Who Vouches For The Vouchers?

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As the Republicans put their finishing touches on Wisconsin’s next budget, including a modest but still significant expansion of the state’s school voucher program, The Oshkosh Northwestern today offers an article in which questions are raised about the credibility of a study purporting to show that schools financed by vouchers feature a higher graduation rate than public schools-

Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators are using research paid for by the same special interest groups that support many GOP candidates to push for a statewide expansion of the school voucher program, campaign finance reports show. The study cited by Republicans has come under fire by researchers who say it doesn’t meet academic standards or provide proof that the school voucher program provides a better learning experience for students. Republican lawmakers pushing the expansion have been citing research that claims students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program graduate and attend college at higher rates than their public school counterparts. The research conducted by the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas is paid for primarily by special interest groups that also donate to politicians pushing for the voucher expansion.

Now, if the article had only pointed out the funding connection, it would be committing an ad hominem fallacy, since pointing out that the researchers have a partisan funding source does not in itself constitute an objection to the study. But the article goes further, pointing out some of the study’s apparent flaws-

Critics say the study showing voucher students are 4 percent to 7 percent more likely to graduate is essentially useless because:

• More than 56 percent of students it tracked didn’t stay in the voucher program for the length of the four-year study;

• Wolf, the lead researcher for the school choice project, used looser statistical standards in some cases than commonly accepted for academic studies of this type;

• Students were matched on certain demographic data rather than randomly assigned, meaning researchers could have missed a key factor that could have significantly altered the study’s results.

For more details, read the whole article.

Even if the study’s conclusion turns out to be true, questions would remain about what such a fact might prove. For instance, suppose that children who spend several years in voucher schools do in fact graduate at higher rates. Would this show that the schools themselves are responsible for that fact? Not really. After all, parents who go to the trouble of enrolling their children in voucher schools might generally provide more educational support for their children. In other words, merely establishing that there is a difference in graduation rates does not explain the difference.

There are, of course, other, more ideological concerns with voucher programs. One is that public funding of private schools siphons money away from the public schools, resulting in their further deterioration. Of course, conservatives often push for voucher programs precisely because they want to diminish the public domain more generally; smaller public school systems result in less significant state and local governments. But the other conservative motivation for voucher schools is the fact that they can be directly affiliated with religions in a way that public schools constitutionally cannot be. This raises an important – and surprisingly unsettled – constitutionality question, as this article at the ADL site suggests-

Proponents of vouchers are asking Americans to do something contrary to the very ideals upon which this country was founded. Thomas Jefferson, one of the architects of religious freedom in America, said, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves… is sinful and tyrannical.” Yet voucher programs would do just that; they would force citizens — Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists — to pay for the religious indoctrination of school children at schools with narrow parochial agendas.

Of course, Wisconsin’s supreme court ruled in 1999 that vouchers are constitutional: “We conclude that the [voucher program] does not violate the Establishment Clause because it has a secular purpose, it will not have the primary effect of advancing religion, and it will not lead to excessive entanglement between the state and participating sectarian private schools,” Judge Donald Steinmetz wrote for the majority. The SCOTUS subsequently refused to review the case, allowing the Wisconsin ruling to stand (without explicitly endorsing it). But, as this helpful article at the Freedom Forum mentions, it’s far from obvious whether present and future voucher expansions in various states will, in the end, hold up to constitutionality challenges-

In 1992, Mary Ann Glendon, a constitutional scholar and professor at Harvard University, wrote that “the Supreme Court’s religion-clause case law has now reached the state where it is described on all sides, and even by the justices themselves, as hopelessly confused, inconsistent, and incoherent.”

Have such matters changed much at the highest levels of jurisprudence in the last 20 years? Given the ambivalence towards religion that founders like Thomas Jefferson quite clearly had, it would be surprising if they had.