Truthiness and School Choice
On Sunday, the Columbia Daily Tribune juxtaposed two columns on school choice: one by David Webber (which Sarah Brodsky already touched on here), and one by yours truly. I’d like to use this post to follow up on some of the arguments made by Prof. Webber, and reiterate some of what I said in my own column.
Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central‘s immensely popular faux-conservative talk-show host and sometime presidential candidate, coined the term "truthiness" to describe things that people "know" intuitively without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. The idea would be funnier if not for the real-world consequences of allowing prevailing opinions to overwhelm evidence to the contrary.
On Nov. 6, voters in Utah decided to stay the course with the state’s underachieving educational status quo, voting down a program that would have granted need-based scholarships (valued between $500 and $3,000) for any student whose parents chose to send them to a school other than their government-assigned public school. Professor David Webber took the vote as an occasion to argue that states should abandon education reforms that would provide immediate solutions for parents through the use of public funds that would help them send their children to the schools best suited to address their families’ needs. His rationale? A perceived lack of public support for "vouchers" a term that studies show people
disfavor, even when they support the underlying idea of school choice.
Webber’s arguments, however, are the same "truthiness" that the National Education Association, the NAACP, and the ACLU have trotted out prior to the adoption of each of the 19 K-12 school choice programs that remain active throughout the nation. As those programs have progressed, it has become increasingly clear that the doom-and-gloom predictions made by school choice opponents are utterly divorced from reality. Fourteen states (including Utah and the District of Columbia) currently maintain at least one school choice program, each of which is steadily growing and proving its value to the communities supporting them. These programs almost invariably attract more applicants than they are allowed
to serve, and no legislative or electoral vote has ever discontinued a school choice program once voters have been allowed to test it for themselves.
Consider Milwaukee, home of the nation’s first modern parental choice program. During the past 18 years, multiple studies of that program have shown performance improvements in Milwaukee public schools. Low-income parents have been so pleased with their newfound educational freedom that the program had to be expanded to accommodate the overwhelming demand for scholarships. Schools have sprouted in disadvantaged neighborhoods to serve parents who otherwise would have seen their children bused to public schools that were not meeting their needs. Graduation rates at scholarship schools are nearly double the graduation rates at traditional public schools. And contrary to preliminary concerns about the expense of non-public education and the threat of bankrupting public schools, Milwaukee public schools currently spend $12,000 per public school student while the government spends only $6,500 to educate each scholarship student. The city is saving $5,500 per scholarship student (each of whom would otherwise require the full $12,000), while also allowing thousands of families to enjoy schools of their choice. Milwaukee’s experience proves that choice can and does work to improve the lives of families.
Webber’s objection to school choice is especially perplexing, because he agrees that "parents should be able to select a particular local school that fits their transportation and teaching needs [… and] parents should have wider choices of education services." Indeed, many studies of the nation’s choice programs confirm that education improves when parents and children have the freedom to choose their schools. Alas, Webber insists without citing any facts or studies to support his position that choice should be limited to public schools. These things happen when "truthiness" takes hold.
Missourians especially those living with the consequences of failing public schools should pay careful attention to the success of choice in other cities and states. Talk to families participating in the programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., and you will hear parents tell amazing stories about the improvement in student achievement levels, and voice their markedly increased satisfaction with their children’s schools. Equipped with the evidence that school choice is succeeding elsewhere, we can move beyond "truthiness" and develop a plan to offer Missouri’s families the kind of educational freedom that has already helped so many students realize their potential.