June 30, 2009

No differences -> politics as usual?

While the DC vouchers debate swallowed more airtime, it's David Figlio's new study of Florida's voucher programs that will reveal the state of voucher politics. Several years ago, opponents of vouchers pointed out the lack of accountability for the programs, and in response supporters inserted a mandated study comparing achievement of students using vouchers to public-school students. Fortunately, they picked one of the best economists of education, who is careful and cautious and has done several studies of Florida's voucher programs in the past decade (including the best article on the topic, published in 2006).

Figlio's conclusion is roughly that given the data he had available, there is no evidence of differences in student achievement between those in the corporate tax-credit voucher programs and similar students in public schools. Further, the usually-cautious Figlio went out on a limb and said if additional data were available, he wouldn't expect the conclusions to change. This is not the only report I expect Figlio to produce on the corporate tax-credit voucher program, since the interesting questions for microeconomists are about how the shape of the market (the presence and size of a voucher program) changes its characteristics (esp. responses of public schools). 

But until that report is produced, and probably after it, the no-difference finding here mirrors a bunch of other studies. At this point, it looks like there is no solid evidence that students using vouchers perform better as a result, and in Florida at least, it also looks like students don't perform worse, either. So the voucher debate will not be settled by evidence of effectiveness, and we default back to questions of values embedded in public policy and the way that experiences shape the policy-relevant questions.

Those who support vouchers are spinning the no-difference findings as "vouchers do the job for less money, and choice is a positive value." Those who oppose vouchers are spinning the findings as "vouchers are no panacea, and choice can exist within the public system." And as voucher-receiving schools accumulate in the state, the ordinary politics of constituents make it hard for legislators to oppose eliminating the program. It is the last item that makes Florida (where a number of Democrats have voucher schools in their districts) different from DC (where the governing authority, Congress, has only one voting representative with constituents who use the vouchers). In the end, I think we'll see voucher programs generally stay in the states where they currently exist (primarily from the constituency-experience dynamic) but not expand much (because of the lack of evidence of great effects and because charter-school expansion in cities is an easier political sell).

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Tags: research, vouchers
Posted in Education policy on June 30, 2009 9:15 AM |