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Posted at 10:24 AM ET, 02/21/2011

Why my great fellow blogger Strauss is wrong on D.C. vouchers

By Jay Mathews

One of the many reasons I appreciate my colleague Valerie Strauss' The Answer Sheet blog, with excerpts each Monday in our Metro section, is that her work contrasts so nicely with mine. Anyone who checks out both blogs, or compares her views to mine on the Monday page, understands why so many brilliant people like Strauss and me, and our readers, can still vehemently disagree about how to fix our schools.

Also, once you have read both us, it is difficult to argue that Washington Post is favoring one education approach over another. We disagree often, and there are times when both of us are out of sync with what the fine news stories of our Education Page colleagues are saying.

So I was pleased to see Strauss's blog excerpt in the Metro section today trashing U.S. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) in particular, and Congress in general, for "making a mockery out of thoughtful school reform and policymaking." They had threatened to cut funds for D.C. schools if the city's program giving private school scholarships to low income students is not revived.

Strauss quotes a study saying the voucher program, as it is called, has not raised student achievement. But she ignores the fact that another program imposed on the District by Congress 15 years ago, public charter schools, has had marked benefits for D.C. students. Two separate studies by the Washington Post, and other studies by independent scholars, have shown that D.C. public school students with the same backgrounds have done better in charters than in regular public schools.

That is not the case nationally. The results throughout the country show charters and regular schools making similar progress after you average out the many studies of the subject. But we are talking about D.C. schools. If Congress had not pressured a very reluctant D.C. school board to allow charters, the city's overall achievement level would likely be worse now than it is.

I remember watching the D.C. school board, back in those days when it still set policy for D.C. schools, shortly after the city made a deal with Congress to allow charters. Several board members, talking about this unwanted reform, seethed with anger. What would they say if they walked into the several D.C. charter schools today that are flooded each year with applications, and visited by educators trying to find out how their students have made such impressive gains?

Threatening to cut D.C. school funds in order to get the voucher program back up to speed does seem impolite and disrespectful of local prerogatives. I have favored ending funding for the voucher program. I think it is well-intentioned, and good for the families that participate, but it is also an educational dead-end because there are never going to be enough available private school places to help many kids. I think it is better to use that money to make sure more good charters are born.

Thankfully, I don't make the rules. People elected to office do. Strauss complains of "the thoughtless, piece-meal way that this country makes school funding decisions. School budgets go up and down annually based on politics with no thought to the damage done to educational programs." That's democracy for you. If anyone has a better way of making educational decisions, let me know. Strauss was not that happy with the result of taking D.C. schools away from the school board and turning them over to the mayor, allowing him to ignore many of the democratic pressures she is complaining about.

Opponents of vouchers can still make their case. They convinced me, but many people out there think it is wrong to tell a domestic worker who can't afford a private high school that the government should not give her child a scholarship to attend one. If Strauss has a good argument for convincing that woman that vouchers are wrong, I would love to read it.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | February 21, 2011; 10:24 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Congress forced D.C. to accept charter schools, Congress interfering with D.C. schools, D.C. school voucher program, Valerie Strass, a good thing  
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Jay, I think you are both partially right and in total spot on. Writing as both an educator and taxpayer, every opportunity to avoid failure should be at least reviewed and possibly used until proven a failure.

If I am going to pay for Johnnie and Janie to attend a government sponsored program, if that program fails the child then transfer the money to another program. If the new program succeeds why should we disclaim the success? If the new program fails, then let us find another resource.

Continuing to feed a failed system is not on failure, it is "endorsed" failure. If you purchased a pair of shoes too small, buying the same pair over and over again...well, we all know what insanity looks like.

More importantly than a failed system, we are endorsing a failed future. While the adults stand around point fingers as they pirouette so they get everyone blamed, our children are failing. Stop the madness, find the solution, and let's know what we are getting is an investment in the future and not a history that remembers us as failures.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 21, 2011 12:26 PM | Report abuse


You just gave the best argument yourself; there aren't enough private schools - also for the amount of a voucher - to go around for all the parents who want that voucher money for their child. Poor parents who have no additional monies would find the vouchers of no use - unless the private schools happen to be religious and supported by their congregations.

Additionally, a convenient fact many people do not bring up, is that private schools do not have to accept every child. They can also expel them very easily.

I've worked in both public and small alternative schools and participated in numerous conferences at private schools. My daughter went to private schools for 7-12 grade. I do think there is a real place and need for charter schools.

From having experienced the above variety of schools, my other concerns are the following:

- Parents who are very poor, young, and
unsophisticated are still at a huge
disadvantage even if given a choice;
making your way through a maze of
applications and understanding what your
child really needs is not a simple

- Regardless of the school, leadership is
still a prime issue. In the newest of
schools, the leadership may remain in
flux for many years, and a parent needs
some saavy to ride that out and get in
and participate.

- Regardless of the school, oversight is
still an issue; one small school I know
of was taken over by an unqualified
banker who just about ran the school
into the ground, and the board
sanctioned his leadership for several
years before realizing the extent of the

- Finally, my gravest concern is for the
maintenance of the middle class, which
has carried the bulk of the work of our
country; if we do not concentrate our
efforts to shoring up and improving our
main vehicle (jobs go without saying) -
the public schools - for citizenship
and maintaining the middle
class, I do believe we will see
our society crumble.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 21, 2011 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Jbeeler's use of a "failed system" to describe DCPS reminds me of the so-called Merit Pay perpetrated on Fairfax teachers 25 years ago by then Superintendent Bud Spillane.
He graded teachers performance such that one could get a rating of "A' in four categories and a "D" in the last category and the final rating for them was "D". This meant a teacher's final grade was the lowest grade out of the bunch, no matter how high the other grades were.
No one would consider this rational or reasonable, especially for the children in the school system, but Spillane got away with it for 4-5 years in FCPS.

DCPS certainly has its problems but the reasons cover many, many areas, not the least of which was very bad management of facilities, budget and personnel. Teachers had no part in that but now are being blamed for any perceived "failings" of the system. Too bad so many people continue to be ignorant of or ignore all together the excellent information put out by Gerald Bracey that in fact schools in America are doing very well indeed.

Why do the media push and hype only the negative? Of course things need improving and yes, DCPS is in worse shape than most others, but the loud and steady drumbeat of blame and negativity will drive parents and teachers away. How is this helping?

Vouchers and charter schools are barely two drops in the very large bucket of public education. No one, including you, Jay, should be flogging them as "the answer". The facts don't support it and the public will not go for it when they really want their neighborhood schools to do the job. Too many politicians and stingy taxpayers don't want to pay what it takes year after year to accomplish improvement in those pockets of low performance. Bring attention and scrutiny to those certain places where it is needed and stop smearing everybody else by implication with the all-inclusive statements.

That America has only "failing" schools is beyond a gross exaggeration so stop it! Name calling is not a solution.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | February 21, 2011 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Your were correct in noting in your 2009 column that there has not been a groundswell of support for vouchers for the past generation. That's about to change. Not only is voucher support growing, a movement to completely privatize public schools is on the rise.

The despicable behavior of the teachers in Madison, Wisconsin and rallies this week being organized by SEIU across the country, may actually fuel a massive union-busting. Parents are sick and tired of being bullied by these union thugs who claim they are teaching "for the children" while paying their benefits and salaries with their hard earned taxdollars! And they should be able to collect "sick pay" on their fake doctor notes while they marched on the Capitol? Schools closed so they could go whine and hold up Nazi signs and signs with a target on the Gov's face? These are the people setting an example for our students?

I'd much rather see a portion of my school taxes pay for a low-income child who wants to get a great education at a PRIVATE school with non-union teachers - than make them suffer the abuses of a public school education.

If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn't let my kids near a public school.

Posted by: lisamc31 | February 21, 2011 2:58 PM | Report abuse

For lbnthrdntht---More than a third of DC public school students are in charter schools. That is much more than a drop in a bucket. As I said, the national situation is different, but we are talking about an issue, vouchers, that has some weight only in DC and a few other parts of the country, and is unlikely to spread further no matter what the hopes of folks like lisamc31. So for this city charters are a very big deal.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 21, 2011 3:42 PM | Report abuse

1bnthrdntht, it was a phrase of a system, not necessarily DCPS. When systems fail a child we should find solutions.

Here in Jacksonville Florida we have three high schools and a middle school nearing shutdown. This is not the first rodeo. This is (I think) the fourth failed year. One more and Annie Bar The Door.

That is a failed system. Elementary schools feeding those schools are not on the same path. I maintain those operations are part of a failed system. Put peanut butter or honey on still fails the children.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 21, 2011 3:45 PM | Report abuse

jbeeler -

Jacksonville, eh? One of the few public school districts in the country that offers International Baccalaureate (IB) K-12.

Now I remember, Ribault HS. Had an "F" rating at the time it was authorized by IB. No better? I'm shocked.

Failed system, you say? I suggest you advise Mr. Mathews of that little fact.

Posted by: lisamc31 | February 21, 2011 4:37 PM | Report abuse


Just think: how much better would Jacksonville schools be if they hadn't wasted millions of dollars on a Swiss social justice program and instead had reduced class sizes, hired elementary science teachers, rewarded excellent teachers and worked with a Core Knowledge curriculum?

Posted by: lisamc31 | February 21, 2011 4:43 PM | Report abuse

I think PUBLIC school vouchers are a good idea. The domestic worker should be able to apply to any tax-supported school for her child. She could also apply for scholarships provided by the private school and by private individuals or corporations. If she asks why her child can't go to private school, she should get the same answer as the rest of us: you can't afford it. Besides, in every large city there are public schools that are on par with the best private schools. These are the ones she should consider.

Citizens should not be asked to support private schools with their tax dollars. I know I wouldn't like it.

I DO support individuals who offer scholarships for disadvantaged children. Private schools should be supported by private dollars while public tax money goes to support public education.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 21, 2011 8:40 PM | Report abuse

Linda TRT: I agree with you, mostly, on this, except, in a city like Washington, DC, those better schools are darn few. If we closed more excess school buildings because they are wayyyy under utilized, the number of better schools might rise over time as attention and resources could be focused on making that happen.

Posted by: axolotl | February 21, 2011 10:18 PM | Report abuse

As to the astounding brilliance of both you and Ms. Strauss, I must concede you're half-right. Valerie is uncommonly smart.

You could have added that you both possessed courage and neither of you was a shill for monied educational interests and you would have been half-right again.

Posted by: natturner | February 21, 2011 11:14 PM | Report abuse


You delude yourself and it doesn't stop.

I resent the senators attempting to extort the mayor's support for vouchers. I resent charter schools sucking away resources, not just funds, from DCPS. I resent the philanthropists' efforts to ram their distopian views on my neighborhood.

The sooner we go back to MD the better -- forget about statehood, we need these turkeys off our backs.

Have to agree with natturner on both counts. Clever.

How about this as a parting thought: The neighborhood has changed, the kids have changed but it's the fault of the school.

Posted by: zebra22 | February 22, 2011 7:34 AM | Report abuse

In 2005, the Washington Post reported that 61% of voucher students attended Catholic schools. The voucher amount, less than $10k, was far below that almost $30k needed for an independent private school per year, but more than enough for Catholic school.

While the Supreme Court has decided that this kind of transfer of taxpayer funds from the government to religious schools is constitutionally permissible, I suspect that if 61% of the kids were attending Islamic academies, the result would have come out differently.

For this reason, I oppose vouchers as currently designed. The scholarships result in an enormous transfer of taxpayer dollars to religious, mostly Catholic, institutions. I might feel differently if the scholarships covered the cost of independent schools.

Posted by: trace1 | February 22, 2011 10:57 AM | Report abuse

For Linda/RetiredTeacher---I like yr public school voucher idea. How would it work? Do you mean a day laborer living in West Pasadena, and unhappy with the poor results from low income Muir High could transfer her kid to affluent La Canada High in the La Canada district, not far away, with all red tape and fees waived? In some areas, like LA and DC, that might work, but it would have to be a federal law. The rich suburban districts would resist. And it would have to have limits on the numbers who participated, or the federal law would never pass.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 22, 2011 2:26 PM | Report abuse


I'm glad you like my idea. Yes, I think a child in a "failing" (i.e.poor) school district should be able to apply to any tax supported school. So a child in a poor suburb of Los Angeles would be able to apply to affluent Los Alamitos or Beverly Hills. Transportation would be provided.

In order for my idea to work, the receiving schools would have to receive money (from the state or federal government?) for the child. Also, the receiving school would have to have some ability to restrict acceptance and to maintain standards. This would enable the receiving school to restrict the number of out-of-boundary students. Also the school should be able to reject students with behavior problems and to expel those who disrupt learning.

These public school vouchers would be available only to children trapped in failing schools.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 22, 2011 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Er, how do we detect failing schools if we don't place a lot of stock in standardized tests, and maybe even the quality of the teacher corps? If both are prohibited or constrained for political reasons, we won't be able to make public vouchers work.

Posted by: axolotl | February 22, 2011 6:56 PM | Report abuse

I am not opposed to standardized tests as long as they are given as directed (no peeking). If these tests are given as intended, their scores almost always correlate closely with the economic status of the students. This applies to every age group.

If tests aren't used to determine "failing" schools, we can use the number of children on free lunch, as we do now.

Tests can be given to evaluate the effectiveness of the teacher, but these tests would have to be designed to measure the progress of each child from September to June, and would have to be individually administered and graded.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 22, 2011 8:04 PM | Report abuse

Schools do not fail. Students fail! Nothing is going to change until we become honest about why "some" students fail. Please remember that the vast, vast majority of students are well adjusted and doing just fine.

Furthermore, education is not a race! The "winner" doesn't have to be first. The "winner" is the one that gets it right.

Posted by: jdman2 | February 23, 2011 12:26 PM | Report abuse

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