Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Question for Carey and Yglesias

by Andrew Gillen

Both Kevin Carey and Matthew Yglesias are of the opinion that the DC voucher debate is pointless. As Carey says, and Yglesias emphasizes:
The DC voucher program does not represent serious public policy... No new schools have been built as a result, no groundbreaking programs created, competition spurred, or innovators attracted.
Yglesias then goes on to say
It’s symbolically important for folks on the right who enjoy acting like know-it-alls while, in fact, knowing nothing about education policy. But in terms of the future of DC schoolchildren, it’s just a distraction.
While I'm not "on the right," I do think vouchers have a lot of potential, which apparently means I know "nothing." I'm hoping Carey and Yglesias can enlighten me.

Voucher programs, including the DC one, tend to be pretty tiny. As I see it, that is a big reason we haven't seen new schools, programs, competition, and innovation. The thing about vouchers is that they don't force students to attend a given school. So even though 1,700 voucher students is more than enough to populate a new school if they all went there, a new start up would have to believe it could enroll an unrealistically high percentage (in light of already established competitors) of them to fill a new school. The scale of voucher programs is off, which limits what we can expect out of them. (Note that Carey does consider, but isn't convinced of this point.) Thus while Carey and Yglesias are right that charters are where the action is, one reason for that is because vouchers are not done at an appropriate scale, hardly something you can blame on voucher advocates.

An example of vouchers done on a more appropriate scale is higher ed. The universally beloved Pell is essentially just a renamed voucher. It's generally agreed that higher ed is better than k-12, and I would argue that part of the reason why is it's greater voucherization.

So here are my questions for Carey and Yglesias: If vouchers are so useless, shouldn't we move away from voucher like programs such as the Pell in higher ed? If not, why is funding schools directly more appropriate for k-12 but funding students more appropriate for higher ed?

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