At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.
That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.
But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.
Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.
“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”
Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.
Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.
“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”
While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.
Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”
Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.
“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”
An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.
DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”
Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.
“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.
But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.
“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.
This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.
Voucher debate update
Students given vouchers in Louisiana do worse than their peers. But new research shows some kids catch up
Past research on Louisiana’s school voucher program came to a bleak conclusion: students who used the program to transfer to a private school saw their test scores plummet.
A new study complicates that narrative, finding some good — or at least, less bad — news about the closely watched program.
The research shows that, for students who received a voucher at the middle or end of elementary school, there were no statistically significant effects on their math or reading test scores by the third year in the program. That’s a boon for voucher advocates who have argued against judging a program by its initial impacts.
This “is an initial study of a very long-term question: namely, can government create a level playing field for all types of schools so that the best of all types of schools are available to the most disadvantaged students?” John White, Louisiana’s schools superintendent, told Chalkbeat. “I think this study shows that we are on our way to making that happen.”
Still, other aspects of the study suggest that the program continues to have negative effects, often large ones, on some students, specifically those in early grades.
The findings come as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has promised a major federal push to expand private school choice. The Louisiana Scholarship Program, a statewide initiative that uses public funds to pay private school tuition for certain low-income students, is the seventh-largest voucher program in the country, serving over 7,000 students.
The research is a follow-up to an earlier study conducted by Jonathan Mills and Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas and has not been formally peer-reviewed. The study was funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation.
Mills and Wolf compare students who won the chance to participate in Louisiana’s program against those who applied for a voucher but lost the lottery. That means the researchers can be confident that differences between the two groups are caused by receiving the voucher.
For a number of technical reasons, the study focuses on just 514 older elementary school students who won a spot in a private school and remained there for three years, though they amount to only a small subset of the students using a voucher in the state.
The researchers find that by year three, the impacts of the program were slightly positive in English, moderately negative in math and science, and highly negative in social studies — but none of these results were statistically significant. They do find statistically significant positive effects in English for students who started out low performing in the subject.
White said the improvements in math and English compared to earlier years were reason for optimism.
The study also examines a larger sample that also included younger students. Here the results are decisively negative: Receiving a voucher led to large, statistically significant test score drops in both math and social studies.
But the authors caution that they are less confident in these results than in the findings exclusively for older students because they don’t have baseline test scores for such young students.
Why did the program seem to help students more when they remained for three years? White credits the threat of Louisiana’s test-based accountability rules, which are more stringent than most other states’ rules for private school choice programs. Critics have argued that these rules deter top-notch private schools from participating.
“The important finding is that, given accountability, schools improve — that includes private schools, as well as public schools,” White said.
The researchers are more skeptical of this explanation. They suggest that the improvement may have been the result of students for whom the program was not working returning to public schools, and adjustments made by private schools over time, including aligning curriculum to the state exam.
“It is possible that the private schools ignored those [potential] sanctions in year 1 and started taking them seriously in years 2 and 3, leading to the pattern of effects we observe, but it seems unlikely that they would place themselves in such a disadvantaged position from the start,” Mills and Wolf wrote.
Another study released Monday, of Indiana’s voucher program, showed that students in the program saw math achievement drop in comparison to public school students, but those who remained in private school for four years caught up in math and made gains in English.
Voucher debate update
First study of Indiana’s voucher program — the country’s largest — finds it hurts kids’ math skills at first, but not over time
The study, obtained by Chalkbeat, shows that students using a voucher saw math achievement fall on average, though students who remained in private school for four years improved to match or outperform public school students in math and English.
The results amount to a Rorschach test for advocates on either side of the issue.
“At the end of four years, English scores are slightly above where students started and math scores are statistically the same — so the trend line is heading the right way,” said Robert Enlow, the president of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based group that backs voucher and tax credit programs.
“Indiana diverted millions of dollars for years from public schools to private school vouchers, resulting in negative or negligible results for student outcomes,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten in a statement. “This latest study of vouchers should be yet another red flag to [U.S. Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos that she is going down the wrong path.”
The report was provided by researchers Mark Berends and Joseph Waddington after Chalkbeat obtained an earlier version of the study through a public records request to the Indiana Department of Education.
The study has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal but has not yet been published. (An initial description posted online — later taken down — has drawn wide media attention, and the researchers also previously presented preliminary findings to separate gatherings of academics and school choice advocates.)
The authors declined to comment on the results but criticized Chalkbeat’s decision to release them.
“It does a disservice to social scientists who want to make sure their research passes peer review before being publicly released,” Berends of the University of Notre Dame and Waddington of the University of Kentucky wrote in an email.
Chalkbeat is publishing the research because it is on a matter of pressing public concern — whether low-income students given public dollars to attend private schools learn more than they would in public schools, as the Trump administration promises to push for more voucher programs like Indiana’s.
“In Indiana, we’ve seen some of the best pro-parent and pro-student legislation enacted in the country,” DeVos recently said, referring to the state’s private and charter school initiatives. Her former advocacy group, American Federation for Children, heavily backed Indiana’s school voucher program while she was the group’s chairperson.
Recent research has found that voucher programs can lead to drops in test scores, but some studies like those in D.C. and Louisiana only examine the first one or two years of the program. The latest analysis, the first statewide study of Indiana’s program, looks at four years of data — and offers evidence that judging programs by short-term results may be unfair.
A spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Education declined to comment on the results, saying the department would do so once the study completes the peer-review process.
Voucher students lose ground in math, but those who stick around see gains in English
The paper examines the first four years — from the 2011-12 school year to 2014-15 — of Indiana’s private school voucher program, the largest in the country.
The initiative was championed by former governor Mitch Daniels and expanded to include middle-class families under Mike Pence, now vice president. In Indiana, participating schools are largely religious, and unlike in some school choice programs, students take state tests and schools can be barred from accepting new voucher students for poor academic performance.
The researchers focus on low-income students in the middle or end of elementary school who switched from public schools to private schools using a voucher, and compare them to similar students who remained in public school.
Relative to low-income students in public schools, those whose family elected to use a voucher were more likely to be female, Latino, and an English-language learner, and less likely to be black or have a disability. The voucher students also had slightly higher initial test scores, though still below the state average.
Student achievement in English over time
Compared to other private school students in the state, voucher recipients were more racially diverse, more likely to be low-income, and had significantly lower test scores.
The study estimates that receiving a voucher led to moderate decreases in math test scores overall. Students who participated in the program for four consecutive years initially saw a drop, but by year four they had caught back up to their public school counterparts.
When looking at English scores, the data suggest that there was no impact, good or bad, of receiving a voucher on average. However, the subset of students who remained in the program for all four years appeared to be doing moderately better in English than those in public schools.
In contrast to students who stuck with the program for several years, those who eventually left private schools saw large decreases in achievement while they were using a voucher.
There were not major differences across students by ethnicity or gender. But students with disabilities saw significant decreases in English test scores, while Catholic schools improved English achievement.
(The study was funded in part by the Walton Foundation, which is a supporter of Chalkbeat. EdChoice is also a Chalkbeat funder. Learn more about our funding here.)
Study validates advocates’ argument not to rush to judgment based on early years
The analysis of the program joins recent research showing that voucher programs can hurt student achievement. But the study’s finding that students who remain in the program improve over time gives new credence to advocates who said it was unreasonable to judge a program based on only one or two years of data.
“The results obviously cast further doubt on proponents’ claims that awarding vouchers to low-income students will immediately boost their math and reading achievement, but they also indicate that the negative initial effects on test scores seen in Louisiana, Ohio, and now Indiana are less concerning than it might appear,” said Marty West, a professor at Harvard, who reviewed the paper at Chalkbeat’s request.
The authors of the study suggest that private schools have gotten better as they have acclimated to new students who were more disadvantaged than those they previously served.
“Over time, voucher students may adjust to their new schools, and private schools may make adjustments that better meet the educational needs of voucher students,” the authors write, though they note that their research can’t confirm either hypothesis.
Research also released Monday on year three of Louisiana’s voucher program showed that negative results in early years of the program dissipated for some students in some subjects, but found continued negative effects for those in younger grades.
“What’s interesting about the Indiana results is that they’re consistent with the Louisiana results … in that they start out pretty negative and get less negative over time,” said Matt Chingos of the Urban Institute who has studied private school scholarships in New York City.
West noted the large achievement drops for those leaving the program may not be a bad sign.
“The fact that the students who switch back were disproportionately those who saw big drops in achievement is encouraging,” he said. “It does suggest that any large negative effects of voucher programs on achievement could be to some extent self-correcting.”
Doug Harris, an economist at Tulane University who has been critical of DeVos, said the the new research in Indiana “still has to give pause to anyone pushing broad federal or statewide [voucher] programs.”
“There are still no examples of statewide programs producing overall positive academic effects,” he said.
Other researchers praise study, but point to limitations
The results come with several important caveats.
First, because vouchers were not assigned through random lottery — unlike in some state programs, like Louisiana’s — the researchers can’t be confident that the results only capture the impact of receiving a voucher, a point the study acknowledges.
“Choosing to apply for and receiving a voucher depends on the active choices of parents and their children,” Berends and Waddington write.
Other researchers said the Indiana study does a good job controlling for that selection bias, though.
“The study is well done,” said Harris. “They try many different methods and the results hold up well.” He did note that there was some evidence that low-income students who took a voucher were more advantaged than poor students in public schools, suggesting the possibility of an “upward bias” in the results.
Second, the Indiana research is only able to look at a subset of the thousands of students who have used a voucher in Indiana to date — late elementary and middle school, low-income students who switched from public to private school. Similarly, the researchers only had data on a small number of students remained in the program for four years. That’s a limitation in using the study to draw conclusions about other students, West said.
Enlow and West both noted that the study only measures academic success with state test scores.
That, West said, means that it “can’t speak to how voucher use may have affected other student outcomes or families’ satisfaction with their child’s school.”