of these students the opportunity to improve their lives is immoral, and we need to question why we only want to bother to provide ten life jackets when we have ample ability to provide far more-- or to take better care of the ship in the first place. I don't fault any parent for wanting to save their own child, but I absolutely fault a system that makes it necessary for other children to pay the price of that rescue, and that requires parents to satisfy the needs of a business in order to do anything at all.

    7. Saving one life, improving one kid's chances, those are noble and worthy goals.

      But doing it with money that takes away from countless OTHER kids to do so isn't cool.

      On the other hand, providing resources to fix Quinisha's neighborhood school, to fix the playground and patch the roof and replace windows w/bullet holes and provide computers and art and music and enrichment that ALL the students would benefit from - would that not be the definition of "efficiency?"

      Why not a truly public-private partnership? Provide computers, or money/labor for building repair, or music teachers, get a tax break, rather than "reach a handful of select students, receive tax money outright while the neighborhood schools struggle even more."

      While your hypothetical Quinisha may benefit, one of her classmates from her neighborhood school who needed more special ed services than the private voucher school would provide, or whose family couldn't afford the difference between voucher & tuition, might be the latent talent who could cure cancer but for the neighborhood school's lack of resources. Patting oneself on the back for Quinisha's success doesn't absolve oneself of the responsibility for what happens - or can't happen - back in her old school for now-exacerbated lack of funding.

    8. What if I am Quinisha’s mom and I am incapable of jumping through the charter application hoops?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and I am strung out on drugs or alcohol?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and I am incarcerated?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and I never heard of a charter school?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and my daughter is learning disabled?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and my daughter has an IQ of 60?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and my daughter is severely autistic?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and my daughter has test anxiety?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and my daughter is ADHD and I refuse to medicate her?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and my daughter has chronic behavior issues?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and my daughter has nasty attitude issues?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and my daughter hates school?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and my daughter is chronically truant?
      What if I am Quinisha’s mom and my daughter refuses to attend a charter school?

      I am Quinisha’s mom and I am forever grateful that my public school refuses to turn her away.

    9. One more thing that nobody's brought up to Brian so I'll be the one to Go There:

      Why is this child named "Quinisha?"

    10. That occurred to me too so I'm glad you "Went There".

    11. CrunchyMama: I agree that there will be kids who have needs beyond the capability of charters to handle.

      NYTeacher: I agree there will be parents who are so dysfunctional, disconnected, or disheartened to figure out the charter process.

      I completely understand the concern that if everyone uses charters, public schools are left as empty shells catering only to the most high needs kids.

      I just don't think that's the primary point. I'm not willing to throw any child under the bus on the basis of "public policy". Charters work for some kids. Maybe not for all, but absolutely for some. I will not sacrifice those childrens' futures on the altar of political correctness. Those kids deserve a chance.

      I'm like the kid throwing starfish back into the ocean after the storm. I know I'm not going to save all of them, but I can save the next one I toss back into the sea.

      And as to why she's named Quinisha, I picked a name that I remembered from my wife's teaching at an inner-city, Title 1, public school.