Opposition to Betsy DeVos, nominated to serve as education secretary, is largely the result of DeVos' long-standing advocacy for school choice, including school vouchers.
In order to discredit DeVos, critics are pointing to the effects of a school voucher program in Chile. But this is curious: the voucher program in Chile is overall an enormous success.
The week of DeVos's confirmation hearing, the Washington Post published an article by associate political science professors Jennifer Pribble and Jennifer L. Erkulwater labeling the Chilean voucher system a "cautionary tale."
How so? Before the voucher system was put in place, Chile tended toward the bottom of educational achievement rankings in Latin America; now it is at the top, as consistently shown by international tests such as the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). The reason for the change has not been spending: Argentina and Uruguay no longer lead the regional rankings, but still generally outspend Chile on education.
Then there are the criticisms that are in fact endorsements of the system: The Washington Post article presents as problematic the fact that "since vouchers were introduced, public school enrollment has continued to decline." You bet. Given a choice and a voucher, people left the public system and stayed away.
Ideally, vouchers would provide competition and to survive public schools would improve. It should be noted that charter schools, another popular option to provide choice, are public schools. Indeed, it might even be argued that the rise of the charter is an attempt by public schools to survive by providing educational programs that parents find appealing.
The article offers a puzzling indictment of school choice in Chile, that "the voucher system has not improved education opportunities for many poor or rural children." I say "puzzling" because the article itself describes the very poor and rural children as those with no access to private options. If the problem is that the rural poor do not have enough choices, is the solution to do away with choices altogether or to find ways to provide to the poor the full extent of choice enjoyed by other students?
In fact, Chile has responded by expanding the voucher system (the results of this expansion, Paya notes were conveniently overlooked by Pribble Erkulwater). Chile's expansion of the voucher program was led by socialist Michelle Bachelet. The experiment was largely successful. Paya reports:
Economist Christopher Neilson noted in a 2013 working paper that "this reform raised the test scores of poor children significantly and closed the gap between these students and the rest of the population by one third." Neilson said the "policy changed the nature of competition among schools" and that "the observed policy effect is due mostly to the increase in the quality of schools in poor neighborhoods and not to a resorting of students to better schools or the entry of new higher-quality schools. The introduction of targeted vouchers is shown to have effectively raised competition in poor neighborhoods, pushing schools to improve their academic quality."
The performance gap between the country as a whole and the poorest 40 percent was cut by one-third in just five years.
Back when the base voucher wasn't big enough to liberate the rural poor from the monopolistic power of public schools, those schools could still spend their budget on things other than "quality" and the parents were trapped. Once the bigger preferential vouchers were introduced, those parents's options dramatically expanded and public schools reacted predictably, increasing their quality to keep them from leaving. Two thirds of the improvement in the education of Chile's poor can be attributed to voucher-encouraged improvements in the quality of public schools in poor neighborhoods. A third of those improved outcomes can be credited to parents sending their kids to private schools.
Vouchers don't cure all problems. Chilean schools still uffer from too much government control and government-dictated content. But the vouchers have vastly improved Chilean education.
With enemies like the anti-voucher crowd, DeVos should be a voice for sanity is U.S. education.
Read the entire article.