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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Charters, Vouchers, and Accountability

Over at the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal site, Kevin Drum draws attention today to the first in a big series of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports on that city’s notable experiment in school choice. The MJS’s findings suggest that the use of public funds for religious public schools have made a difference for some, but not generally most, students affected. And after citing a particular report on the lack of accountability for results among “choice” schools in Milwaukee, Kevin draws this pointed conclusion:

I can be talked into experimenting with vouchers and charter schools. But if the real goal is just to expand funding for parochial schools and allow them to operate with no oversight, count me out.

As a strong supporter of charter public schools, I agree with Kevin’s statement. But this is precisely what separates, in theory at least, the charter school movement from the conservative demand for publicly financed private-school subsidies, a.k.a. vouchers. By definition, a charter school is an independently operated public school that is issued a charter, i.e., a performance contract, that explicitly identifies the educational outcomes it promises to deliver, on pain of losing public funding. And for all the rhetorical support conservatives sometimes offer for charter public schools, their support for voucher programs shows they don’t understand or truly care about the distinct bargain of flexibility in exchange for results that the charter movement is all about.I will defer to my colleague Andy Rotherham over at Eduwonk for a nuanced analysis of the Milwaukee experiment, which I am sure he will soon supply. But I think it’s important to note that in a “choice” experiment that includes both vouchers and charters, the bad things about the former can obscure or even defeat the good things about the latter.

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