Q&A with Richard Lee Colvin: National Perspective on Indiana's Voucher Program
Richard Lee Colvin has seen private school voucher programs before — Indiana’s just the new kid on the block.
As the executive director of D.C. think tank Education Sector, he’s watched as private school voucher programs have cropped up around the country. They’re all founded, he says, on the free-market notion that “each and every student should carry an amount of money in their backpack, and wherever they happen to put that backpack down, that’s where that money lands.”
Colvin doesn’t doubt the potential for Indiana’s new voucher scheme to alter the state’s education landscape. But he’s skeptical the program will have the detrimental effect on public schools the program’s opponents fear.
“We have a very strong, long history of having the first universal public education system in the world,” Colvin tells StateImpact. “I don’t think Americans are very easily going to abandon that.”
Find our full interview with Colvin the jump:
Compare Indiana’s voucher program to others around the country. Is it, in fact, the ‘biggest’? The ‘broadest’?
Richard Lee Colvin: All of the other programs started small, and then went big. Indiana’s starts big and plans to go bigger. It’s big in terms of the income levels, and it’s big in terms of the fact that you don’t have to be at a failing school to access a voucher. It is poised to have the greatest growth and the greatest, the highest level of participation — so in that sense, it is the broadest.
But it doesn’t have the largest number of participants now, and it won’t for some time in the future, and as Wisconsin has removed the caps on enrollment in its voucher program and Ohio is trying to do the same — in terms of sheer numbers, Indiana’s won’t be the biggest.
What’s the political logic behind this, especially if polling shows vouchers are not very popular?
Colvin: You’ve really got a struggle here between folks who think the market is king and those who think good common schooling experiences are important for democracy.
The most recent Gallup poll on education shows that the opposition to vouchers has expanded. Part of that may have been the way the question is asked by Gallup. There’s never been a popular vote that supports vouchers, so the politics here really are driven by ideology — that we should live in a market economy, that our schools should compete, and parents should be able to choose wherever they want to go to school, and let the chips fall where they may. On the other side of that politics is folks who say a strong public education system is one of the fundamental aspects of American democracy.
Will we see more states implementing voucher systems like Indiana’s? Or are other states going to wait and see what happens in Indiana first?
Colvin: I think there’s a limit to where this is gonna go. And maybe this latest wave will cause folks to stop and, as you suggest, pause, and see whether there are results from it. The problem with vouchers in terms of student achievement is that there’s not ever been strong evidence that voucher students do better than students of similar incomes who remain in the public schools.
We are at the first time in this country we have a national common core standards that 46 states have adopted. That says that we have agreed as a nation that there are ways of thinking and knowledge and skills that every student needs to be competitive in this economy and in the global economy. States have backed that, including Indiana, and at the same time, you can opt out of this and you don’t have to be part of it and it seems like it’s two different directions in policy.
One thing I do like about the Indiana voucher program, though, is that the schools participating have to take state tests. We will see if they are measuring up to standards. But there’s no intervention strategy for the private schools. Again, it’s the logic of the market, if the parents don’t like what they’re getting, they’ll transfer elsewhere.
Do free market principles help craft good education policy?
Colvin: For a market to work well, everybody has to have common information and be able to act on that information on their own behalf. There’s lots and lots of evidence that parents who participate in choice programs don’t choose their schools based on academics. And that shouldn’t be the sole criteria, you want a lot of things as a parent. But even failing, really poorly-performing charter schools and schools supported by vouchers — parents don’t want to leave because they want the stability.
The other thing is for a market to work, you have to travel beyond your neighborhood, beyond where it’s comfortable for you to drive to find a good school. And that’s not the case in education. The market analogy has some value in education, but it’s not working out that way. The public schools in most places are not changing as a result of competition.
Won’t the voucher program siphon money away from public schools?
Colvin: There’s no doubt that money is moving to the private sector. What’s particularly unfortunate about this wave of voucher programs now is that they come at a time when states are so strapped and they are cutting the basic funding for public education. So, we’re undermining public education by our state budgets and then we’re undermining through these voucher programs.