Caroline Minter Hoxby has just published a paper (available, like all her papers, free at her website) in the Swedish Economic Policy Review claiming that the performance of Milwaukee’s public schools (measured in terms of test scores per dollar of spending) improved quite dramatically during the heat of the battle over vouchers (in the late 90’s), and that the gains of that time do not seem to have fallen back (though they have plateaued).
She attributes the gains to the voucher program, though she doesn’t distinguish between the effects of the internal market between schools that the voucher program introduced and the effects of the political fall out on making the school district administration more accountable. She’s entitled to attribute the gain to vouchers because she compares Milwaukee Public Schools with comparable Wisconsin school districts which were similarly effected by the changes in funding wrought by the State equalization formula. There are interesting methodological questions here. For example, if you remove the 1997-8 school year data from the analysis it would look quite different, and less well disposed to choice. And the aforementioned distinction between political and market competition is significant: if the gains were entirely the result of administrators getting their acts together then there might be other, less disruptive, ways of getting the gains. So the paper is not perfect.
But I point it out for two reasons. First, it’s a wonderful paper for non-economists to read – a model of someone who can write simply and clearly, but is sensitive to numerous complexities. Second, because vouchers and choice are increasingly hard for the left in the US to dismiss. The second best objection to well-designed and targeted voucher programs is that they leave the children remaining in the public schools worse off. If that objection can be met, progressives are left only with the best objection – that they will set in train a dynamic that will undermine the principle of public schooling. But in America, where public schooling is savagely unjust in its internal workings, that objection rings a bit hollow unless coupled with a substantial and politically feasible plan for improving the public schools which the least advantaged Americans attend.