DC Vouchers Wild Success – Still Dead

We had a good back-and-forth yesterday about school choice versus one-size-fits-all (or none) schooling. Just wanted to repost this in full from Cato@Liberty‘s Adam Schaeffer:

The latest and final scheduled report on the DC voucher program is out.


Even a tiny, restricted program that’s only been around for six years increases graduation rates, has a positive impact on at least some groups of students, harms no groups of students, and does this for less than a third of what the DC Public Schools spend.

DCPS spends around $28,000 per student. The last report pegged the average voucher at just$6,620. The maximum voucher cost is just $7,500.

Huge sums of money saved, student performance increased, parents happier . . . why is this program being killed?

Oh, right.

The most important part of the conclusions to me are that these gains to some students didn’t come at the expense of others, as well as the cost savings (meaning that if expanded, savings would expand, fueling a virtuous cycle of reform).

Update: Timothy Lee, sitting in for Megan McArdle, brings up a point that nicely counters Tom’s pessimistic or ungenerous claim that people won’t get involved in their own educational futures, but in a totally different context:

In his new book, Cognitive Surplus, [Clay] Shirky argues that what looked like a fact about human nature turns out to be merely an artifact of limited 20th century media technologies. Because only a small group of professional writers had access to the technologies of mass publication, it seemed obvious that writing for publication was a job for professionals. And because the rest of us had never participated in the process, it was widely assumed we didn’t want to.

Jerry Brito recently interviewed Clay, and his ideological opponent, Nick Carr. I discussed their insights in two posts.

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5 Responses to DC Vouchers Wild Success – Still Dead

  1. Thomas Merrill says:

    I will hold firmly to my claim that there will always be students/parents who won’t care to exercise choice or judgment in their education no matter how accessible participation in guiding the process is made. Perhaps ungenerous, but not pessimistic — this is realistic. I will certainly advocate that people on average will benefit from increased accessibility to and transparency of choice in education. The percent of the population that doesn’t care should be a target of reform, not an outlier.

    The three main points in the exec. sum. of the DC voucher program report indicate to me that parental involvement (fueled by school choice) was the driver of increased graduation rates. Perhaps V.2 of the voucher program should offer both vouchers to students and more incentive for parental involvement. How many young students are going to utilize technologies of mass publication for academic publication and policy debate over making skateboarding videos without a good example set by a parental figure? This is especially important when the parents cannot comprehend the technologies in which their students are immersed. A voucher system can only be successful if it helps parents and students to fully understand their options and choices, not just open the possibility to make these choices (perhaps ignorantly, or fueled by non-academic [“aesthetic”] criteria).

    For a better-written example in a different context, here is Bryan Caplan on voting: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2008/07/the_social_cost.html.

    • Aaron says:

      A couple things to unpack from your response:

      A) You’re negative argument in favor of public schooling relies heavily on a notional claim, without much support. Even if I concede that there’s an enormous percentage of people who don’t and won’t ever care, the question remains: why oppose a systemic overhaul that doesn’t hurt any students, helps many, and costs less? You’ve identified what you think is the fundamental problem with the current system, and here’s a measure that offsets it while cutting overall cost. Why aren’t we screaming about this from rooftops?

      B) Innovation naturally seeps into society far faster and more deeply than anyone would have predicted. It’s the natural course of benefits to multiply without really being noticed. For example, jump to 4:50 of this clip.

      Something as inane as an ipod has revolutionized the way we operate on a daily basis. This really is “a miracle and no one cares”. Kerosene was a little-valued byproduct of refining, which inadvertently brought education and reading to the poor masses. The internet was developed to help generals communicate, and ended up being used for … everything. The benefits of markets arise from a discovery, not a designed, process.

      You’re negative argument relies on notional passivity and disengagement, but ignores all the notional possibility.

      C) Caplan’s rational ignorance theory actually undermines your negative argument. His conclusions imply that passivity, disengagement, and negativity aren’t the default attitude for social creatures; they are learned rational responses to obstructive systems. If that’s true, why should we accept an obstructive system that (as Shirky points out) inhibits our natural inclination to be cooperatively creative?

  2. Thomas Merrill says:

    While we’re on the subject, these may complement your argument: (recent release from the Census) “http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/education/cb10-96.html”.

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