The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, February 23, 2021 1:00 am

The numbers are in

Studies confirm vouchers' harmful effects on learning

Christopher Lubienski

The question of school vouchers is back on the legislative agenda in Indiana.

The current private school voucher program – already the largest in the nation – was originally pitched as a way to help poor families get access to higher-quality schools. Now, arguing that school choices should be available to families regardless of income, Republicans are pushing for an expansion of the program to include subsidies taken for more middle-class families, including those making up to almost $150,000 a year.

Critics note that this would come at the expense of funding for public schools. Proponents say that competition leads to better outcomes.

For instance, State Rep. Bob Behning, who is championing the measure, says that “there is a lot of data out there that shows us that competition makes us better.”

While this may be true with technology or cars, does the same hold true for schooling? The research calls into question simplistic applications of business logic to public education.

Since vouchers were introduced in the early 1990s in Milwaukee and then other cities, researchers have tried to measure their impacts on student learning. As voucher advocates have noted, programs enabling more families to choose their schools should force schools to get better or risk losing students ... and money.

For almost three decades, researchers examined the track record of these programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and other cities where policymakers were experimenting with choice. The results were unclear.

Advocates trumpeted learning gains for students using vouchers. Critics noted that any gains were small, at best, and often non-existent, and appeared sporadically for some groups at some grade levels in some cities, but not for comparable groups in other cities. Voucher proponents countered that families were happy to have choices, and at least vouchers were not shown to harm any students in terms of learning.

However, as voucher programs were scaled up from small, targeted programs in specific cities to larger statewide programs, the results changed significantly.

Since 2015, all major evaluations of statewide voucher programs have found negative effects on student learning. Evaluations of voucher programs in Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana showed that students using vouchers to attend a private school saw their relative level of achievement fall, sometimes dramatically.

For instance, in one study, an average student at the 50th percentile of achievement would decline to the 25th percentile after using a voucher to attend a Catholic or other private school. That is, voucher students lost substantial ground compared to their former classmates in public schools.

Were these remarkable declines simply a result of switching to a new school? No. Initially, researchers hoped that learning would rebound after a few years, but studies – including a rigorous evaluation by researchers at the University of Notre Dame (hardly an anti-Catholic bastion) – found these losses to be significant and persistent.

These findings are eye-opening. It is unusual for education research to find such large, negative effects of any intervention, much less one that is so popular with policymakers.

Furthermore, even though earlier debates on results were quite contentious, the research consensus emerging over the past half decade about the negative effects of vouchers is also coming from sources that often promote school vouchers, such as the Fordham Institute and the Brookings Institute.

At the same time, multiple studies are causing substantial concern that vouchers are not having the beneficial competitive effects policymakers expect, and may instead be promoting increased segregation.

A recent analysis from Indiana University found that competition from voucher programs may force public schools to improve in the short run, but over time, achievement in public schools competing for students tends to decline.

Numerous studies show that school choice programs appear to increase segregation, as families forgo more diverse public school options for more segregated private schools. For instance, research from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that wealthier parents enjoy the opportunities available through publicly subsidized school choice programs, while poorer families often focus on the costs, such as transportation, uniforms and fees.

This raises the question of why policymakers are continuing to promote the expansion of these programs despite their demonstrably detrimental effects on student learning, and their costs on social segregation and public school budgets. Are they unfamiliar with the research? Do they not particularly care about empirical evidence? Or do they have other objectives?

Certainly, voucher supporters have tried to move attention away from achievement, arguing that parents are happier when they have choices. This may be true, but it begs the question as to whether taxpayers should fund parent satisfaction when it means that their children are learning less.

But perhaps more importantly, the research reminds us that competition can be a wonderful thing, but it is not a panacea, and schools are not necessarily best treated as businesses.

Christopher Lubienski is a professor of education policy at Indiana University in Bloomington, and a fellow at the National Education Policy Center in Colorado.

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