Saturday, April 14, 2012

Vouchers in the South

The Wall Street Journal printed an article ("School Vouchers Gain Ground") on Thursday noting that Louisiana is going to expand its voucher program to include the ability to pay for apprenticeships at local businesses, college courses, and online classes. The state is also planning on expanding charter schools and introducing "parent triggers" which allow parents to effectively convert the schools to charters. This in interesting because voucher programs are usually (always?) targeted at disadvantaged, low-income students, but by paying for college classes and online classes for public school children, it is opened up to be used by more middle class/wealthy students who are doing just fine in school, as well. It will be interesting to see what the effects of this program are. At the very least, the program is going to be more popular if more people can use the government's money to improve their children's education.

The article is pretty good, but the WSJ really falls down when it cites conflicting evidence on the benefits of voucher programs:
In Milwaukee, the nation's oldest voucher program, results from the 2010 state exam showed voucher students performed worse in math and reading than students in the city's public schools. But a study by Patrick Wolf, a professor at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, found voucher students made more progress in reading than counterparts in the Milwaukee system over a four-year period. There was no difference in math.
Well, of course if you look at the test scores of the average voucher student versus the test scores of the average public school student, the voucher student will do worse: the whole reason they are voucher eligible is because they have a disadvantaged background and are in failing schools, thus are likely to do very poorly. What we really care about is how the voucher students would have done if they had remained in public schools, and maybe how public school students would have done if the voucher students had remained in public schools (sometimes it is argued that giving some students vouchers hurts those they leave behind).

In my next post I will relate what I know about the history of the evidence on the effectiveness of the Milwaukee program and voucher programs in general.

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