March 29, 2013 12:58PM

WaPo Blogger Still Won’t Let Facts Get In Her Way

There she goes again.

Just a few weeks ago, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post falsely accused scholarship tax credit programs of being “welfare for the rich,” an absurd claim that was easily debunked. Now Strauss is making similarly absurd claims about voucher programs in response to the Indiana Supreme Court’s unanimous decision upholding their constitutionality:

The notion is that families deserve to have a “choice” of schools for their children. The reality is that the amount of money provided in each voucher isn’t enough to cover tuition at a great many private schools, especially the elite ones that get most of the media’s attention, such as Sidwell Friends, which the Obama daughters attend.

The implication is that since school choice programs do not provide enough funding to make all choices affordable for low-income families, they don’t really provide “choice” at all. Moreover, Strauss seems to be arguing that if we can’t afford to send every child to the same school as the children of the president of the United States, then we shouldn’t do anything to expand educational options for low-income families. One wonders if Strauss also opposes food stamps because recipients can’t afford filet mignon every night.

While hiding behind weasel words that are technically correct—a “great many private schools” are too expensive for most low-income families even with vouchers—Strauss ignores the “great many private schools” that school choice programs do make affordable for low-income families. Take, for example, this story from yesterday’s New York Times:

Some parents of modest means are surprised to discover that the education savings accounts put private school within reach. When Nydia Salazar first dreamed of attending St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix, for example, her mother, Maria Salazar, a medical receptionist, figured there was no way she could afford it. The family had always struggled financially, and Nydia, 14, had always attended public school.

But then Ms. Salazar, 37, a single mother who holds two side jobs to make ends meet, heard of a scholarship fund that would allow her to use public dollars to pay the tuition.

She is now trying to coax other parents into signing up for similar scholarships. “When I tell them about private school, they say I’m crazy,” she said. “They think that’s only for rich people.”

Excluding the nine voucher programs for students with special needs and the two for students in failing public school districts, five of the nation’s eight general voucher programs have income caps or give priority to low-income families. The more than 41,000 students participating in these means-tested voucher programs manage to afford private schools that they prefer over their local government schools. These numbers are small compared to the total number of students in those states, but I suspect that Strauss would not support lifting the caps on the number of vouchers available or increasing the voucher sizes, which range from 29 percent to 56 percent of the government schools’ operating per-pupil spending (excluding capital expenditures).

Strauss also misleadingly asserts that students participating in voucher programs do not benefit academically:

There are arguments made that students in voucher schools do better than their peers who wanted vouchers but didn’t get them and are in public schools. Research shows that that is largely not true.

Again, Strauss hides behind weasel words. Her assertion that it is “largely not true” that vouchers improve performance obscures the fact that all the randomized-controlled research shows that voucher students perform as well or better than their peers that sought vouchers but didn’t get them. Professor Patrick Wolf explains:

Nine different research teams have conducted 12 rigorous evaluations of these types of programs over the past 17 years. Eleven of those studies have reported at least some positive findings and no negative results from private school choice. People who claim there is no evidence that opportunity scholarship or “voucher” programs work clearly are not paying attention.

Wolf also cites the increased graduation rates and college enrollment that school choice programs produce at a fraction of the cost of traditional government schools. Moreover, the voucher recipients are “on average, more disadvantaged than the typical public school student and thus dramatically more disadvantaged than the average private school student.”

There are legitimate concerns about voucher programs, as with every public policy. But it is intellectually dishonest to pretend that they don’t expand educational opportunities for low-income families or to ignore the copious research showing academic benefits. Strauss should correct the record.