Totally Baffling Voucher Arguments

Matt is baffled by Megan’s argument for vouchers:

One needs to go back to what we know about educating poor children. One thing we know is that it’s very difficult. The schools that do a good job of educating poor kids tend to expend more resources than do schools that do a good job of educating middle class kids. We also know that there are many schools that produce good overall results but that nonetheless produce bad results with their poor children. We know that some urban public school systems do better than others. We know that the charter school movement has produced some successful models, but also that market demand can keep a healthy number of non-successful charter schools operating because parents do a less-than-perfect job of making school placement decisions on the basis of evidence about educational outcomes.

If we’re concerned not about the “right” of exit (which already exists) but the practical ability to get a better education, then you need policies that increase the supply of schools that do a good job of educating poor children. Just handing a voucher to every family in DC that can manage to place a kid in a private school would be a nice subsidy to the parents at Sidwell and St. Albans and would presumably get some poor kids into better situations, but would still, in practice, leave most DC families right where they are today — with the “right” to send their kids elsewhere, but no practical ability to do so.

It seems blindingly obvious to me that “handing a voucher to every family in DC” is precisely the policy most likely to “increase the supply of schools that do a good job of educating poor children.” I mean look, in any other part of the economy, we have these people called “entrepreneurs” that see an unmet need, find a way to meet that need, attract paying customers, and thereby build a successful business. What makes entrepreneurship possible is a large pool of potential paying customers. The larger the potential market, the more entrepreneurs you’re likely to attract.

Now, educational entrepreneurs do exist. If Matt doesn’t believe me, he should visit and I’ll take him to a local Catholic school a toured a few months ago that’s successfully educating some of the poorest minority students in the St. Louis area. And he’s right—their per-pupil expenditures are fairly high, although if I recall correctly they’re not as astronomical as expenditures in city public schools. They’re able to survive because they’ve managed to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in private donations. But running a private school for low-income kids is extremely difficult, because in addition to the ordinary problems of educating low-income kids, you have to also spend a lot of time wooing donors and organizing fundraisers. Which, I think, is one of the reasons such schools are few and far between.

Now, the number of such entrepreneurs is surely limited. Creating a new school, or serving as a teacher at a school serving low-income kids, is a stressful, harrowing job. So we shouldn’t expect vouchers to miraculously lead to the creation of good private school seats for all the poor children who want them. But a well-designed voucher program creates the opportunity for however many aspiring educational entrepreneurs do exist to create new schools for poor kids without having to worry about external fundraising.

The claim that vouchers would “leave most DC families right where they are today” rings hollow when absolutely no one is proposing anything that will work any better. Every reform proposal will result in most poor kids continuing to be trapped in bad public schools in the short term. Vouchers are likely to give more poor kids more opportunities more quickly than almost any other reform proposal under discussion.