Friday, May 8, 2009

Fighting to save the District’s popular school-voucher program, some 1,000 parents, pupils and politicians gathered near Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office on Wednesday to protest Congress’ plans to end school choice in Washington.

That same day, the Senate approved a $4,500 voucher for cars, encouraging citizens to trade in their old automobiles for newer ones that burn less fuel.

So, Congress thinks that vouchers for schools are bad, but vouchers for cars are good.

Slashing school vouchers spares teachers’ unions from competition. On the other hand, car vouchers are supposed to boost demand for cars built by the United Auto Workers. The obvious explanation for this schizophrenia: Congress does whatever helps unions.

A closer look reveals that Congress has it wrong in both cases - which is what happens when lawmakers let interest groups trump common sense.

The economics of a new car voucher are laughable. If the fuel savings were as large as voucher-backers say, the voucher wouldn’t be needed. Drivers would buy new cars voluntarily and reap the windfall. In reality, most drivers of older cars do so because the fuel-economy of cars made in the past 15 years is roughly equivalent to that of new cars, many personal-property taxes (the “car tax”) are much lower on older vehicles, and some older cars have features newer cars lack, like ashtrays. Also, if you are handy with a socket wrench, older cars can be cheaper to fix than the newer, microchip-guided ones.

If Congress truly wanted to encourage drivers to buy new cars, it could pre-empt state governments from levying car taxes that keep people in clunkers when they could be in Cadillacs.

Meanwhile, school vouchers have clearly improved the education for the black and Hispanic students who have been lucky enough to get them. Consider the story of Carlos Battle, a black 11th-grader at Georgetown Day. The Washington Times talked to him and his mother yesterday. Carlos lives with his mother, Pamela, and brother, Calvin, in an apartment off Malcolm X Boulevard. His mother didn’t graduate from high school and is out of work. They don’t own a car. Without the voucher program, she says, “We clearly couldn’t afford Georgetown Day.” She has a talent for understatement. Without vouchers, she worries that Carlos, who now hopes to be a lawyer someday, would end up “becoming a statistic” and “be on the street selling drugs.”

Vouchers clearly have made other students better off. Studying the program’s impact after three years, the U.S. Department of Education found that on average vouchers improved student reading scores by the equivalent of almost 4 months. Math scores also rose slightly, but the effect was not statistically significant.

Both of these measures likely underestimate the impact on students’ because the longer students are in the voucher program the more they seem to improve. (The Washington Times asked for the data when the study was released, but we were told it would not be released for six months. We suspect a more rigorous analysis of the underlying data would show an ever stronger benefit than the one reported.)

So why does President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan oppose school vouchers? Mr. Duncan told The Washington Post: “Big picture, I don’t see vouchers as being the answer. You can pull two kids out, you can pull three kids out, and you’re leaving 97, 98 percent behind. You need to help all those kids. The way you help them is by challenging the status quo where it’s not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically.” So don’t rescue any one from a burning building unless you can rescue every one? That seems like a weak position.

Indeed, Mr. Duncan’s reasoning would most logically support a 100 percent voucher program so that no one is left behind.

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that during the 2005-06 school year, there were 76,876 students in public schools in the District. With total elementary and secondary school expenditures coming to $1.079 billion, that amounts to $14,035 per student. So Mr. Duncan, please tell us, why spend $14,035 per pupil when we can spend $7,500 on a voucher and get a better education in the bargain?

Thirty-eight percent of congressmen already know that private schools offer better education - they all send their children to private schools, according to a just-published survey of Congress conducted by the Heritage Foundation.

The real tragedy is that the Democratic majority has decided to put the interests of unions over that of ordinary Americans. They may not be able to write big checks or organize armies of canvassers, but, every other year on a cool day in November, they do vote.

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