Grasping At Straws

April 26, 2010 | Blog

Illinois is sure to be disappointed if it continues to move forward with a private voucher program (SB 2494) for Chicago Public Schools. Just ask Wisconsin– and Milwaukee.

Clearly, the Chicago Tribune editorial board (‘Liberate the kids’), which is cheering the process on, has not done its homework, not checked its sources, and not looked to its neighbor to the north for guidance. Or it is simply drinking the Kool Aid mixed by Voucher Inc.:

And there’s evidence that vouchers improve public schools. A 2009 report by The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice examined 17 studies on the impact of voucher programs. Sixteen studies found that vouchers improved student achievement in public schools; one study found they had no positive or negative impact. In other words, competition works.

There is also plentiful evidence that vouchers do NOT improve public schools, including the on-going evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program — the longest-standing voucher program in the country, just a short drive up I-94 from Chicago.

To look to the Friedman Foundation for guidance on this issue is akin to turning to Karl Rove’s new book as a definitive history of the George W. Bush administration. From a University of Illinois professor, Dr. Christopher Lubienski, here’s a critique of the Friedman report cited in the Tribune editorial:

[T]he report, based on a review of 17 studies, selectively reads the evidence in some of those studies, the majority of which were produced by voucher advocacy organizations. Moreover, the report can’t decide whether or not to acknowledge the impact of factors other than vouchers on public schools. It attempts to show that public school gains were caused by the presence of vouchers alone, but then argues that the lack of overall gains for districts with vouchers should be ignored because too many other factors are at play. In truth, existing research provides little reliable information about the competitive effects of vouchers, and this report does little to help answer the question.

Competition does not work. Plus, what evidence exists to suggest that these Chicago-area private schools will do any better a job of educating the students who would be taken out of the public system? I can’t wait to see that evidence because I’m fairly certain that it doesn’t exist. That raises questions about the Tribune‘s utter disregard of this issue: “What if student performance doesn’t improve in private schools? Simple: Parents will vote with their feet.” But if there’s no comparable evidence of student performance between public and private schools, how can parents (consumers) make informed judgments about their child’s education? In addition, what if there are insufficient openings at private schools for students wanting to go? Will the voucher be sufficient to cover the tuition and associated costs at these schools for low-income students?

What would be preferable to this exercise in grasping at straws would be energy directed toward a more difficult series of conversations about school-based policies like teacher quality, school leadership, teaching and learning conditions and overall school improvement, in addition to community-focused strategies such as early childhood education, after-school programs, quality child care, and school health in the city of Chicago that get to kids’ readiness to learn when they come to school.

Vouchers are not the answer, but a major distraction from more efficacious approaches that should be the focus of the Illinois Legislature.

Image courtesy of Laura Lee.


  1. Reply


    April 26, 2010

    What's the difference between a voucher school and a charter school? Is a charter school a nonprofit and a voucher school private for-profit?

    I just saw The Lottery, which focuses on the Harvard Success Academy, a charter school in Harlem that seems to really benefit students. I used to oppose the idea of charter schools, but this film is nudging me to change my mind.

    Would love to hear your opinions on the issue of charter schools.

  2. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    April 26, 2010


    Vouchers allow parents to take x amount of tax dollars out of the public school system and apply it to tuition at a private or religious school. Charter schools are generally public schools that operate independently under contract from a school district or other granting authority (sometimes a state, university or organization). Specific voucher and charter laws vary by locale.

  3. Reply

    Claus von Zastrow

    April 26, 2010

    Thanks for your very thoughtful post, Liam. I was surprised by the Chicago Trib article. As you note, there has been so much research on vouchers since the idea was first proposed, that you'd think the editorial board over at the Trib would at least acknowledge it. Even after so many voucher supporters have backed away from the competition argument, newspaper editors solemnly repeat it as if the incantation itself could make it so.

  4. Reply

    Stuart Buck

    April 27, 2010

    Yes, there has been a lot of research, and it universally shows 1) at least some benefits from vouchers for some groups (particularly inner-city black kids), 2) at a much lower cost, 3) in a way that makes poor parents happier and gives them more autonomy. Liberals usually support government programs that do the latter, and their opposition to vouchers is inexplicable apart from an ideological attachment to some goal that is directly opposed to helping poor people (in this case) . . . not sure what that is.

  5. Reply

    Stuart Buck

    April 27, 2010

    If you're sincerely concerned that the voucher might be insufficient to cover tuition for low-income students, the only logical response is to argue for an increased voucher amount.

  6. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    April 28, 2010

    First of all, Stuart, I am not a policymaker or lobbyist in Springfield, Illinois, so it is not my role to argue for an increased voucher amount. I simply raise that issue as a question that hopefully has been asked and answered by the legislators (and editorial boards) supporting this bill.

    Secondly, I don't begrudge you the cost argument in terms of public resources. That said, I think it is clear in the case of private schools, that they are in many case partially subsidizing voucher students who attend them. (But I wonder how many won't step up to the plate because the voucher is insufficient to cover per student costs?) So it's not like they are providing a similar product at a lower overall cost (the actual voucher amount), simply a lower cost to taxpayers. Is that the strongest argument for vouchers? I don't think so -- it's certainly not a scalable solution -- and without sufficient accountability my fear is that one might end up with nightmare voucher schools such as those that materialized in the Milwaukee program. I also fear the impact on urban school system such as CPS -- already cash strapped and hamstrung by an inequitable school funding formula in Illinois -- with the diversion of resources outside of the system.

    Third, I disagree with your overall characterization of the voucher research (recognizing that much of it cited was financial and/or conducted by voucher advocacy organizations. But, yes, there is some evidence that such programs have been shown to empower low-income families by giving them more autonomy, as you put it. I'm not sure we need a voucher system to accomplish this -- greater choice within the public system, including charter and magnet schools, as well as stronger interventions to support and strengthen the educational quality at neighborhood schools would be preferable routes, in my opinion. Most important, more important than empowerment, is educational outcomes. The independent research I've seen and read has shown no statistically significant impact on student learning as a result of vouchers. So vouchers are not increasing the educational attainment of the low-income students they purport to help.

  7. Reply

    Stuart Buck

    April 28, 2010

    You haven't seen nearly all the research, then.

    And your autonomy comments remind me of someone who might say, "Why should we let poor people use food stamps at the grocery store of their choice? They should have the option of choosing Government-owned Store 1 or Government-owned Store 2. That's good enough for them. And plus, giving people a choice of grocery stores hasn't been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to increase lifespans by 5 or more years. So poor people don't need to have the same choice that I exercise."

  8. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    April 29, 2010

    What you call paternalism, Stuart, I call using poor people as props in an unproven, ideologically-based movement to defund public education in this country.

    If most of the voucher advocates actually made the interests of low-income people a top priority, there wouldn't be nearly as many of them. And if they put their energy into improving public schools which now, and for as far as we can see into the future, educate the vast majority of Americans, we might even have better quality education for all.

    Per your grocery store analogy, governments currently regulate the grocery industry to assure food safety and such. Too many voucher advocates -- Milwaukee is where I am intimately familiar -- resisted all forms of accountability, comparability and quality assurance for years and years. There, this resistance led to a schism involving Howard Fuller who more or less disowned the voucher forces who clearly weren't putting the educational interests of low-income Milwaukee students first. Those forces turned a blind eye and unqualified individuals who didn't even have high school diplomas to teach in voucher schools, vouchers were used to buy a Mercedes Benz and luxury items at another school, a convicted sex offender founded multiple schools, and basic education and even textbooks were lacking at many. Fortunately, that has begun to change, but only because of the government oversight that you bemoan and accountability forced upon the voucher advocates.

    I, for one, am glad that the grocery stores I shop at are not vestiges of a marketplace unfettered by basic government regulations to ensure public safety and provide relevant information to consumers. The same goes for the public schools that my children will attend.

  9. Reply

    Stuart Buck

    April 29, 2010

    All American voucher programs of which I'm aware are specifically targeted either at poor kids or at disabled kids (Florida, for example). How is it "using poor people as props" to support a program that gives them just a hint of the same freedom and choice that richer people take for granted? Nobody (or almost nobody) is trying to "defund public education," and if they are, they're doing quite a poor job of it (funding keeps going upwards). Even Bush got the DC voucher program only as part of a deal to deliver even more money to failing DC schools that were already spending more than just about every district in the US.

    I don't "bemoan" government oversight of voucher schools -- where are you getting that from? I know of the few horror stories from Milwaukee, and approve of taking steps to ensure that the voucher schools are legitimate. By the same token, though, will you not admit that where private schools are just as legitimate as private grocery stores, poor people should have the absolute right to use government funding there just as much as they have the right to use food stamps where they please? If we can meet in the middle there, I'd be quite pleased.

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

© 2013 The EduOptimists. All Rights Reserved.