Jay Evensen: Voucher study should make us scrub off old assumptions

Published: Thursday, Aug. 30 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Phillip Covington, left, poses his son, Giovanni as he works on a mathematics lesson in the library of Todd Academy in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012.

Michael Conroy, Associated Press

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We've been down this road before, you and I. Many times.

Private school vouchers is one of those immovable subjects, like religion or a discussion on whether auto racing really is a sport. People tend to stake out positions and dig in against whatever evidence may blow their way. In Utah, we even had a referendum on the subject, and vouchers lost.

Well … It may not be convincing to preface this with a quote from an actor, but Alan Alda is attributed with saying, "Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won't come in."

So let's get out the paper towels.

Researchers at Harvard and the Brookings Institution just released a study on how a short-term voucher program affected underprivileged students in New York City. The results are worth considering — that is, if you consider a 24 percent increase in college enrollment by African-American students worthwhile.

Until now, studies of voucher programs have suffered from a few built-in defects. They couldn't adequately compare those who received vouchers with a control group. The subjects weren't randomly chosen. They also didn't follow the students over a long period of time.

This study overcomes all of these problems.

The research started in 1997. That's when Cardinal John J. O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, invited the chancellor of the New York City public school system to "send the city's most troubled public school students to Catholic schools."

If the city did so, he said, he would see to it they were educated.

Because Catholic schools are religious, the city wouldn't allow any direct vouchers to students. So a group of private philanthropists stepped in and offered to cover a portion of private school tuition for eligible students for three years. The students were low-income and, for the most part, low performing, and either were entering first grade or already in grades 1-4. They were placed in a random lottery.

In the end, 1,363 students were offered scholarships and 1,279 were assigned to the control group, where their progress was monitored.

Fast-forward to 2011, when all participants were at least 21 years old. Researchers had been able to track 99 percent of the students involved. Their conclusion that vouchers helped 24 percent more black students get to college is solid.

Hispanic students also were helped, but by a percentage that is statistically marginal. There is no evidence anyone suffered because of the vouchers.

Researchers are quick to note that the demographic information, and hence the outcomes, may not translate from one community to the next. They aren't sure exactly why African American students were particularly affected.

But they were.

When the students entered the program, their average scores were in the 17th to 25th percentile range for students nationwide. At the least, the study ought to cause people to reconsider the entire concept of school choice.

Don't expect the keepers of the public school monopoly to be moved, however. National School Boards Association executive director Anne L. Bryant told CNN the study didn't account for how much parents get involved with their students.

The type of parent who would enroll a child in a voucher program probably is the kind who would be most involved in helping that student, she said.

Clearly, she hadn't read the study.

The real story here is that African American students with dedicated parents were significantly less able to get their students into college as long as they were relegated to public schools without any other choices. That is an inexcusable betrayal of people who want better for their kids.

Rich kids get all the advantages. Poor kids have to take what the state offers them. It's a familiar story.

Utah's public schools aren't analogous to those in New York. Problems here aren't as severe. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make things better.

The charter school movement has proven popular here because it gives kids choices. Vouchers wouldn't, by themselves, solve overcrowding and other issues, but they would be an important tool.

Can't we scrub away our assumptions and take another look?

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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