The Agenda

Follow-Up on Vouchers

Scott Sumner makes an excellent point on the disappointing results from the Milwaukee voucher pilot program:

So the voucher program achieved the same learning objectives at a lower cost, or more bang for the buck.  Since when is that regarded as failure?  Let’s consider the following two possibilities:

1.  Spending more money on education (at the margin) increases learning.

2. Spending more money on education (at the margin) doesn’t increase learning.

First assume case one is true.  This would imply that if we adopted vouchers, and spent as much per student as the Milwaukee public schools spend per student, we would get higher test scores.  That is called “success.”

Now assume case two is correct.  This would imply that there is no point in spending more money on education.  We should simply try to hold down costs.  This means that the voucher program in Milwaukee succeeded in the only way schooling can succeed; it provided education at a lower cost than the public school system.

As I argued in an earlier post, it’s not obvious to me that most opponents and proponents of choice-base reform understand the way actual markets work. One of the central problems with public funding of K-12 education is its infrangibility: the bulk of funding is bundled with a single school, or a single voucher that goes to a single school, which creates a huge barrier to the emergence of specialized, efficiency-enhancing goods and services.

But certainly one of our goals should be improving the productivity of the educational sector, which, keeping in mind the difficulties of creating coherent metrics, seems to have grown far more slowly than the overall economy. (Barry Bosworth has written extensively on this subject.) And it certainly looks as though the Milwaukee experiment met that goal, despite its flaws and limitations. That’s impressive, and surely it’s reason enough to increase the number of experiments and pilot programs.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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