Thursday, October 4, 2007

Are we discussing vouchers, or snake oil?

I was pleased to see an article in yesterday's Trib that did what I've advocated we do for a while: It described a study that looked at objective facts and drew logical conclusions from those facts. Thank you, Lisa Schencker of the Trib.

Ms. Schencker reported on a study released by the Economic Policy Institute, which looked at Milwaukee, Wisconsin's voucher program. The study consulted the work of respected sources and relied on clear data. And it quoted a Stanford University professor that, coincidentally, I'd quoted before here (

But this is what I found amazing about Ms. Schencker's report: After spending almost a year making the point that its universal, statewide voucher plan would to improve public schools by giving them competition, Parents for Choice in Education disavowed that point entirely when the EPI study concluded that Milwaukee's voucher program had done no such thing. As if they'd never made such a claim at all, PCE's spokesperson took a completely different position. Before this report was released, voucher supporters said vouchers would do a lot of good. After it was released, PCE's Leah Barker told Ms. Schencker, "Vouchers have never created any harm."

A century and a half ago, snake oil salesmen roamed Western outposts and trails, plying tonics that would cure everything from gout to the grippe. Could you imagine a dissatisfied customer complaining that his shingles weren't cured, and the salesman answering, "Well, it didn't make them any worse"?

Or saying, "Well, before, you didn't know whether or not my tonic would help you, so now we're a hundred percent more knowledgeable on that subject?" It's almost as ridiculous as saying, "Everyone's different, so I'm not surprised that I've finally found someone that wasn't helped by it. All I know is, I had thousands of satisfied customers in Dry Gulch bathing in the stuff and feeling forty years younger."

In the end, snake oil is snake oil. When you can't explain what's in it, what's good about it, what objective studies and consumer reports have concluded about it, I suppose all you're left with is the argument that trying it can't make things any worse. And that's not an argument at all, it's a fallback position.

Here's what Ms. Schencker learned (

Competition from a long-running voucher program in Milwaukee has not consistently improved that city's public schools, according to an Economic Policy Institute study released today.

"Schools are not like the marketplace: Competition doesn't automatically make things better," study co-author and Stanford University professor Martin Carnoy said in a statement. "The evidence does not support advocates' claims that voucher schools raise academic achievement."
Milwaukee's program, which started in 1990, is significantly different from the one Utah voters will consider in a November referendum.

Milwaukee's program gives vouchers only to low-income students to attend private schools, whereas Utah's program would give vouchers to students from families of all income levels. Also, students who receive vouchers to attend Milwaukee private schools don't have to pay any additional tuition, whereas in Utah, families that accept vouchers would likely still have to pay some tuition.

I thought I recognized two names in Ms. Schencker's article, and it turned out that I had seen them before and wrote about them, too. One was Martin Carnoy, the Stanford professor who concluded that vouchers wouldn't raise student achievement. The other was Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas. Here's what Ms. Schencker wrote about Mr. Greene, who has now adopted the fallback position that while it can't be proven that vouchers help student achievement, it can't be proven either than vouchers harm anybody:

Jay Greene, a University of Arkansas professor who has researched Milwaukee's voucher program, said no study he knows of has shown that voucher programs hurt public schools. Some studies, he said, show voucher programs improve public schools and others, such as the one released today, show they have no effect on public schools' performance. Greene is part of a team of researchers starting a five-year study of Milwaukee's voucher system. At least one of the authors of the Economic Policy Institute's study is also on that team.

"You can't make an overall conclusion from a single study of a single program," Greene said. "There is some reason to hope a voucher program in Utah would be helpful to schools in Utah and not hurtful."

Voucher opponents, however, both here and in Milwaukee, argue that voucher programs do cause harm to public schools by stealing money and other resources, if not by lowering test scores.

So, is Mr. Greene saying that our proposed statewide, universal voucher plan is just an experiment? And that conducting an experiment this big and this expensive is worth doing on Utah's students, with Utah's tax dollars?

If that's what he's saying, then I would wonder what's wrong with trying it first in Arkansas, Mr. Greene's own state. I'm not thrilled at the idea of trying an experiment in Utah just for the sake of trying it to see what will happen. I agree with what Lisa Johnson told Ms. Schencker: ""For the amount of money it would cost us to implement this voucher program, we could actually help public schools if we were to invest in lowering class sizes or investing in teacher recruitment. With our resources being as limited as they are, we think we ought to use those resources wisely in a way that will help the most people."

For anyone who's interested in what Mr. Greene and Professor Carnoy, here's part of what I wrote on August 22:

In the current issue of School Reform News, however, there's an article titled, "What Can We Learn from the Universal Voucher Law in Utah?" by three men who work in the Arkansas Department of Education Reform. I wondered if this office was affiliated with the Arkansas Department of Education, since its name is so similar. What I thought would be a simple google search led to a few more steps. Is nothing what it says it is anymore?

At the office's own webpage,, I learned that it is not affiliated with the Arkansas Department of Education, but with the University of Arkansas's College of Education and Health Professions. It sounded perfectly legitimate -- a public university serving a public interest -- until I read further.

The office's webpage reads, "The Department of Education Reform is the newest department in the College of Education and Health Professions, established on July 1, 2005. The creation of the Department of Education Reform was made possible through a $10,000,000 private gift and an additional $10,000,000 from the University’s Matching Gift Program. This gift is one of the largest ever received by a college of education in the country. With these resources the department has six endowed professorships, ten doctoral fellowships, and funds for research and projects."

So an unnamed donor with an interest in "education reform" gave a gift of $10 million to the University of Arkansas, which matched the gift with public funds and opened a brand-new department whose products now include papers to be published by the Heartland Institute. And for that $10 million gift, they got a staff of six professors, 10 graduate students and various research aid to set up their operation. (Who in Arkansas would have $10 million to devote to such a narrow purpose, and would not want to give it publicly?)

Its director is Jay Greene. And Mr. Greene's biography, which is available on the public website, lists a good many articles he's written or co-written, with titles such as "Vouchers in Charlotte," "The Hidden Research Consensus for School Choice, Charters, Vouchers, and Public Education," "Private Schooling and Political Tolerance," "Private Schools and the Public Good," "Effectiveness of School Choice: The Milwaukee Experiment," "Sex, Drugs, and Delinquency in Urban and Suburban Public Schools," "The Education Freedom Index," and "A Survey of Results from Voucher Experiments: Where We Are and What We Know."

Now that we understand the point of view adopted by Mr. Greene and the Arkansas Department of Education Reform, it makes perfect sense that one of his graduate students, his deputy director and a research associate should write a new article called "What Can We Learn from the Universal Voucher Law in Utah?" and that it is published in School Reform News by the Heartland Institute. The article is brief ( ); it draws some comparisons between the universal voucher law passed by the Utah legislature and voucher plans enacted in the South American nations of Colombia and Chile.

Here is one of their observations:

"If implemented, Utah's voucher plan will be wholly unique. For one, the plan is universal only in regard to opportunity, since it doesn't force families to make a choice, as Chile's plan does. Families can continue to attend their assigned school as if the voucher program didn't exist. The Utah plan also has graduated voucher amounts, ranging from $500 for the wealthiest individuals to $3,000 for the most disadvantaged. Vouchers are available only for use in private schools, so only children of families interested in private school, dismayed enough with their current public school, and financially secure enough to make up any difference between the voucher and tuition costs, will use it. This scenario by no means describes a market-based K-12 education system."

And here's another.

"Martin Carnoy's 1998 study of Sweden and Chile's national voucher programs analyzed the effects they had on traditional public schools. In Sweden, the research suggests, the voucher program "hardly touched public education," because public schools are generally held in high regard. In Chile, however, private schools were deemed to be better than public schools, and vouchers caused a 'flight from public education.'

"Carnoy found the effects of vouchers depend on the public's perceptions of traditional public schools. Public schools in Utah are generally held in high regard, and it appears likely that few Utahns would flee the public school system. Hence, if Carnoy's findings are credible, it may be difficult for researchers to ascertain vouchers' possible effects on public schools elsewhere."

Again, thanks to Ms. Schencker for looking at objective data and reporting its logical conclusions.