DC Children Can Thank Boehner— and Randomized Trials

Article by Paul E. Peterson, 10 April 2011

In a budget deal that swept virtually all the policy edibles off the table, one delightful delectable remained: the restoration of the DC school voucher program.  President Obama seems to have been unwilling to give a major address to the American people, explaining why it was necessary to shut down the American government so as to avoid giving low-income children in the District of Columbia the opportunity to go to private schools such as the one his own children were attending.  All things considered, that might expose his hypocrisy on the voucher question to a wee bit more public attention than was prudent. The speaker and the president understood the situation so well it did not need discussion. I doubt the subject even came up in that private, face-to-face confrontation the key players had in those final hours last Friday.

So Boehner deserves a thank you from the children of the District of Columbia for knowing how to play the one best policy card at his disposal.  But Boehner could not have played that card had he not had convincing evidence that the voucher program he was trying to restore had been effective.  For that evidence, we must thank the official evaluation of the voucher program conducted by University of Arkansas Professor Patrick Wolf and his research team.  That evaluation was conducted as a randomized experiment—something akin to a pill-placebo comparison that informs medical research.  All sides admit that these kinds of experiments are the gold standard for establishing what works and what does not.

A randomized evaluation proved possible in DC because more students wanted to use a voucher to go to private school than the number of vouchers available and the vouchers were distributed by means of a lottery (a la “Waiting for Superman”). When the results from the DC voucher experiment showed that the voucher students, who won the lottery, were going to college at a noticeably higher rate than those who had lost the lottery and remained in public schools, few could question the effectiveness of the program.

Just before this study was released, Obama signed into law a bill killing the program. Although government officials knew the study’s results at the time the president affixed his signature, the results were released to the public by the U.S. Department of Education only after the program had been killed.

So two years ago, the DC voucher story seemed to prove that research, no matter how well conducted, is generally too little and too late to have any impact.  Having conducted much of the early voucher research that led up to the DC evaluation, all these events were truly disappointing.  So in the account given in my book on the history of school reform (Saving Schools, Ch 7 & 8), I reluctantly came to the conclusion that the school choice movement may have to look to alternatives to school vouchers.

Boehner has proven me wrong. His tactical skill and personal commitment has resurrected a program in the District of Columbia—and a strategy for reform—that seemed as dead as Jack Robin. And policy researchers can be pleased that their work can, if circumstances are correct, provide a Speaker with the instrument needed to recall even politically contested programs, like school vouchers, to life.