Saturday, March 14, 2009

Wrong perspective on vouchers

The Washington Post editoral page has been one of the more liberal outlets that is pretty good about recognizing the value of school choice and vouchers. But their editorial today focuses on the system and the results within the system rather than what the parents want:

IN A MAJOR speech this week outlining his vision for education, President Obama exhorted Washington to get beyond partisanship and petty bickering and to forgo old debates for ideas that really work for children. It's exactly the right sentiment and one Congress should embrace in deciding the future of the D.C. voucher program and 1,700 children from low-income families enrolled in it.
Congress, as part of the omnibus spending bill,
cut off federal funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program after the 2009-10 school year unless separate reauthorization legislation is passed. The District also must vote its approval of the program, which provides stipends of up to $7,500 for students to attend private schools. No doubt critics hope that these hurdles will kill off the nation's only program of federally funded vouchers. But further debate, with congressional hearings, offers the opportunity for impartial and comprehensive evaluation of a program started as an experiment five years ago.
Both sides need to put aside the overheated rhetoric that too often accompanies any mention of vouchers and focus instead on the facts. Supporters can point out that the program was not imposed on an unwilling city by an overbearing Republican administration and Congress. Rather, it was sought and enthusiastically supported by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), by the head of the school board and by other local Democrats. Contrary to myth, the program does not drain scarce dollars from needy public schools but is part of a three-sector approach to education reform under which additional money -- to the tune of about $129 million over the last five years -- has been directed to D.C. public and charter schools. Moreover, it is unclear what exactly would happen to those federal funds for public and charter schools if vouchers were to be eliminated.
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Nonetheless, critics are right to want to know whether vouchers are effective in improving the achievement of their poor, minority recipients and, as such, are a good use of federal tax dollars. There is strong anecdotal evidence from parents of students receiving scholarships that their children feel safer and more secure, are better motivated and work harder in their new schools. Perhaps the most critical factor, though, in an evaluation of success lies with the results due this spring from the U.S. Education Department's ongoing scientific study of the program. No matter what one's predisposition towards vouchers is, it would be foolhardy not to study -- and learn from -- these findings.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), whose Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs has jurisdiction over the District, has announced plans to hold hearings this spring. Congress dare not delay. Parents with children in the program and those who want to enroll need to know what the future holds. No matter what the verdict, we hope that Congress at least has the decency not to force children already in the program to leave schools that work for them.

As a society our main focus should be what the parents think is best for their child. If responsible parents are involved, we should respect their choices. Once people start developing more complex metrics that are subject to interpretation and value judgements, eventually the children lose out. We need freedom and choice in our educational system.

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