Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy program at New America, a policy think tank. He formerly was an analyst at the Education Trust and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. He also writes for The New York Times. In this article, Dismal Results From Vouchers Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins, he takes a look a recent studies casting more doubt on the effectiveness of school vouchers.
“The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education was a signal moment for the school choice movement. For the first time, the nation’s highest education official is someone fully committed to making school vouchers and other market-oriented policies the centerpiece of education reform.
But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.
When Republicans took control of more governor’s mansions and state legislatures in the 2000s, they expanded vouchers to an unprecedented degree. Three of the largest programs sprang up in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio, which collectively enroll more than a third of the 178,000 voucher students nationwide.
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.
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.
In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.
Mark Dynarski of the Brookings Institution noted that the performance gap between private and public school students had narrowed significantly over time. He argued that the standards, testing and accountability movement, for all its political shortcomings, was effective. The assumed superiority of private schools may no longer hold.
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.”
A note of caution: Do not share this with any of the 17 Alabama senators who voted recently to expand our voucher program known as the Alabama Accountability Act.