Vouching for competition

Arguments for the public option also apply to school vouchers.

By Evan Coren

As the debate over health care reform continues, the country has all but lost sight of the debate over education. Yet in order to justify support for a public option, the Obama administration has embraced a popular conservative argument that invites certain questions about its approach to education reform.

When asked how a public option would help middle-class families during an interview with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius reached for borrowed ammunition: A public option, she suggested, would offer a “new marketplace” that would foster “competition and choice and that helps everybody. It helps give choices, it helps bring costs down.”

According to Sebelius, a public option would not only lower costs but would also help “improve the quality of care we all receive.”

So if competition, choice, and market principles provide the perfect treatment for the rising costs and suboptimal access to quality associated with health care, why doesn’t the administration find those same principles at all compelling when addressing the cost and quality issues that have crippled the education system? Are these two problems really so different as to render private/public competition essential to the one and yet completely unhelpful to the other?

In a literal sense, we already have a degree of private/public competition in education because we have both private and public schools competing for students. But when you are required to pay for one option and not the other, the two sides aren’t exactly playing by the same rules, as the administration promises will be the case for health care reform.

The only practical way to level the playing field in education and achieve a degree of competition similar to that envisioned by health care reformers is to move to a voucher system. Unfortunately, “The President doesn’t believe that vouchers are a long-term answer to our educational problems.” Or at least he felt that way back in March, when that statement was issued, after his signing of the spending bill that terminated a short-lived D.C. program that allocated up to $7,500 in vouchers to 1,716 underprivileged students. Obama did, however, reach a compromise that allowed the program’s current participants to remain at their new schools.

During the short tenure of the program, which began in 2006, participants outperformed their former classmates on reading exams by a modest yet statistically significant measure. Overall, the participants were reading at a level 3.7 months ahead of the control group of students who were not randomly selected to participate.

Ultimately, however, the moribund D.C. program tells us very little about the potential of a larger and broader voucher program to reduce costs and improve quality. Granting vouchers to such a tiny fraction of the public student ‘market’ measures the potential progress—short-term progress, in this case—that individuals can make when moved from a failing public school to a private school of their choosing. Such a small program, however, has virtually no impact on the degree of competition across the private/public divide and therefore no ability to affect costs and quality on a systemic level.

Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has accurately diagnosed the limits of the D.C. program, but unfortunately he imputed those limits, without cause, to the basic concept of a voucher system. “Big picture, I don’t see vouchers as being the answer,” he said in a recent meeting with the Washington Post. “You can pull two kids out, you can pull three kids out, and you’re leaving 97, 98 percent behind. You need to help all those kids. The way you help them is by challenging the status quo where it’s not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically.” Duncan’s criticism of the D.C. program does not support his broader conclusion. In fact, his reasoning could just as easily support the argument that the effort needed to be expanded, not scrapped, in order to challenge the status quo and effect systemic change.

If we are to believe the administration’s newfound faith in the power of choice to reform health care, then the public deserves a real explanation, not an unsubstantiated dismissal, as to why this truism does not apply in any way to education. And, if the public health care option really is a fair competitor it will not only challenge the private sector to improve, but it too will be improved by that competition. Why deprive public schools of that same opportunity?

Evan Coren is fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.