If we’re serious about giving students from low-income backgrounds a chance to succeed economically later in life, we need to start making vouchers more widespread. From my USA Today piece:
In Washington, D.C., a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that there was a 21 percentage point gap between the graduation rates of those in the voucher program (graduation rate: 91%) and those who had applied, but had failed to win the placement lottery (70%). A study released late last month by the University of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project showed a similar pattern in Milwaukee, with those using vouchers in the 9th grade graduating at a rate (77%) eight percentage points higher than their peers in public schools (69%).
Both the Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee voucher programs serve low-income students, for whom educational success is not the norm. According to Teach for America, an organization that recruits recent college graduates to teach at failing public schools, only half of low-income students graduate high school by age 18.
But without that degree, young adults’ chance at career success — and economic mobility — is much slimmer. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, 1.3 million teens drop out of high school every year. The financial consequence for that decision is real: Among adults lacking a high school degree, the unemployment rate is 15.2%, compared to 10.5% for adults with a high school degree (but no additional education). Dropouts also face lower wages when they do nab jobs, making an average of about $10,000 less than high school graduates annually, according to the 2008 numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.
One point about vouchers that I didn’t discuss in this piece is the potential value of vouchers to show us to how to reduce spending on education. Right now, for instance, D.C. kids get up to $7,500 for vouchers. In comparison, D.C. spends about $28,000 per public school pupil. It’s disappointing, sure, that at least for now, voucher kids are scoring about the same as their public school peers on academic tests. But if they’re getting the same quality of education for a quarter of the cost to taxpayers, that’s intriguing in itself. In Milwaukee, the cost difference isn’t quite as dramatic — about $14,000 per public school students vs. up to around $6,500 per voucher student — but it’s still costing taxpayers double the amount to fund the public school student who’s receiving the same level of education.
Education spending has risen for decades now, without any significant improvement in quality. With our budget stretched to the max, it might be time to start looking at whether education spending cuts will necessarily lead to a decrease in the quality of education available.