Commentary

Lies, Distortions and School Choice

A proposed school voucher program for Washington, D.C., offering an escape for children in the worst district schools, is on the brink of suffocation in the U.S. Senate, smothered by opponents happier to bring Senate business to a halt than offer choice. Sadly, opponents have justified their actions with misleading arguments and distortions. For the sake of truth in education — and because there’s still a glimmer of hope left for D.C.’s kids — it’s time to challenge the three most dubious anti-choice arguments.

Let’s start with the contention that vouchers drain public school funds. This lie is obvious in the case of the proposed D.C. program, which doesn’t draw a single dollar from the public school system. The recently passed House version of the program underwrites “opportunity scholarships” with a $10 million allocation that is separate from the D.C. public schools’ budget. The Senate version is even more generous: It provides $13 million for choice and adds a bonus $26 million for charter and traditional public schools.

But what if the D.C. plan didn’t offer choice with new, separate funds, and required full per-pupil funding to follow the kids? In real terms, public schools still wouldn’t lose a dime because spending is measured per-child. That means the only money a school district is supposedly “losing” when a family exercises choice is the amount that would have covered that individual child. The same thing occurs anytime a child’s family moves out of a district. In most places this “loss” is called “breaking even.” Not so in public education.

Next distortion: Choice programs lack accountability. It is true that nothing is perfect — choice programs have their share of bad schools. But is the overall effect worse than the alternative? Consider one comparison: Arguably the biggest choice accountability flap has occurred in Florida. There, the state’s Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program has come under scrutiny following the disappearance of over $400,000, and revelations that roughly $350,000 had been spent on a school run by a man with possible terrorist ties. Not good.

Worse, though, is recent news from D.C. In March, the city’s school system discovered that it had hired 640 employees for which it had no money budgeted, resulting in a loss of $31 million — an amount that dwarfs the missing and misspent cash in Florida. But the scarier part is that the D.C. revelation is only a symptom of a more pervasive problem. As The Washington Post reported: “In an interview…Superintendent Paul L. Vance blamed financial systems that have failed for years. ‘It’s an accumulation of past ills,’ Vance said.”

Ultimately, for choice programs to create accountable schools depends on parents making wise choices. Even if only some parents make smart decisions, good schools will thrive because parents will choose them. Likewise, bad schools will disappear as they lose students. Unfortunately, choice opponents don’t trust parents, preferring instead to rely on the politicians and bureaucrats whose own accountability is so often suspect.

One last lie: There’s no evidence choice works. Actually, this is partly true — there is no proof that large-scale choice works. But that’s because choice opponents won’t let such an experiment take place. To prove that choice works, strong programs must exist, which is exactly what choice opponents don’t want. Instead, they have allowed only tightly constricted programs to operate, imposing severe enrollment caps, paltry funding, and constant legal threats.

Even in this hostile environment, though, choice programs have helped both scholarship students and entire school systems. Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson, for instance, found that miniscule $1,400 vouchers in New York City helped African American recipients outpace their peers in math. Peterson’s colleague, economist Caroline Hoxby, has shown that states offering a minimum of competition realize systemic improvements, with greater competition yielding greater improvements. Most recently, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute determined that the greater the choice threat to public schools in Florida, the greater their gains on state tests.

Choice, it seems, lifts all schools.

There are other red herrings that choice opponents raise ad nauseum. But these three — that choice programs lack accountability, suck public schools dry, and just don’t work — are the most dishonest, and shouldn’t be allowed to come between kids and a good education. With a little life left in the D.C. choice proposal, it’s not too late to make sure they don’t in the nation’s capital.

Neal McCluskeyis a policy analyst with the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.