Michael Q. McShane

Both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Washington Post editorial boards published pieces this weekend concerning the findings of a new U.S. Department of Education study of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, a school voucher program operated by the federal government in our nation’s capital.

The study was noteworthy because it found negative academic results for some of the students who participated in the program, which is a departure from what careful study of the program has found in the past. There is more to the most recent study than meets the eye, and many caveats that readers should take into account, as ably explained by Jason Bedrick and Marty Lueken of EdChoice here.

But I want to highlight how differently these two outlets covered that study. The Washington Post, which serves the city where the voucher program operates, wrote an even-handed analysis titled “Voucher critics are seizing on D.C. test scores. They’re missing the point.”

The piece is worth reading in full, but the second paragraph is key:

With the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program reauthorized by Congress this week, it is important that any assessment be complete, clear-eyed and not formed through the prism of those advancing special interests or narrow political points. What should be taken into account along with test scores is the positive difference the program has made in the lives of thousands of families, and how it and the thriving community of charter schools have enriched school choice and helped improve public education in the city.

The Washington Post piece acknowledges that the study’s findings demand attention, but examines them in the real-world context of an education environment where many factors other than test scores (e.g., graduation rates and demand among parents for alternatives to public schools) deserve consideration.

By contrast, the op-ed in the Post-Dispatch describes the findings as helping to “debunk the notion that voucher-enabled students in private schools produce better outcomes than those attending public schools.” It doesn’t, but that’s beside the point.

What is more surprising to me is the Post-Dispatch’s closing admonition that we should “trust the data, not loosely grounded ideology.”

Where was this attitude when studies of private school vouchers found positive results for students? Like this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. (I could go on, but this is just a sample of studies that found positive test-score results for students who participated in voucher program or whose test-scores were driven upward as a result of voucher programs. I didn’t even touch the large empirical literature on civic effects or parental satisfaction.)

Even when all of these studies had been published, the Post-Dispatch was still publishing editorials like this one, and this one. Physician, heal thyself.

Those closest to the action in DC see much to admire in the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, and a few recent studies need to be put in the context of the multi-decade literature on school choice. Then, and only then, can we have a real discussion about school choice as part of a solution to vexing problems in education.

About the Author

Michael McShane

Mike McShane is the Director of Education Policy for the Show-Me Institute. He is a former high school teacher and earned his PhD in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Before coming to the Show-Me Institute, Mike worked at the American Enterprise Institute as a research fellow.