President Obama and the Case of the Missing Research

One of President Obama’s favorite rhetorical tactics is to claim that there is no serious evidence pointing in any direction other than his preferred policy. The president had occasion to deploy this tactic in an interview earlier this week, when Bill O’Reilly asked him why he opposed school vouchers:

O’REILLY - The secret to getting a … good job is education. … Now, school vouchers is a way to level the playing field. Why do you oppose school vouchers when it would give poor people a chance to go to better schools?

PRESIDENT OBAMA - Actually — every study that’s been done on school vouchers, Bill, says that it has very limited impact if any —

O’REILLY - Try it.

PRESIDENT OBAMA - On — it has been tried, it’s been tried in Milwaukee, it’s been tried right here in DC —

O’REILLY [OVERLAP] - And it worked here.

PRESIDENT OBAMA - No, actually it didn’t. When you end up taking a look at it, it didn’t actually make that much of a difference. ... As a general proposition, vouchers has not significantly improved the performance of kids that are in these poorest communities —

The most charitable interpretation of the president’s blatantly false remarks is that he’s simply unaware that 11 of 12 gold-standard studies of school choice programs found a positive impact while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative outcome. Jason Riley summarized the findings of a few recent studies:

A 2013 study by Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul E. Peterson of Harvard found that school vouchers boost college enrollment for blacks by 24%. A 2006 evaluation of a school choice program in Dayton, Ohio, found that “after two years, black voucher students had combined reading and math scores 6.5 percentile points higher than the control group.” A 2010 study in the Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics found that voucher recipients had math scores 5 points higher than the control group after just one year. A 2008 study of vouchers in Charlotte, N.C., found that “after one year, voucher students had reading scores 8 percentile points higher than the control group and math scores 7 points higher.”

What about the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington that Mr. Obama dismissed as ineffective? A 1998 Brookings Institution study found that “After four years, voucher students had reading scores 6 Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) points higher than the control group, and math scores 11 points higher. NCE points are similar to percentile points.” And the Obama administration itself released a report on the D.C. voucher program in 2010. “The students offered vouchers graduated from high school at a rate 12 percentage points higher (82 percent) than students in the control group (70 percent), an impact that was statistically significant at the highest level,” according to a summary. “Students in three of six subgroups tested showed significant reading gains because of the voucher offer after four or more years.”

But even Obama’s own faulty reading of the evidence does not warrant opposing school choice. Putting aside the fact that voucher students are more likely to perform better academically and to graduate high school, even if their academic outcomes were roughly the same as government school students, as Obama claims, he should still support school choice because it expands freedom, parents are more satisfied, the schools are safer, and it costs so much less.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Washington D.C. spends nearly $30,000 per pupil annually at its government-run schools, more than double the national average. For this “investment” they get practically the worst schools in the nation. By contrast, the low-income D.C. voucher students receive up to $8,256 for K-8 students and $12,385 for students in grades 9-12. 

Perversely, whereas the Obama administration ignores mountains of evidence when opposing school choice programs, the president once again promised universal pre-school in his State of the Union address despite the overwhelming evidence that federal preschool programs do not work. And that’s according to the federal government’s own research 

It takes a special kind of chutzpah for the Obama administration to repeatedly tout their “evidence-based approach” to policy when they so consistently adopt policies that run counter to the evidence.