The original rationale for “school choice” in Indiana was to empower parents with limited resources to take their kids out of “failing schools” and improve their education by putting them in better schools. Advocates for public funding of alternatives to traditional public schools barely even nod toward those original rationales anymore. Vouchers are available to even families that are relatively well-to-do. There is no requirement that the student has ever been in a public school, failing or otherwise. And, the evidence reflects that, on the whole, student outcomes are worse when they are moved out of the traditional public schools. Steve Hinnefeld has an excellent post on the subject today.
[T]horough evaluations of large-scale voucher programs – in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. – found overwhelmingly negative effects on learning as measured by test scores.
“We’ve seen some of the biggest drops in test scores that we’ve ever seen in the research community for people who take vouchers and go to private schools,” he said.
The impact on math scores, in some cases, was twice as large as the test-score decline associated with the pandemic, he said. It was on the scale of what New Orleans students lost when Hurricane Katrina shut down schools and forced families from their homes.
“They suffered that badly, in terms of their test scores,” he said. “We’re talking about nine or 10 months loss of learning. It’s massive.”
As always where Steve’s posts are concerned, I recommend reading the whole thing. So, if they’re actively hurting student outcomes, why do we keep throwing money at charters and private school vouchers instead of devoting that money to our public schools? Because, and I’d advise you to sit down dear reader, it was never about helping poor kids get out of failing public schools. “School choice” is about 1) subsidizing religious education, 2) weakening teacher’s unions, and 3) diverting public funds to friends and well-wishers of school choice advocates. Many have suggested that it’s also about re-segregating the public schools. But that wasn’t part of my original big 3, so I’ll just mention it in passing.
Charters can complement traditional public schools with tight regulation like what we’ve seen in Massachusetts. Maybe vouchers can too. But that’s not what Indiana will ever do because that’s not the point of the exercise. From the local level on up to the federal level, it’s important to vote for people who categorically support our traditional public schools. It’s important because there is more to the “public” part of public schools than merely government funding. It denotes a population with a common interest. We are not merely a collection of individuals, workers, consumers, or taxpayers. The concept of citizens and the public are closely aligned. Public education isn’t important merely because it serves the public, it is important because it creates the public. The school’s role as a public institution is something that often gets left out or ignored when the subject of “school choice” and vouchers are brought up. Disregard of the public school’s role in creating the public is a fundamental flaw in the “money-follows-the-child” model of funding education. And, as it turns out, school choice doesn’t help improve educational outcomes in any case.