Vouchers, Testing-Driven Education Reform on a Collision Course?

Marion Herbert's picture
Friday, April 20, 2012

Conservative approaches to education reform may in the next few years encounter a fateful fork in the road.

One long tradition of conservative educational theory has stressed the value of vouchers as a way of decentralizing education and providing state subsidies directly to parents (rather than routed through local school systems) for their children's education. A newer movement on the right has embraced standards-based accountability, where students and, increasingly, teachers will be evaluated according to the measures of certain standardized tests and complicated (and unproven) statistical models. At the moment, these twin strategies have been used to reorient radically local public school organizations. Louisiana has become ground zero for these twinned approaches, having recently approved a massive expansion of vouchers (HB976) and new reforms making teacher employment contingent upon student performance on standardized exams and opaque value-added modelling (HB974). However, there is an increasingly obvious tension between these two approaches. The voucher movement emphasizes pluralism; current "accountability" models emphasize uniformity. Eventually, one tendency will have to win out.

Under the old model of education funding, federal and state government provided various subsidies to various school systems based on student populations and certain legal mandates. Under this model, the case for vouchers is relatively straightforward: if the government provides $8000 for a student to go to an unaccountable public school, why not give the parents this amount to send their child to an unaccountable private school? (Yes, there are numerous interesting reasons why this may not be a good idea, but let's leave those to the side for the moment.) If not entirely persuasive, this case is at least understandable. It puts power directly in the hands of the parents and encourages competition between various scholastic enterprises in something resembling an educational marketplace.

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