The wonderful “failure” of the Milwaukee voucher program

It is interesting to see how progressives interpret experiments in competition.  Matt Yglesias has a post entitled:

The Milwaukee Voucher Failure

He makes the following observation:

The choice program does seem to lead to a lot of consumer satisfaction, but not actual improvements in performance.

In other words, actual parents like the results, and are trying to get their kids into the program, but central planners don’t like the results.  They prefer to measure the effectiveness of schools by how well students do on tests.

I know I am in the minority in not being a fan of the testing approach to school quality (probably even in the minority among my fellow right-wingers.)  So let’s say I am completely wrong about tests, and the central planners are completely correct.  In that case Yglesias is still wrong, as the article he links to suggests that the voucher program has been a big success, even if test scores are the proper criteria for judging school quality:

Wolf, who has led this effort as well as the federally-endorsed evaluation of the DC voucher program, summarized, “Voucher students are showing average rates of achievement gain similar to their public school peers.” Translation: when it comes to test scores, students with vouchers are performing no differently than other kids. (It is worth noting that MPCP students are being educated more cheaply than are district school students).

So the voucher program achieved the same learning objectives at a lower cost, or more bang for the buck.  Since when is that regarded as failure?  Let’s consider the following two possibilities:

1.  Spending more money on education (at the margin) increases learning.

2. Spending more money on education (at the margin) doesn’t increase learning.

First assume case one is true.  This would imply that if we adopted vouchers, and spent as much per student as the Milwaukee public schools spend per student, we would get higher test scores.  That is called “success.”

Now assume case two is correct.  This would imply that there is no point in spending more money on education.  We should simply try to hold down costs.  This means that the voucher program in Milwaukee succeeded in the only way schooling can succeed; it provided education at a lower cost than the public school system.

I’m sure that case two sounds very cynical to a progressive like Yglesias.  I imagine that he thinks more spending can make a difference, perhaps if targeted to certain methods that have been shown to work.  OK, then how about taking the tax saving from voucher schools, and giving those schools a government grant to improve education in whatever area progressives like Yglesias think that money can still help at the margin?  Wouldn’t that be a win-win for everyone except unionized public school teachers?  I wonder why such a policy has almost no chance of happening.

I suppose the progressive counter-argument is that the policy failed according to the criterion set by the voucher proponents.  I have been a voucher proponent from the beginning, and certainly never thought success should be measured by test scores.  I’ve always thought parental satisfaction was the proper criteria.  Indeed, I would hope that all free market economists agreed on this point.  There may be some conservatives who argued that test scores would improve, but why should we care what they think?  Every day the progressive bloggers tell us that conservatives are morons.  I’d rather judge the program on how well it actually did, using the standard economic criteria of costs and perceived customer benefits, not the single criterion used by central planners.

If a policy that leads to greater consumer satisfaction at lower cost, and produces no negative side-effects in test scores, is viewed as a “failure” by progressives, then I don’t think we need to worry very much when progressives criticize the free market.  As Dylan once said: “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”

BTW,  Has anyone else noticed that many of the same progressives who insist that we copy the European public health insurance model also tell us that the successful European voucher programs wouldn’t work here, because we are just too different?  (This last point is not directed at Yglesias, I have no idea on how he views the Swedish and Dutch voucher programs.)