A raft of recent studies about school vouchers couldn't have come at a worse time for our new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
That's because the studies report devastatingly bad results for students in those voucher programs. And they've been flowing into public forums just as DeVos, a leading advocate of school vouchers, takes charge of federal education policy. DeVos's patron, President Trump, proposed during his campaign to shovel $20 billion to the states to support magnet and charter schools in voucher programs.
Voucher programs give parents public funds to spend on approved private schools for their kids. The idea is to give children in underperforming schools an escape route to a better education, while providing competition that hopefully will goad those poorer schools into improving themselves.
Conservatives like the idea, which dates back to a 1955 essay by Milton Friedman, because it means reducing government's role in education and subjecting schools to market discipline. Give parents a set sum to spend on any school that meets minimum standards, Friedman wrote, and "a wide variety of schools will spring up to meet the demand."
But the economist's nirvana hasn't materialized as expected. Studies of a few early voucher experiments in Milwaukee, New York and Washington, D.C., were equivocal at best, showing some modest improvement in test scores for some students and none for others.
That's why the latest findings, which emerge from studies of statewide programs in Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana, have left education experts stunned. In a nutshell, they find huge declines of academic achievement among students in voucher programs in those three states.
"These results are without precedent in the educational literature," says Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the think tank New America. "Among the past results, none were as positive as these are negative."
A study released last February by a team of researchers led by Jonathan Mills of Tulane University found that students in Louisiana's expanded program lost ground in their first two years in the program. Those performing at average levels in math and reading — that is, at about the 50th percentile — fell 24 percentile points in math and eight points in reading after their first year in the program. In the second year, they improved slightly in math, though they still scored well below non-voucher students, and barely improved at all in reading.
Those results resembled December 2015 findings by Christopher Walters of UC Berkeley, Atila Abdulkadiroglu of Duke and Parag Pathak of MIT covering the Louisiana program's first year, which found that participation in the program "substantially reduces academic achievement."
The findings dismayed advocates of "school choice" such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an Ohio charter school advocacy group, which acknowledged, "This is all very bad news," though it noted that the 2015 study covered only a single year and therefore "ought to be taken with a grain of salt."
But things didn't look any better in Ohio in July, when the Fordham Institute released its own survey of the voucher program in that state. Voucher students, the study found, "have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools…. Such impacts also appear to persist over time, suggesting that the results are not driven simply by the setbacks that typically accompany any change of school."
The third data point comes from Indiana, where a voucher program was sedulously promoted by former Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president. There, two researchers from Notre Dame have found that "voucher students who transfer to private schools experience significant losses in mathematics achievement" and no improvement in English compared to their records at their former public schools. A student who entered the Indiana program at the 50th percentile in math fell to the 44% percentile a year later, according to the study, which is still in progress.
Educational experts are at a bit of a loss to explain the declines. One possibility is that state authorities don't do a good enough job of vetting the private schools that are accepting the vouchers. The Louisiana and Indiana programs were criticized for accepting religious schools that were financially strapped, including some that placed creationism on their curricula. Walters and his colleagues found that private schools joining the Louisiana program had experienced "rapid enrollment declines relative to other nearby private schools before entering the program," which implied that the voucher program was attracting "a negatively-selected set of private schools struggling to maintain enrollment."
Walters told me the important takeaway from his study is that "school choice is not guaranteed to improve student outcomes." Voucher programs are predicated on the idea that parents have an unerring feel for what's best for their kids. "One common argument is that parents are able to make better choices for their children," Walters says, "but that doesn't always happen."
New America's Carey says the statewide studies carry a warning for DeVos not merely because they undermine the case for choice-driven academic improvement.
"In DeVos's advocacy, she seems to favor the least restrictive and most market-oriented policies" about which schools can participate in voucher programs. "In her rhetoric, it's the creation of market mechanisms that are the important thing to promote. This research does not support that view. In fact, it may support the idea that that approach is harmful to student learning."
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