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

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Cardinal Ritter High School has one of the highest percentages of students paying tuition with state-funded vouchers in Indiana.

A new analysis of Indiana’s school voucher program offers something for both sides in the heated debate about whether public money should be used to fund private school tuition.

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.”

I saw the sign(s)

Demonstrators display frustration with DeVos at Denver protest

Protestors march from the Capitol to the Hyatt Regency Denver, where ALEC is holding their annual meeting. (Photos by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

“DeVos is DeWorst”

“Left or Right, We Can All See Wrong”

“School Librarians Say Shhhh! to Betsy!”

Those are some of the hundreds of colorful signs demonstrators carried at the Capitol Wednesday to protest U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ scheduled Denver visit.

The Trump appointee is expected to speak Thursday at a luncheon during the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting at the Hyatt Regency downtown. Wednesday’s protest was organized by Denver school board candidate Tay Anderson with help from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Featured speakers included local activists, teachers and legislators. Demonstrators then marched from the Capitol to the Hyatt.

Here are some selected images from the demonstration.

During the school year, Andy Fine is an elementary school teacher in Loveland’s Thompson School District. This summer he’s interning with the CEA, and rallied more than 25 Thompson teachers and parents to drive to Denver for Wednesday’s action. “Someone’s gotta stand up for our kids,” he said. “My life and passion is standing up for kids.”

Jessica Price, a teacher at Overland High School in Aurora, brought her 6-year-old daughter Maycie Turner to the protest. “I’m here because what we’re doing is working,” she said. “People are getting the message.”

Mike Badar’s father taught in Flint, Michigan for 30 years. He said his biggest concern is DeVos will blur the line separating church and state. “She does not like history, and she wants to rewrite it based on her religious principles,” he said.

Denver Public Schools teacher Michael Durga waited calmly outside the Capitol for the protest to start Wednesday morning. Donning a T-shirt that read “Proud public school teacher,” Durga carried a colorful flag urging support for public schools and a sign themed after the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race. “DeVos is a nightmare,” he exclaimed. “I want her to know that I am opposed to everything she stands for.”

Pam Wilson, a self-professed “concerned citizen,” marched from the Capitol to the Hyatt Regency spritzing fellow marchers and passerby with a spray bottle filled with water. She decorated the bottle with a crossed-out image of DeVos’s face. “It’s bear spray,” she laughed.

The man behind the Neil Gorsuch mask is Ian Kolsky, a DPS teacher. Kolsky and four others dressed as Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices. The demonstrators belong to a group called Move to Amend, which calls for a constitutional amendment limiting the rights of corporations.

Rallying cry

At DeVos protest, opponents seek to tie Trump education appointee to Denver school board

Hundreds of protesters circled the hotel where Betsy DeVos is scheduled to speak Thursday. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

Several hundred protesters, many of them teachers, gathered at the state Capitol Wednesday to rail against what they called the privatization of public education under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is scheduled to give a speech in Denver Thursday.

With local school board elections looming in November, speakers at Wednesday’s rally sought to tie the policies championed by billionaire Republican DeVos to those enacted by Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Democrats on the nonpartisan school board.

“In November, we have the opportunity to take our school board back!” said Rachael Lehman, a parent of an East High graduate.

She called for “a school board revolution,” saying “DeVos-style policies” have harmed Denver’s traditional schools, three of which the school board recently voted unanimously to close after years of lagging test scores.

DeVos has become a national target of teachers unions and progressive Democrats. Before Trump appointed her education secretary, she used her personal wealth to push for the expansion of charter schools and private school vouchers, which unions staunchly oppose.

Unions in Colorado and across the country have already begun using DeVos’s image and unpopularity to push back against charter school-friendly legislation and policies. And more is expected during the fall school board elections.

Four seats on the seven-member Denver school board are up for grabs in this November’s election. All seven seats are currently held by members who support DPS’s brand of education reform, which embraces school choice, though not vouchers. Boasberg has repeatedly sought to differentiate DPS’s approach from DeVos’s.

“We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter,” he said earlier this year.

A sweep by candidates who oppose the district’s reforms could change its direction.

One of those candidates, recent Manual High graduate Tay Anderson, planned the rally, which drew teachers, parents, students and others from across the state. Toward the end, Anderson took the microphone to call out current Denver board members for attending.

“They want to show up when they need your vote!” he said.

“But we can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’”

Board member Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election, was at the rally, holding a sign he made that said, “What is scarier? Grizzly? Or Betsy?” To compare DPS’s policies to those promoted by DeVos, who has criticized the district, “is just a mistake,” he said.

“I think that everybody there, including myself, believes the Trump agenda for public education is disastrous,” Johnson said of rally attendees, “and I think that we ought to be fighting this fight together instead of using it for our own local purposes.”

Johnson was the only DPS board member Chalkbeat saw at the rally. Board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who is also running for re-election, said she asked rally organizers if she could speak but “they made it clear that I wasn’t welcome.”

Some rally speakers appealed directly to DeVos. Denver teacher JoZi Martinez implored her to “leave public education to the experts: we the teachers and the administrators in the trenches.”

“This is not a monarchy and you are clearly not a queen, Ms. DeVos,” she said.

The crowd cheered when she urged DeVos to step down. Pleas to stop voucher programs, reduce standardized testing and provide free community college also got big applause.

Mentions of the group Democrats for Education Reform, which has been active in Denver school board elections, elicited loud boos. When state Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat and former public school music teacher, condemned members of his own party for supporting education reform, rally attendees began chanting “shame, shame!”

After the speeches, Anderson grabbed a bullhorn and led the protesters on a march to the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel. They snaked around the city-block-sized hotel, waving signs and shouting, “This is what democracy looks like!” among other chants.

The annual meeting of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is taking place at the hotel Wednesday through Friday. On Thursday, DeVos is scheduled to address the lawmakers, lobbyists and business leaders from around the country in attendance.

Another target of teachers unions, ALEC is known for providing its members with model legislation and policies that promote free-market education reform principles.