In reality, the results are somewhat underwhelming. Certainly, there is a high level of parent satisfaction with the program, and the program's retention rate is at 90%. But education isn't about parental satisfaction, it's about helping children. Coulson, like many libertarian and school choice types, assumes blithely that families are making well-informed decisions, an assumption for which the evidence is rather thin.
For example, in DC, what criteria are parents using to make their school placement decisions? There's a table in the report I'll summarize:
|Class Size||All families|
|International/Global Focus||Small number|
|Rigorous Academics||Most families|
|Religious/Moral Curriculum||Small number|
|School Directory/Brochure||All families|
|School Visits||All families|
|Student Input||Small number|
|Test Results||A very small number|
|Word Of Mouth||A very small number|
That's not terribly encouraging. The criteria that are probably most important - the ones that best indicate the added educational value of attending the school - are given relatively little weight. The closest parents come to looking for specific educational outcomes is with the "rigorous academics" thing, but as long as that's divorced from test results, it's not clear what the content of that requirement really is. (I think the other under-weighted criterion is word of mouth.)
At the same time, families are giving far too much consideration to things like the school brochure - essentially a commercial for the school. And then there's class size, which was important to all of the participating families. A few years ago, Coulson's Cato-buddy Dominick Armentano explained that class size isn't actually important:
Most of the public policy world is ruled by warm and fuzzy myths. Take the important issue of class size and student achievement. Florida is in the process of mandating smaller class size on the assumption, presumably, that students will learn more in smaller classes with more teacher attention. Sounds good, but is it generally true?This really points at the crux of the school choice issue for libertarians. When the government makes poor decisions about educational policy, this is viewed as a shortcoming of the system. For private schools, the libertarian standard is different: the very same poor decisions, when made by private actors, are features of the system to be applauded, rather than regrettable bugs.
There have been close to 300 separate studies nation-wide on the relationship between class size and student achievement. Professor Eric Hanushek, an economist at the University of Rochester, reviewed these studies and discovered that only 15% of them suggest that reducing class size improves student learning as measured by standardized tests. Indeed, in 72% of the studies reviewed, there was no statistically significant effect on measurable student achievement associated with smaller classes. Even more surprisingly, in 13% of the studies reviewed, student test scores actually declined as class size was reduced. In sum, a full 85% of all of the studies on class size and student achievement found that reducing class size did not improve student performance.
It could very well be that the DC voucher program will promote improved student achievement. The folks at Cato, though, clearly do not care about student achievement in any fundamental way. What matters to them is choice as such. Unfortunately, they go so far as to conflate customer satisfaction with quality of outcome. That's a pity, because I think choice is an important element in school reform. I just try not to mistake it for an end in itself.
The big lesson that we should take away from the Georgetown report is that families are very clearly invested in finding quality educational settings for their children, and that investment should be leveraged. But families also apparently make these decisions on the basis of the information that is most readily available to them - paid advertisements, class size statistics, etc. The problem is that the most easily-observable features of a school often do not correlate strongly with school quality (measured in terms of educational outcomes.) The trick is defining standards by which schools can be measured and presenting those measurements in a way that is useful for parents as they make choices for their students.