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Vouchers Don't Magically Build the Supply of High-Quality Schools

Republican legislative and gubernatorial wins in last November's election have led to a surge in voucher-related legislative activity, including the re-launch of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a new voucher program in Indiana, and proposals to expand Wisconsin's existing voucher programs and create new ones in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

But, as Mary Anne Zehr reports in this week's Education Week, the political and policy successes of voucher advocates are showing up one of the biggest practical problems with vouchers: There are real limits on the number of high-quality private school seats available. As long as vouchers remain small, relatively marginal programs, that's not necessarily a problem, but as these programs expand, there's a good chance they'll begin to run up against real limits in supply.

That gets to what's always been my primary problem with vouchers: As currently constructed, most voucher programs are simply about moving a relatively small number of kids around within existing schools. They're merely a financing mechanism, so they don't actually grow the total number of high-performing schools and school slots, at least not at anywhere near the scale necessary.

But in order to really improve student achievement and close achievement gaps for low-income kids, we need to dramatically expand the total supply of schools that are capable of delivering exemplary results.

Now, I understand the market fundamentalist response that vouchers in themselves will build the supply of high-performing schools. But there are at least two good reasons to be skeptical here: First, the vouchers that are currently being proposed/enacted don't actually fundamentally change the market in the ways that free marketeers suggest are likely to spur improvements in supply. Nor is there any likelihood that any U.S. state will enact systems that do look like that in the near future--and there are lots of reasons to think that's a good thing.

More significantly, nothing in our experience to date suggests that the "if you build it, they will come" approach works to actually build the number of high-quality schools serving low-income kids. Creating new schools--at least if you really care about their quality--is a tremendously difficult and complicated undertaking, and it's naive to think that simply making vouchers available will attract to the field new providers capable of independently lining up the human, financial, and physical capital necessary to build successful schools serving low-income kids. Enacting vouchers is cheaper and easier than doing the harder work of actually building the supply of good schools serving low-income kids, but it's ultimately far from an adequate substitute.

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