I don’t know if I have ever really explained what I do for my summer job here. Each year, the nation’s high school policy debaters debate a single resolution about a broad area of federal policy and I spend the summer researching the topic to provide briefs to help high school students begin their process of understanding the topic. In the course of that research, I typically read 30-40 books, hundreds of law review and journal articles, and thousands of news and magazine pieces, scouring them all for the best evidence. The topic this year is one I am more familiar with than most years:
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its funding and/or regulation of elementary and/or secondary education in the United States.
Given that topic, I’ve spent today researching voucher programs for schools and the evidence could not be more clear: they are terribly ineffective and Montanans would do well to continue to reject them.
Every year, the Republicans in the Legislature, ignoring limits of geography, the guidelines of our state constitution, and education research push for programs that will divert state tax money into private schools. Their last candidate for governor and our current, violent Congressman, Greg Gianforte, has spent millions promoting the school voucher agenda, presumably in part because he wants to use state money to pay for his school that discriminates against students with disabilities.
The evidence is remarkably clear. Vouchers lead to terrible results, results unlike any other attempted education reform. From the New York Times:
They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.
This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.
Even those who defend voucher programs concede the negative results but counter that kids who stay in the private schools for four years sometimes catch up. The catch, of course, is that most kids don’t stay that long.
So while Senator Daines votes for a Secretary of Education who wants to aggressively expand vouchers, Republican legislators call for taking funding from public schools to pay for them, and the Republican Party platform in Montana calls for developing them, it’s important to ask a rather basic question: why should free market, anti-government ideology matter more than evidence and the education of our kids?