I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

School Vouchers Are Not a Cure For Segregation: Part V, Washington DC

Here are links to all five parts of the series:

Part I

Part II

Part III : New Orleans

Part IV: Milwaukee

PartV: Washington DC and Conclusion

* * *

What do we know about the effectiveness of the Washington DC school voucher program? In June of 2010, the USDOE's Institute of Education Sciences released its evaluation:
  • The study found no conclusive evidence that the OSP [Opportunity Scholarship Program] affected student achievement overall, or for the high priority group of students who applied from “Schools in Need of Improvement.” On average, after at least 4 years, students who were offered scholarships had reading and math test scores that were statistically similar to those who were not offered scholarships (figure 1). The same pattern of results holds for students who applied from Schools in Need of Improvement (SINI), the group Congress designated as the highest priority for the program. Although some other subgroups of students (female and higher achieving students) appeared to have higher levels of reading achievement if they were offered a scholarship, those findings could be due to chance. (p.3)
The study did find a positive effect on graduation rates; however, the data was self-reported by parents, and the response rate was quite low.

As we've seen throughout this series, the case for school vouchers based on academic outcomes is very, very weak. Much as those who vouch for vouchers try, they simply can't pump up the small effect sizes enough to make the case that putting more public funds into private schools is worth the money.

In addition, and contrary to the implications of reformsters like Kevin Chavous, it appears that vouchers are anything but "color blind." The segregative patterns I've shown in Milwaukee, home of the nation's largest and oldest voucher system, suggest that vouchers are not ameliorating school segregation; to the contrary, they actually appear to be making it worse.

Now that we know DC's voucher program isn't doing much for test scores, lets see how it might be affecting school segregation. The OSP started in 2004, was suspended in 2009, but then was reinstated in 2011. Its current status is up in the air; The DC Trust, the group in charge of administering the OSP, is currently bankrupt due to mismanagement and apparent self-dealing (it's all about the kids...).

The OSP, however, was still going strong in the 2011-12 school year -- the year of the data I use from the NCES's Private School Universe Survey. I merged that data with this list of OSP schools from the same year to create the following graphs.

Let's start by looking at how segregated DC's other publicly-funded schools are:

Again, what I've done here is create 10 "bins" along the horizontal axis. Each bar is a "bin" representing schools, weighted by student population, that serve different percentages of black students. The bar at the far left, for example, represents all of the students who attend a publicly-funded (district school or charter) DC school whose student population is between 0 and 10 percent black. The next bar represents students who are in a school that is between 10 and 20 percent black, and so on.

The red line is the percentage of black children (under 18) in the entire city according to the American Community Survey of the Census Bureau: about 62 percent. The segregation of DC's publicly-funded schools (charter and district) is striking: 55 percent of DC's students attend a school whose student population is at least 90 percent black.

How do the private schools compare?

80 percent of Washington DC's private school students attend a school that has a student population that is under 30 percent black. That is a strikingly high figure for a city with such a large population of black children.

But hold on -- look at the far right bar. 13 percent of DC's private school students attend a school that has a student population that is over 90 percent black. In other words: there are a substantial number of private schools in DC that are just as segregated as the majority of the District's public schools.

Are they voucher schools? Well...

Compare the OSP schools to all of the private schools in DC, and one clear truth emerges: the voucher schools are just as segregated as all of the private schools in the city. Washington DC's voucher schools are doing little to nothing to help the city address its pronounced school segregation.

Considering how weak these schools' effects are on test scores, we're back to the question I've asked repeatedly in this series: How can anyone justify continuing to fund school vouchers when they do little, if anything, to improve either student outcomes or school segregation?

* * *

In the landmark school voucher case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Justice David Souter writes a stinging dissent, calling the majority's decision "doctrinal bankruptcy" (we do well to remember that the decision was only 5-4; it easily could have gone the other way). For Souter (and, for that matter, me), giving public monies to a religious school is a clear violation of the First Amendment.

But the majority convinced itself that, so long as there were a few school choices that were not religious, and so long as the parents of students made a "true private choice," the establishment clause wasn't germane. As you read the decision, it becomes apparent that the majority's justification for ignoring the First Amendment was based on their perception that the Cleveland schools were in "crisis":
"For more than a generation, however, Cleveland's public schools have been among the worst performing public schools in the Nation. In 1995, a Federal District Court declared a "crisis of magnitude" and placed the entire Cleveland school district under state control. See Reed v. Rhodes, No. 1:73 CV 1300 (ND Ohio, Mar. 3, 1995). Shortly thereafter, the state auditor found that Cleveland's public schools were in the midst of a "crisis that is perhaps unprecedented in the history of American education." Cleveland City School District Performance Audit 2-1 (Mar. 1996). The district had failed to meet any of the 18 state standards for minimal acceptable performance. Only 1 in 10 ninth graders could pass a basic proficiency examination, and students at all levels performed at a dismal rate compared with students in other Ohio public schools. More than two-thirds of high school students either dropped or failed out before graduation. Of those students who managed to reach their senior year, one of every four still failed to graduate. Of those students who did graduate, few could read, write, or compute at levels comparable to their counterparts in other cities."
I'd be the last to argue that this was acceptable; however, the Court never bothered to ask why Cleveland's students might be underperforming.

Data from 2002, the year of the decision in Zelman. Cleveland's schools were full of students in economic disadvantage. And yet, despite their great need, the district had less revenue per pupil than most of the surrounding area's more affluent districts.

School vouchers, then, were just another way to pretend to address the real problems that lead to inequitable educational outcomes: economic inequality, poverty, segregation, and inadequate school funding.

Installing a program of school vouchers -- like charter school proliferation, or standards obsession, or high-stakes testing, or merit pay -- allows policy makers to pretend they are actually doing something meaningful to help the most needy and the most deserving children in our country when, in reality, they are doing nothing.

The problem for the folks who push these "reforms" while ignoring reality is that their own data inevitably comes around to bite them in the ass. The evidence makes clear that vouchers are, at best, a weak response to a serious problem. What's worse, there's good reason to believe vouchers are actually contributing to segregation -- one of the reasons that we're in our current, inequitable education mess.

Look, I understand that not all schools work for all kids. I'm actually sympathetic to the idea of having some sort of "choice" as part of our school system, especially in larger districts that can support a choice system without having redundancies that lead to inefficiency.

But it is getting harder and harder for anyone to make a case for private school vouchers: they don't have strong positive effects, the legal argument that supports them is very weak, and now it appears they actually perpetuate school segregation.

Why in the world, then, would anyone support school vouchers? Is some vague notion of "choice" really worth it?

Sorry The 74 -- vouchers are not "color blind."


Unknown said...

What I find most irritating about voucher proponents is they pay no attention to the actual schools that choose to participate in voucher programs or the actual amount of funding that a voucher provides. They just assume that all "high quality" schools will participate and spend less per pupil. Also did you see this from Jay Greene's blog?


StateAidGuy said...

Another great post....

Once in a while while pro-voucher people do let on their real reasons for supporting vouchers, which is just a belief that a parent who pays property taxes but sends his/her kids to private school should get something back for saving the public money.

It's a philosophical argument that I don't think can be debunked by any amount of evidence on student performance. It's just a belief about the way society should be organized.

Since anti-voucher Democratic politicians send their kids to private schools, pro-voucher people (who are likely to be Republican anyway), are both infuriated by and revel in Democratic hypocrisy.