The voucher failure

Republicans love school vouchers.  In their private is always better than public (“government schools!”) zeal, many, e.g., Betsy DeVos, are happy to undermine public schools all they can behind an ideological faith (rather than, you know, evidence) private schools are inherently better.  I think it is pretty clear that where private schools outperform, this is almost completely explained by selection effects.

Anyway, the research on the efficacy of school vouchers has never been compelling; always mixed results at best.  But the newest wave of research– based on well-designed studies with large N– is compelling.  And it’s compelling bad news for vouchers.  Kevin Carey summarizes in the Upshot:

Most of the new programs heeded Mr. Friedman’s original call for the government to enforce “minimum standards” by requiring private schools that accept vouchers to administer standardized state tests. Researchers have used this data to compare voucher students with similar children who took the same tests in public school. Many of the results were released over the last 18 months, while Donald J. Trump was advocating school choice on the campaign trail.

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research…

Three consecutive reports, each studying one of the largest new state voucher programs, found that vouchers hurt student learning. [emphases mine]

Large, well-controlled studies.  Lotteries that control for selection effects.  So much for the magic of private schools.  Carey goes on to make a very important point about the private sector:

Some voucher supporters observed that many private schools in Louisiana chose not to accept voucher students, and those that did had recently experienced declining enrollment. Perhaps the participating schools were unusually bad and eager for revenue. But this is another way of saying that exposing young children to the vagaries of private-sector competition is inherently risky. The free market often does a terrible job of providing basic services to the poor — see, for instance, the lack of grocery stores and banks in many low-income neighborhoods. This may also hold for education.

And, in the end, this:

The new voucher studies stand in marked contrast to research findings that well-regulated charter schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere have a strong, positive impact on test scores. But while vouchers and charters are often grouped under the umbrella of “school choice,” the best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less “private” that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.

The new evidence on vouchers does not seem to have deterred the Trump administration, which has proposed a new $20 billion voucher program. Secretary DeVos’s enthusiasm for vouchers, which have been the primary focus of her philanthropic spending and advocacy, appears to be undiminished.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to The voucher failure

  1. Terrant says:

    IMHO, the reason Republicans love vouchers has nothing to do with trying to improve the system. It seems they are more interested in breaking the teacher’s union and to allow religion (and by extension conservatism) forced upon the students.

    • mike says:

      Agreed. It is a way to indoctrinate children into particular religions, especially these that reject science in favor or mythology. I think vouchers are also appealing to people who don’t want their tax dollars to go to “undeserving” people (subjectively defined, of course).

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