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Fun with Words

Thursday’s Wall Street Journal has an impassioned editorial imploring President Barack Obama to block Congressional Democrats from killing the DC Opportunity Scholarship program, the nation’s only federally-funded program providing vouchers to enable poor children to attend private schools. Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings–gosh, skoolboy loves that phrase–took to the pages of the Washington Post last summer to champion the program, shortly after the release of a Congressionally-mandated evaluation sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education. I called out Madame Secretary for distorting the results of the evaluation in a post here.

Lies, misstatements, and distortions can take on lives of their own, especially when people have strong opinions about what is at stake–which is certainly true of the DC Opportunity Scholarship program. But that’s no excuse for the WSJ to get the basic facts wrong. Here’s what they wrote in their editorial: “A 2008 Department of Education evaluation found that participants had higher reading scores than their peers who didn’t receive a scholarship, and there are four applicants for each voucher.” Here’s some text from the executive summary of that evaluation: “Across the full sample, there were no statistically significant impacts on reading achievement (effect size (ES) = .09) or math achievement (ES = .01) from the offer of a scholarship (table 3) nor from the use of a scholarship.”

But the real fun comes in the wordplay. “Without the vouchers, more than 80% of the 1,700 kids would have to attend public schools that haven’t made ‘adequate yearly progress’ under No Child Left Behind,” intones the WSJ editorial. Well, that’s certainly disturbing. How about this?

“Without the vouchers, 1,700 kids would have had to attend public schools in which they would have achieved at the same level in reading and math as they did with the vouchers.”

“Without the vouchers, 1,700 kids would have had to attend public schools that were reported to be just as safe as the private schools they attended with the vouchers.”

“Without the vouchers, 1,700 kids would have had to attend public schools with which they were just as satisfied as the private schools they attended with the vouchers.”

“Without the vouchers, 1,700 kids would have had similar aspirations for future schooling; the same frequency of doing homework; spent as much time reading for fun; and the same attendance and patterns of tardiness as they did with the vouchers.”

As I wrote last summer: skoolboy isn’t crazy about using public funds to support private schools, but he’s a big supporter of using public funds to support the education of children in D.C., who historically have been among the lowest performers in the nation. Congress authorized this program, it’s survived legal scrutiny, and it’s deserving of a fair shake. But distorting the results of an evaluation doesn’t serve the public good.

Citing some dodgy statistics doesn’t disguise the fact that this is a dispute over values, not research. A Republican-led Congress and White House authorized the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program in the first place; A Democratic-led Congress and White House may let the program elapse. Sorry, WSJ: this is democracy in action. You’ll just have to wait for Michelle Rhee to work her magic in DC.

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