The policy of providing vouchers to pay tuition for public school students to attend private schools aims to give families whose income falls below a certain level or whose children attend schools that are deemed to be "failing" the option of sending their children to a private school.
The principle behind the voucher strategy is the assumption that any given private school is better than any given public school, therefore a child who can attend a private school will receive a better education than in a public school. However, because private schools have historically served children from affluent families, their supposed "better" may be an artifact of their student population.
State voucher legislation has an accountability requirement that private schools accepting state funds must use the state accountability test to measure student progress.
The fact that students in private schools take the same accountability tests as their peers in public school makes it possible to test the principle results of private school superiority.
Research on voucher programs has yielded mixed results with some students in some settings doing well while other students in other settings show no differences. So, black students in New York City experienced growth in reading and math but there were no gains for their Hispanic peers in either reading or math. In the District of Columbia voucher program, reading scores improved after the third year in the program while there was no improvement in math. There was no evidence of differences in reading scores in Milwaukee. Other educational outcomes like higher rates of graduation were found in New York and DC along with higher rates of college attendance in New York. (Dynarski, 2016)
Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio each have a voucher program and each of these has been studied over the past year and a half. The question that each of the studies tested was when compared to their academic performance in public school, was their subsequent performance in private school the same, better, or worse.
Indiana's voucher program began in 2011 and was continued and expanded in 2014. There is now no limit to the numbers of students who can participate. In addition, the means test has been modified to allow families with higher incomes to participate.
In a study conducted by Drs. R. Joseph Waddington and Mark Berends, respectively from the University of Kentucky and the University of Notre Dame, found that students switching from a public school to a public charter school experience no differences in achievement. In the case where students switch to a private school using an Indiana voucher, students experienced annual losses of -0.09 SD in mathematics and -0.11 SD in English-Language Arts. Students who switched to Catholic schools experienced losses of -0;18 SD in mathematics. (Waddington and Berends, 2016)
The Louisiana Scholarship program was studied by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. As with the Indiana study, it also found consistently negative consequences for the academic performance of students using vouchers to attend private schools. A student performing at the 550th percentile in math at a public school who then enrolled in a private school using a voucher saw his/her performance decline to the 34th percentile after one year. If the student was in the third, fourth, or fifth grade, the decline was to the 26th percentile. There were similar declines in reading, to the 46th percentile from the 50th. (Mills et al., 2016)
Finally, research funded by the Walton Family Foundation and conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examined the Ohio EdChoice voucher program. The conclusion from the study was that "students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools." (Dynarski, 2016) & (Figlio and Karbownik, 2016, p. 39)
The three studies of voucher results in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio undercuts the assumption that students benefit by moving from a public to a private school.
It is a fact that since the decade of the nineties public schools have been "under heavy pressure to improve test scores," something that private schools have not had to consider.
There is evidence that the reform work of the past twenty-five years has paid off in improvements in public schools.
A federally funded study of NAEP mathematics scores found that when demographics and location were controlled, public schools "significantly out-scored Catholic schools by over 7 points in 4th grade math, and almost 4 points in 8th grade math. Of private school types studied...the fastest growing segment of the private school sector, conservative Christian schools, were also the lowest performing, trailing public schools by more than 10 points at grades 4 and 8." (Lubienski and Lubienski, 2006, p. 4) Note: the public schools in both Ohio and Indiana performed above the national average on the most recent NAEP for fourth grade reading and mathematics.
The mixed results in earlier research on vouchers and the unequivocal results of three studies described above pose interesting questions for both policymakers and parents to consider.
Dynarski, M. (2016). On negative effects of vouchers. Economic Studies at Brookings: Evidence Speaks Reports, 1(48). Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/on-negative-effects-of-vouchers/
Figlio, David (2016) Evaluation of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program: Selection, Competition, and Performance Effects retrieved from https://edex.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/publication/pdfs/FORDHAM%20Ed%20Choice%20Evaluation%20Report_online%20edition.pdf
Lubienski, C., & Lubienski, S. T. (2006). Charter, Private, Public Schools and Academic Achievement: New Evidence from NAEP Mathematics Data. National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/EPRU-0601-137-OWI%5B1%5D.pdf
Mills, J., N., Egalite, A. J., & Wolf, P. J. (2016). Education Alliance for New Orleans. Retrieved from http://educationresearchalliancenola.org/files/publications/ERA-Policy-Brief-Public-Private-School-Choice-160218.pdf
Waddington, R. J., & Berends, M. (2016). School Choice in Indianapolis: Effects of Charter, Magnet, Private, and Traditional Public Schools. Education Finance and Policy. doi:doi:10.1162/EDFP_a_00225
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.