Measuring "better"

Under considerable party pressure, a State Representative I know voted in the mid-1990’s for the legislation that created Ohio's first voucher program. She knew that her vote had disappointed me, and she said, in effect, "We really have to do something about failing schools. I agreed to try this out as an experiment."

Ohio's voucher experiment has been going on now for 20 years now. That should be enough time to judge it a failure or a success, but it won't be.

As every middle-school science fair participant knows, experiments are designed to test hypotheses, and the problem with this experiment is that its hypothesis wasn't identified before the experiment. The implied hypothesis was that vouchers would help more Cleveland students to succeed. As important as that is, in my opinion, it was the wrong hypothesis to test.

The test of vouchers is not whether they help individual students to do better than they would have done in public schools. The question is whether Ohio's system of common schools--the system embodied in the Ohio Constitution that legislators are sworn to uphold--are better now as a result of voucher programs.

What would "better" mean in this context?

In my opinion, it would not mean simply that a select group of kids would be doing better. Among other things, it would mean that the education of Cleveland kids--academics, educational climate, prospects for success, etc.--would be better. It would mean that community support for the common schools--financial, family, corporate--would improve. And it would mean that those improvements would be attributable to the influence of vouchers.

I don't know what findings Dr. Figlio will bring to his presentation on Thursday. But if the sole answer to "Who benefits?" is that the voucher students and voucher schools do, then we're not answering the right question.

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