Sol Stern to Vouchers: Drop Dead

Feb 14, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011


Over the years, Manhattan Institute conservative contrarian, Sol Stern, has written many essays, usually in the New York Post supporting the use of taxpayer money to provide students in "failing" public schools with vouchers so they can attend private schools. Now, he says in City Journal the Institute's magazine, vouchers haven't worked and it's time for Plan B, notably a focus on curriculum and instruction (what an idea!).

Some of Stern's arguments are purely practical--most voucher-using kids go to Catholic schools (the only ones with sufficiently low tuition) and Catholic schools are closing at a record pace so where will the kids go?

His major argument, though, is more substantive. Vouchers are supposed to accomplish two things: Improve the achievement of those who use them and improve the achievement of public schools because of the competition from the voucher schools. Stern argues they have accomplished neither.

Stern's 8-page apostasy produced such outrage from voucher supporters that for the first time ever, the Manhattan Institute put up a 29-page online forum. Stern-bashers include Jay Greene (Manhattan Institute), Andrew Coulson (Cato Institute), Matthew Ladner (Goldwater Institute), Neal McCluskey (Cato Institute), Robert Enlow (Friedman Institute), and Thomas W. Carroll (Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability). Supporting essays arrived from E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and Diane Ravitch (how Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation failed to be one of the stone throwers I do not know. Maybe she was busy--she's currently debating voucher efficacy in a series of essays in the Los Angeles Times).

Stern says "the evidence is pretty meager that competition from vouchers is making public schools better." Greene cites Clive Belfield and Hank Levin saying that there is a clear link between choice and "higher education quality." But they don't say that choice produced that link and the paper includes more than studies of vouchers.

With regard to the claim that voucher-using students show improved achievement, Greene says, "The research community is settled on this" (that they do). Well, I guess to a protégé of Paul Peterson, who almost always tortures the data until they show an advantage for vouchers (he once dropped the data from 41% of the participants in a study without telling anyone), it's settled. But I'm part of that community and I say it's not settled. Some years ago I looked at the data from Dayton, New York, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Washington, D. C., and the only thing I saw was a slight gain for voucher students in math in Milwaukee.

The person who presented these data, Cecilia Rouse at Princeton, also noted that the voucher kids went to schools with smaller class size. Peterson claimed a big effect in New York, but it turned out to be for one group (blacks) in one grade (5th) in one subject (math). The effect there was so large that when the other grades were lumped in, which they shouldn't have been ("an average is an average" said Peterson in response to criticism) there was an overall effect even though nothing was seen in the other grades.

After an evaluation of the voucher program in Milwaukee in 1995, voucher supporters in the legislature killed funds for any further evaluations.

Vouchers can't do much, Stern says, because the teachers reflect the progressive claptrap they learned in colleges of education and so even in schools of choice, kids will learn whole language and fuzzy math. He cites in support of this position Left Back by Ravitch which I consider one of the most dishonest books ever written. But Ravitch of late has been talking differently. Maybe it's the shared blog she writes with Debbie Meier, an original progressive if there ever was one.

In her Stern-supportive essay, she says, "I do not think it wise to use choice as a battering ram to destroy our system of public education. Our goal as a society should be to improve our regular public schools and to use choice schools judiciously as laboratories for innovation." Later she reports attending a conference of the International Evaluation Association with scholars from around the world. "There was no mention of choice and markets." The keys to high achievement were a "strong and sequential curriculum, effective instruction, adequate resources, willing students and a cultural climate in which education was respected and encouraged."

The anti-Stern stories are wonderful source material for anyone interested in sophistry and the language of propaganda.

Stern's essay is at The forum is at