Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Voucher Trial Run In D.C.

Cato's Casey Latrique suggests an Educational Freedom Day for DC, complete with sample vouchers for parents.

Numerous polls have attempted to show what Washington, D.C. residents think about school vouchers. A 1998 poll by the Washington Post and a 2002 National School Boards Association poll have offered conflicting views of how D.C. residents view vouchers. There is a better way than depending on what pollsters find: Give "practice vouchers" to D.C. parents and see how many attempt to use them.

This would be timely as Congress is now considering offering vouchers to 2,000 D.C. residents, and a trial day would give both sides-voucher supporters and opponents — a sneak preview of the demand for school choice. Parents across the city could be mailed vouchers by school-choice advocates, such as D.C. Parents for School Choice, among others, which they could use for a day to visit the private schools of their choice. Parents could pick up forms, interview with administrators or teachers, and see the schools from the inside. To increase awareness, a volunteer team of school-choice advocates should be recruited to lead the effort by walking door to door in the low-income areas (Wards 5,6,7, and 8) to spread word about the vouchers.

Casey goes on to explain the risk of such an experiment to both voucher critics and supporters. This reminds me of a real voucher experiment in Los Angeles. Lately, critics of school choice have observed that few parents in Los Angeles utilize public school choice to transfer out of failing public schools (think long bus rides and marginally higher-performing schools in strange neighborhoods). However, when parents in Los Angeles were presented with legitimate school choices through the privately funded Children's Scholarship Fund the demand was clear. In 1999, during the first year of the program more than 50,000 low-income parents applied for around 2,900 scholarships. This program required parents to pay a minimum of $500 of the private school tuition. The demand for private school scholarships in Los Angeles and other urban centers gives us some indication of what might happen if parents in DC were offered real school choice.

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