Fighting for Equity in Education

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Private School Vouchers Fail the Test

Monday March 13, 2017

A new review of voucher programs in private schools has found that they have failed to make any significant improvements in student achievement, but add to the risks of increasing social segregation and the loss of a common, secular educational experience. It says that there are more effective ways of improving student results than by using voucher programs.

The report summarised the results of studies of voucher programs over the past 25 years in several US cities, the states of Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, and in Chile and India. It found little evidence of any significant improvement in student test scores, but some small improvements in high school completion and college enrolment.

The city of Milwaukee has the longest-standing and second largest voucher program in the United States. If choice has a significant positive impact on student achievement, Milwaukee should be among the highest scoring urban school districts in the nation. It has been a totally “choice” school district for almost 20 years – students can choose among traditional public schools, public magnet schools, charter schools, and private voucher schools.

Milwaukee’s private school students should be outscoring its public school students, and students in traditional public schools should have made large gains because of the intense competition from private and charter schools, but there is no evidence of any gains in student results in private or public schools. The African American students who make up roughly two-thirds of Milwaukee’s student population are the main recipients of vouchers, but they ranked last in reading and second last in mathematics among 13 large city school districts on the National Assessment of Educational Process (NAEP) 8th grade tests in 2013 and no improvement on test scores in earlier years.

The most recent voucher programs evaluated are in Indiana and Louisiana. An evaluation of the Indiana program that compared time trends of voucher students’ test scores with the test score time trends of similar students in public schools showed significantly lower mathematics and reading gains for voucher students. The evaluation of the Louisiana program found that voucher students in private schools scored significantly lower in mathematics and reading than the control group attending Louisiana’s public schools.

In the few studies where test scores have increased, other factors such as increased public accountability rather than private school competition, appear to be the more likely drivers. Several evaluation studies also show high rates of attrition from private schools among voucher users.

As far as the small gains observed in high school graduation and college enrolment rates, the study found that the gains may be the result of many factors, including private schools shedding less motivated students and the greater focus of some private schools in preparing students to enter four-year colleges. The study also notes that high school graduation rates have risen sharply in public schools in the last 10 years, with those increases much larger than the small effect estimated on graduation rates from attending a voucher school.

The report says that the lack of evidence that vouchers significantly improve student test scores suggests that an ideological preference for education markets over equity and public accountability is driving the expansion of voucher programs. It says:

Ideology is not a compelling enough reason to switch to vouchers, given the risks. These risks include increased school segregation; the loss of a common, secular educational experience; and the possibility that the flow of inexperienced young teachers filling the lower-paying jobs in private schools will dry up once the security and benefits offered to more experienced teachers in public schools disappear.

The report suggests that giving every parent and student a great choice of educational offerings is better accomplished by supporting and strengthening neighbourhood public schools with proven policies, including early childhood education, after-school and summer programs, improved teacher pre-service training, high curriculum standards, and improved student health and nutrition programs in and out of school. “All of these policies yield much higher returns than the minor, if any, gains that have been estimated for voucher students.”

The study was published by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC and was authored by Martin Carnoy, Professor of Education and Economics at Stanford University.

Trevor Cobbold

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