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Michelle Rhee Talks Vouchers

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If there's a single education policy that people associate with former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, it's almost certainly teacher quality—meaning her support for tying educators' pay and evaluation to performance, ending seniority-based preferences, promoting alternate certification, and the like.

But where does she come down on private school vouchers, one of the most controversial, and fastest-moving, policy issues in the states these days?

I was curious about Rhee's views on this topic, because, broadly speaking, she's been a strong backer of school choice. She's called for expanding charter schools, open enrollment for students across districts, and "parent trigger" proposals, which would allow parents to vote to convert struggling schools to charters. But her views of private school choice have received a lot less attention.

Rhee's position also matters, because the education advocacy group she now leads, StudentsFirst, wants to become a major player in state education policy. Though Rhee is a Democrat, she says her group will support governors and lawmakers from either party if they share her group's agenda.

In a recent interview, Rhee told me she supports targeted voucher programs, such as those that offer taxpayer funds to low-income students in academically struggling schools. But she said she sees more expansive, "universal" vouchers as misguided.

"I don't think it makes sense to subsidize families who are already sending their kids to private schools, anyway," she said. "I'm not a voucher proponent in the way that some people would want me to be. ... This is not about choice for choice's sake."

Republican governors and lawmakers in several states, since making major gains in the 2010 election, have created or expanded programs to allow taxpayer funds to go to private-school choice. One particularly far-reaching voucher policy was adopted last year in Indiana, which approved a GOP-backed law that will provide vouchers to a broad range of families, including some from middle-income backgrounds. Some Republican-controlled states, such as Florida, have considered even more expansive voucher policies.

Offering private school vouchers to disadvantaged students in struggling schools makes sense, said Rhee, who noted that StudentsFirst's policy agenda says as much. But she said she does not favor providing vouchers to students from middle- and upper-income groups.

"When people talk about universal vouchers, first of all, I've never seen an economic model that actually made sense and laid that out in way that's sustainable," Rhee said. "I haven't seen any kind of model that makes economic sense. ... My support for vouchers is around a specific group of kids."

"There are a lot of people out there who sort of believe, the free market, let the free market reign, the market will correct itself—give every kid a backpack with their money in it and let them choose wherever they want to go," she added. "I don't believe in that model at all."

Rhee's position on voucher issues may have seemed less-than-clear in late 2010, when she served on the transition team for newly elected Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott. That advisory group ended up calling for the creation of "education savings accounts," an expansive voucher system that would allow students to use the vast majority of per-pupil funding at private schools—apparently without limits on families' income eligibility.

But Rhee, through a spokeswoman for StudentsFirst, said that while she supported the overall direction of the transition team's recommendations, she disagreed with its voucher proposal. Rhee conveyed her difference of opinion on that point to the governor, the spokeswoman said.

Some voucher advocates oppose the idea that private schools that receive public funding be held to the same testing and regulatory policies as public schools. Rhee told me she doesn't agree.

"It has to be a heavily regulated industry," she said. "I believe in accountability across the board. If you're going to be having a publicly funded voucher program, then kids have to be taking standardized tests. We have to be measuring whether kids are academically better off in this private school with this voucher than they would be going to their failing neighborhood school. If they're not, they shouldn't get the voucher. ... I'm about choice only if it results in better outcomes and opportunities for kids."

The ideal public school system, Rhee argued, will include high-quality traditional public schools and a charter sector, as well as some vouchers.

"But the vast majority of kids are going to be in a high-performing public school environment," she said, adding: "I'm a believer in public schools. I'm a public school parent. I ran a public school district."

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