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Do school vouchers ‘work’? As the debate heats up, here’s what research really says

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence in Miami.

The heated national debate about whether families should get public money to send their kids to private schools is full of big questions.

Do vouchers raise test scores or lower them? Do they help or hurt students over the long term? Do they damage public schools or push them to improve?

Chalkbeat combed through some of the most rigorous academic studies to get the answers.

Two caveats before we begin: First, context matters. Researchers look at specific programs at certain times with their own sets of rules. New initiatives — like a dramatic expansion of private school choice programs of the sort the Trump administration has promised — could mean entering uncharted waters, where past research becomes a less reliable guide.

Second, the voucher debate is often based on values. Research studies can’t answer philosophical questions on whether public money should go to religious schools or if providing more choices for parents is an inherent good.

With that in mind, here’s what you should know:

Recent studies suggest that vouchers lower student test scores in the short-run. But students who stay in private schools sometimes improve over time.

In the last couple of years, a spate of studies have shown that voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington D.C. hurt student achievement — often causing moderate to large declines.

In Louisiana, after two years in the program, a student who started at 53rd percentile of performance had dropped to the 37th percentile in math. In D.C., students using a voucher fell seven percentile points in math and five points in reading after one year, compared to students who applied for a voucher but didn’t get one.

Advocates have pushed back, saying the programs were new and should be given more time to prove they work. Studies out of Indiana and Louisiana give some credence to that view.

In Indiana, students in the program saw initial dips in math achievement, but by year four those still in private school had caught up to their public-school peers. And in English, voucher students actually seemed to make gains after four years. These results, though, only applied to those who stayed in the program for four consecutive years.

In Louisiana, students in the upper elementary school grades saw huge test score drops in years one and two. Students caught up by year three in math and reading, though they still appeared to lag behind in social studies. Younger elementary students saw consistently big test score drops in math and social studies, though for methodological reasons, the researchers were less confident in these results.

The Ohio study showed that even three years into the program, the negative impacts of using a private school voucher persisted.

Older studies tended to show neutral or modest positive effects of vouchers on academic performance, and until recently, few if any studies had shown that vouchers actually led to lower achievement among students who received them. It’s not clear what has changed, but one theory is that public schools have improved — or at least gotten better at raising test scores — in response to accountability measures like No Child Left Behind.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students sewing during a class at the School for Community Learning, a progressive Indianapolis private school that depends on vouchers.

A handful of older studies show that vouchers have a positive or neutral impact on student outcomes later in life, like attending college or graduating high school.

Some supporters of vouchers downplay the recent studies by pointing to research on the longer-run effects of the programs. Here the studies are more positive, but they’re also limited and fairly old. In each case, the researchers looked at students who entered voucher programs at least a decade ago — a necessary trade-off when looking at long-term outcomes.

A study of Milwaukee’s long-running voucher program found that participants were more likely to graduate high school and attend four-year colleges. A 2010 federal analysis of the D.C. voucher program found that its students were 21 percentage points more likely to complete high school (according to a survey of their parents, not a direct measure of graduation). A private school scholarship program in New York did not lead to improvements in college enrollment on average, but did seem to have a positive effect for black and Hispanic students specifically.

It remains an open question whether the more recent initiatives can expect those results. The three older programs weren’t hurting test scores in the short term; all had positive or no effects on scores.

Vouchers or tax credit programs lead to test score gains in public schools.

There is a large body of evidence suggesting that public schools improve in response to competition from school voucher or tax credit programs, at least as measured by test scores.

This has been seen in studies of Florida, Louisiana, Milwaukee, Ohio, San Antonio, and even Canada. As a recent research overview put it, “Evidence on both small-scale and large-scale programs suggests that competition induced by vouchers leads public schools to improve.”

The impact, though, is often fairly small and can dissipate over time. There do not appear to be any studies on the effect of voucher competition on measures other than test scores.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education

Attending a private school may improve parent satisfaction, particularly when it comes to school safety.

Families tend to be more satisfied with private schools, though it’s not clear why.

The older D.C. study showed that families who received vouchers had higher rates of parent (but not student) satisfaction. The latest D.C. analysis showed parents perceived private schools as safer and seemed more satisfied with them overall, though the results weren’t statistically significant.

An older report by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, found that families of students with disabilities using a voucher in Florida were dramatically more satisfied with the new private school than their previous public school. A recent analysis of national data showed that private-school parents were also more satisfied than those sending their children to public schools — though it could not establish cause and effect.

We know almost nothing about how tax credit tuition programs affect students who participate.

Despite their expansion in recent years, tax credit programs — which use generous tax breaks to incentivize donations to organizations that then offer private school scholarships — have rarely been studied.

These programs are similar to school vouchers, in that they redirect taxpayer dollars to private schools, but they tend to be significantly less regulated. For instance, they usually do not require participating private schools to take state tests or, in some cases, any standardized tests at all. That’s part of why there’s so little research on how using one of those scholarships affects students.

The only program that has been rigorously studied, Florida’s tax credit scholarship — the largest in the country — had either no effect or small positive effects on student test scores. But that was only prior to 2010; since then, changes to testing requirements have made direct comparisons to public school students impossible.

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.