Category Archives: Education

DC’s School Voucher Experiment

The Wall Street Journal reports on the battle to keep the DC school vouchers program in operation. Without federal approval, the DC School Opportunity Program will end in 2010. The programs provides 1,500 children with $7,500 per year towards private tuition.

Parents praise the program for improved outcomes and the ability to obtain a better education for their children, “It’s not a competition between public schools, charter and private,” said [parent of two Patricia William]. “Not all schools work the same for all children and we, as parents, should have the right to chose the school that works for them.”

But many in Congress argue the program siphons money away from public schools. The Obama administration plans to phase out the program once the current enrollees graduate.

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Introducing Competition to Public Schools

As states are attempting to improve the quality of public education while facing tight budget constraints, school vouchers are gaining publicity as a means of improving education through increased competition while not requiring increased funding.

Voucher programs have been implemented in several cities across the country, generally improving achievement among students who are able to use them. As reported in USA Today:

Vouchers have improved the math and reading of inner-city children from Dayton, Ohio, to Charlotte, N.C., various studies show. The Washington vouchers improved the reading of girls and younger kids by about half a school year, though results for other groups were iffier. Yet opposition is so fierce that few voucher experiments survive past the seedling stage. Florida vouchers were blocked by a party-line vote in the state Supreme Court. In Utah, they were killed by a union-funded anti-voucher campaign.

While critics of voucher programs such as the National Education Association fear that they would reduce the funding and quality of public schools, those who support vouchers assert that by introducing competition into public education, teachers and administrators will have new incentives to improve the level of service without raising costs.

Economist Charles Tiebout elucidated that competition between communities to attract investment has led to greater variation and improved choices for consumers who each have different preferences.  Communities’ residents are able to sort themselves into the neighborhoods and cities that are best for them by voting with their feet.  The same freedom for parents and children to choose which school to attend might improve the quality of education available generally as well as increase the variety of schooling options available to each child.

Stimulus Funding and Future Program Costs

The St. Paul Public Schools offer a microcosm for the current challenges facing localities with an influx of stimulus money.

A recent St. Paul Star Tribune article reports that the district is in line to receive $29 million for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but using this money in a responsible way is difficult since the district will not be able to depend on it for funding programs in future years.

The district plans to use these funds for “one-time investments that can have lasting reform benefits for schools.” Plans for the money include teacher training, making reading and math curricula consistent across schools, and software systems to track student performance.

However, Michelle Walker, the district’s chief accountability officer, pointed out that these new programs will require “new staff… up to 80 full-time positions could be ‘redesigned or newly created.’” In other words, it may be difficult for newly created programs to be maintained after stimulus funding is used up.

Whether or not cities and states are benefitted or harmed by stimulus money in the long run will depend on their ability to select projects that can benefit from a one-time injection of funds without inducing great pressure for continued long-run funding. As Eileen Norcross has previously discussed, states that are already facing budget crunches are in danger of committing themselves to higher future spending. The temptation will be present across the country to create programs that require increased tax dollars after stimulus funds are exhausted.