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Op-Ed: Playing politics with school vouchers

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2008

We have yet to see much evidence of Sen. Barack Obama's oft-discussed willingness to buck the special interests and work with those across the aisle. Recent public plotting against the nation's first federal school-voucher program by some Democrats in Congress provides the presumptive presidential nominee with an opportunity to show his valor. A decision whether to speak up in support of the program's continuation can give voters an idea of whose interests Mr. Obama's acts on when pushed against the wall: his teachers-union funders or low-income kids stuck in rotten public schools.

The program in question offers scholarships to nearly 2,000 students which they can use to leave the infamously bad Washington D.C. public school system for a private alternative. More than 95 percent of students using a voucher are black or Hispanic, and on average they come from families with an annual income of about $18,000.

Unlike other school-choice policies, the D.C. voucher experiment is subject to federal oversight and approval. The Democratic legislative majority makes presidential leadership crucial to the program's future survival. Sen. John McCain's previous support for school choice leaves little doubt where he stands. Mr. Obama, whose support could prove decisive among his Democratic colleagues, has remained silent.

To be fair, Mr. Obama has never claimed to be a voucher advocate. But the "post-partisan candidate" has promised to keep an open mind. "If there was any argument for vouchers it was, all right, let's see if this experiment works and then if it does, whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids," the then-hopeful nominee told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorial board last February when asked about his stance on that city's voucher program.

Such evidence is now available for the D.C. voucher program. On Monday, researcher Patrick Wolf and his team revealed the findings of their evaluation of the program's effectiveness. Their two-year study follows a random assignment design, which is considered the "gold standard" of social science research.

Though not the slam-dunk that some voucher supporters might have hoped for, the results certainly don't warrant the program's termination. Students offered a voucher appear to have somewhat higher academic achievement in reading, though they have not made any real gains in math. Parents are more satisfied with their child's private school and report that it provides their children with a safer environment. Only future research following these students over a longer period of time will tell us the true impact of the policy.

Opponents of the program are certain to make a fuss that the study's overall findings for reading are "statistically insignificant." In other words, the researchers are less than 95 percent certain that the impact of the program was in fact positive and not zero.

Though this terminology may be essential to empirical researchers who need a common parlance, it can mislead non-technical readers to believe that there is no reason to think the program has been successful. In this specific case, the empirical results suggest that we can be 91 percent confident that the program had a positive impact on student reading proficiency. This may not be quite enough to excite academics, but it is a higher level of confidence then we have about the effectiveness of many other programs operating in our schools.

Nonetheless, even a null result is actually encouraging for this program. The maximum voucher amount is only about half what is spent on a child in the D.C. public schools. Thus, at worst, the study shows that voucher students are doing as well as they would have if they remained in a public school but at a much lower price tag for the taxpayer. Few programs in education can boast such productivity gains.

The next teachers-union line is that school choice harms students who are left behind in the public school system. But not only is this argument inconsistent with a growing body of empirical research, in the context of the D.C. program it simply does not make logical sense.

The voucher program is paid for out of a different pool of federal dollars than is used to fund the D.C. public schools. Further, adoption of the program was the result of a political deal that actually brought a huge influx of additional spending into the District's public schools, which were already among the highest funded in the nation. In a study last year, my colleague Jay Greene and I found no evidence that the program was having any positive or negative effect on student performance in D.C. public schools.

Empirical research provides no good reason to abandon the D.C. voucher program. If the program is eliminated, it will be because of the same partisan politics driven by powerful special interests that has defined Washington for generations. Mr. Obama has asked us to expect better under his leadership. Speaking up in support of continuing the D.C. voucher program would show us he means it.

Marcus A. Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.