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Voucher Parents vs. Me

My March 23 column on the D.C. voucher program was not popular with parents of students in that program. I suggested the program enroll no more new students for the tax-funded scholarships to private schools. Instead, I said, let the children already in the program stay until they graduate from high school, but let’s put the money we save into better ways to bring high standards to more kids -- such as charter schools.

I said I thought the voucher program did good work but had no future because most voters are opposed to funding private schools with public money. None of the e-mails denounced me as a hypocrite. I had already accepted that label in the column. They did suggest, politely, that I was short-sighted and defeatist.

“The fact is not all children learn the same way in the same environment,” said D.C. voucher parent Patricia Williams. “America is about freedom of speech, rights and diversity. Why interrupt a program that works and costs less?”

Joann Davis said, “Since my boys have been attending the private school of our choice they have been receiving very good grades. I would never have thought that my son would have been an honor roll student, because the grades that they were getting while they were in public school were just terrible. ... Both of my sons love the school even though we have to get up at 4:30 so we can catch the 5:30 bus.”

“The D.C. voucher program has enabled my daughter to go to a private school and concentrate on learning and not having to be on the lookout for someone who may try to victimize her,” said Jeanise Ealey. “I wonder how many prison cells and graves are not inhabited due to this program.”

“I am disgusted that the powers that be on Capitol Hill want to do away with such a program,” said Vonette Davis, whose child receives a voucher. “Especially when most of those people come from an income bracket where they can AFFORD to send their kids to good schools.”

That seems to me the strongest point in favoring of the voucher program. Why should President Obama and I be able to send our kids to D.C. private schools, while city residents whose jobs don’t pay so well are limited to public schooling? On fairness grounds, that argument is flawless. On educational grounds, it loses its appeal, at least to me.

We have a chance to give better educations to far more children than the voucher program has room for. I agree that the average D.C. private school is a better environment for learning than the average D.C. public school. That is because the private school has higher standards for learning and behavior, the result of a culture nurtured by parents who are, on average, more affluent than public school parents. But as far as I can tell, having had children in both private and public schools, and having spent a quarter-century looking at all kinds of schools, the teaching in private schools is not better than the teaching in public schools. Private school teachers on average are not paid as well. Many private schools resist measuring in any public way how much their students are learning. Private school parents have plenty of stories about bad teachers. Public school parents have plenty of stories about good ones. Research indicates that private schools and public schools that have the same portion of affluent, well-educated parents produce about the same results.

What the D.C. voucher program, officially known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program, has shown is that if you transfer students from a school with low standards to a school with high standards, they learn more. We have plenty of research showing this. So why not focus our efforts on creating more public schools with high standards, rather than hoping private schools will fill that role? Keep in mind how hard it is for private schools to grow in size or number. They have to raise money from private sources, and as voters have consistently shown for several decades, they have little chance of getting much support from the government.

Robert Enlow, president and chief executive of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, told me I am giving up too soon. “In 1996, there were only five school choice programs operating in five states,” he said. “Today, there are 24 programs that operate in 14 states and D.C. In 1996, fewer than 10,000 children used vouchers or tax credits. Today, more than 160,000 children use them. Everywhere it has been enacted, steady growth occurs.”

That’s good. I think voucher programs add value to children’s lives. If Congress is moved by the arguments of the many fine parents who wrote me and enrolls more students, I will be happy for them. But I think it is Enlow and other voucher advocates who are the pessimists, not me. We could do much more with charters if we put more emphasis on them, and by emphasis I mean more money and smarter regulations.

Ways to improve charters are obvious. The rules for admitting students are clumsy. Some of the highest-achieving charter middle schools in the District have no waiting lists for their fifth grades because the law’s application deadline is so early and because elementary school parents don’t start thinking about how awful the local regular middle school is until their child is ready for sixth grade, when most regular middle schools start. (Charter middle schools DO have waiting lists for their sixth grades, but by then they are full of kids who arrived in fifth grade.) Charters have not yet taken much advantage of the yearning for high-level schools that mimic Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day, since getting into those private schools is so hard. Such places would appeal to parents of every income group, all over the city.

For the first time we have a president saying he wants states and the District to remove caps on charter growth and wants low-performing charters to be closed quickly so better charters can take their place. More than 1.3 million children are in public charter schools. That includes a third of all public school students in the District. With proper attention, charters can take in many more children and raise achievement much faster than voucher-funded private schools can. Some regular D.C. schools are also moving in the same direction because D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is one of the nation’s greatest admirers of how the best charter schools operate.

I like trains. They are fun to ride. But if I want to see my grandson in Los Angeles, I take a plane. Charter schools are the most advanced and most promising of all potential uses of our tax dollars for schools. They will get all of us, including the voucher parents who wrote me, where we want to go sooner, and in better shape. I wish the D.C. voucher parents well, but I hope we can eventually move their children to public schools that will do even more for them than the private schools they are in now.

By Washington Post editors  | April 3, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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I made an error in this column. I had sent it out to all sources as usual, and they got back to me to point it out, but I was in Dallas and was too cheap to pay the Wifi fee at the airport last night to check my email. The DC charter school law does NOT set any application deadline, so it cannot be blamed for charters setting their own early application deadlines. Schools are able to accept residency verification documents as early as April 1, so that may explain why some have that as an application deadline, but others have deadlines much later.

Posted by: Jay_Mathews | April 3, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

The question, "Why should President Obama and I be able to send our kids to D.C. private schools, while city residents whose jobs don’t pay so well are limited to public schooling?" leads to more questions.

Why should I be able to hire a private bodyguard while other citizens whose jobs don't pay so well are limited to public police protection?

Why should anyone be able to purchase bottled water while other citizens who don't make as much have to drink water from the municipal tap?

Why should I be able to have anesthesia with my dental care while others who don't make as much have to suffer through painful dental procedures?

Why should I be able to have a mammogram every year while others who don't make as much (or have health insurance) have to wait until they're eaten up with breast cancer to get free treatment through the emergency room at public hospitals?

We live in a capitalistic society where those with money have more choices and live longer than those without it. In theory, the quest for more choices and longer life leads people to make decisions that increase their income, like working harder, longer or smarter. Vouchers for education are, at their base, at least as anticapitalist as government-paid health care--and far less effective. Vouchers, as we've just learned, don't help students from the poorest schools in reading or any students in mathematics more than the alternative--public schools. On the other hand, medical treatment saves lots of lives over the alternative--no care.

Posted by: sarahinez | April 7, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

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