a chalkbeat cheat sheet

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.

Voucher programs targeted at low-income students are not likely to increase segregation — but a larger-scale program might.

There is surprisingly little research on the effects of private school choice programs on segregation. Existing studies have not found evidence that voucher programs targeted at low-income students worsen segregation. A recent study in Louisiana pointed to positive effects of vouchers on integration, while an older analysis of Milwaukee showed no impact.

However — based on research in other countries and other school choice initiatives including charter schools — there is reason to worry that a large-scale voucher program open to families regardless of income would exacerbate segregation. Prominent school choice advocates generally back a dramatic expansion of this sort.

choice for most

Chalkbeat explains: When can private schools discriminate against students?

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

Over $16 million of public funds went to Indiana private schools with anti-LGBT policies last year, a recent Chalkbeat investigation found.

You might be asking: Is it legal to discriminate against those students?

The answer is yes, and that’s become a focus of the national debate about school choice. (U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fanned the flames on this one when she offered ambiguous answers about whether all students would be welcome in schools that participated in a potential national voucher program.)

But the rules are tricky when it comes to private schools, especially religious ones. Here’s your guide to understanding when, why and how private schools can say no to certain students.

Are there laws in place that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

There is no federal legislation explicitly protecting LGBT students from discrimination in schools. That means when it comes to gender and sexuality, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex — is the main piece of legislation in play.

Title IX applies to private schools that accept federal funds — and many private schools do, usually through school breakfast or lunch programs, grants, or funding for low-income students.

However, some schools qualify for exemptions. All-boys or all-girls schools are allowed to restrict their admissions accordingly, for example.

Most important to the discussion of LGBT students: Private schools run by religious organizations are exempt “to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.” A majority of private schools in the U.S. are religious, which means that most private schools are free to discriminate against LGBT students on religious grounds.

In Indiana, Chalkbeat found that at least 27 schools that accept vouchers have policies that suggest or declare that LGBT students are unwelcome.

What about private schools that aren’t religious?

At non-religious private schools, Title IX’s nondiscrimination rules do apply. But a change in interpretation means the law offers fewer protections to transgender students than it has in the past.

Under the Obama administration, the ban on discriminating on the basis of sex was interpreted as related either to biological sex or to gender identity. However, the Trump administration rescinded guidance on that front — meaning the federal government considers Title IX to only bar discrimination based on a student’s biological sex.

Do any states have laws that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

Many states have implemented their own nondiscrimination policies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity — in the world of public education. But no voucher programs have such policies in place, research shows.

As a result, private schools are free to turn away LGBT students while still receiving public funding for accepting vouchers.

What about other forms of discrimination?

Private schools can’t discriminate on the basis of race if they want tax-exempt status. The executive director of the Council for American Private Education, Joe McTighe, said he wasn’t “familiar with any nonprofit private schools that elect against tax-exempt status.”

If private schools accept federal funds, they are also bound to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.

When it comes to students with disabilities, private schools have more leeway to turn students away.

This is partly because students who choose to attend a private school — including through a voucher program — forfeit their right to a “free appropriate public education” that they are otherwise guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Another law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, bars discrimination on the basis of disability and requires private schools to accept students so long as only “minor adjustments” are needed to accommodate them. But it exempts religiously run private schools.

Under a third law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, those protections apply to religious schools, too — if the school receives federal funds.

choice for most

Choice for most: In nation’s largest voucher program, $16 million went to schools with anti-LGBT policies

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

When it comes to school choice, options are more limited for Indiana’s LGBT students.

Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington recently made headlines for promising students an excellent, “biblically integrated” education — unless they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The school also received more than $650,000 in public funds last year through the state’s voucher program.

The school’s admissions policy has made Lighthouse the focus of an intensifying national debate: whether private schools that discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity should be able to receive taxpayer dollars.

But as that debate heats up, it’s been unclear how many schools have policies like Lighthouse’s.

Chalkbeat tried to find out. In Indiana, over 34,299 students used vouchers to attend a private school last fall, making it the largest such program in the country. It’s also a program that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has applauded — which means Indiana offers a helpful glimpse at how a DeVos-led national expansion of vouchers might shape up.

Our investigation found that roughly one in 10 of Indiana’s voucher schools publicly shares a policy suggesting or declaring that LGBT students are not welcome. Together, the 27 schools received over $16 million in public funds for participating last year.

Many private, religious schools are also accredited by a group that provides advice about how to turn away LGBT students. Given that nearly 20 percent of schools do not publicize their admissions policies, the true number of schools with anti-LGBT policies is unclear.

“These findings are likely an understatement,” said Steve Suitts, a professor who has researched discrimination against LGBT students in Georgia’s voucher program.

However, Chalkbeat did not find public, discriminatory policies at the vast majority of schools. In fact, many had rules in place to protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Legally speaking, private schools are allowed to turn away LGBT students — and many voucher proponents say it’s important to provide families with the option to attend schools that can instill students with their religious values.

There is no federal legislation explicitly protecting LGBT students from discrimination in schools, and no statewide voucher programs offer their own protections based on sexual orientation. (Students are typically protected from discrimination based on race and national origin.)

But as DeVos pushes for a national expansion of voucher programs, she’s sent mixed messages about discrimination. It’s wrong “in any form,” she’s said. But when grilled by senators on the issue in June, she used the same response 14 times: “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.”

By the numbers

As of May, 302 schools are eligible to accept vouchers in Indiana. Of the 27 schools that have anti-LGBT policies, 19 state that they can either refuse to admit or expel students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity on religious grounds.

Six schools require parents to affirm that “homosexual behavior,” among other items, “is sinful and offensive to God,” and two schools limited students’ bathroom use to their biological sex.

The vast majority of Indiana’s private schools accepting vouchers do not mention gender or sexuality in their school policies or handbooks. For over 60 schools that don’t share either of those documents online, Chalkbeat reached out to discuss their policies.

Another 27 schools offer specific protections for LGBT students. (Explore policies by school, county and city here.)

Policies in practice

Victory Christian Academy in Northwest Indiana is among the schools that publicly shares an explicitly discriminatory admissions policy. It received $630,000 for enrolling 160 students using vouchers last school year.

The school’s handbook states that it reserves the right to refuse admission to or remove a student “if the atmosphere or the conduct within a particular home or the activities of the student” crosses certain lines, including LGBT activity.

However, a former administrator at Victory said that no students had ever been turned away because of their sexuality. He described the policy as a warning meant to reduce conflict.

“We’re not trying to block anyone from our school,” said Tony Clymer. “We’re just trying to stay in the affirmative what kind of school we are, what we hold to be near and dear.”

“If that doesn’t match with your family,” he added, “we’d rather know up front rather than for your student to be here or you to be here and find out later.”

Administrators at Lakeland Christian Academy, which has a policy similar to Victory’s, told Chalkbeat — and Lighthouse previously told the Indianapolis Star — that their school had never refused admission to a student because they identified as LGBT.

Enrollment at these institutions is often framed as entering into a mutual agreement, such that the students attending them are on board with every aspect of the school’s mission.

“It’s our role to work in conjunction with the home to mold students to be Christ-like. If your goal is not to become more Christ-like, this school doesn’t make sense,” Clymer said. “It would be like sending your child to a magnet school for the arts when your child has no desire to be in the arts.”

What happens if a student who is already enrolled begins to question their sexuality or gender?

Joy Lavender, an administrator at Lakeland last year, said a guidance counselor would talk with the student and that the school would contact their parents to determine a course of action.

“Our goal here at Lakeland is not necessarily, ‘You do something wrong, you’re kicked out,’” Lavender said. “Our reason for expulsion for any kind of infraction is because we feel like that student is not able to be restored or that they’re not salvageable or they’re very negative about the things we believe in.”

Lavender noted that students at Lakeland have questioned their sexuality, but “it never became an issue, so they graduated from here.”

The mentality is the same at Victory, where Clymer said students question their sexuality “every year, all the time.” The school’s response is to encourage students to take on their role found in the Bible, which is defined as as entering into a marriage between a man and a woman.

Guiding principles

Lakeland, Lighthouse and Victory Christian Academies have something else in common: their accreditation.

More than half of schools — 14 out of 27 — with anti-LGBT policies were accredited by Association of Christian Schools International, which has more than 3,000 member schools in the U.S. The pro school-choice group provides its members with a handbook titled “Steps Your School Can Take When Dealing With Homosexual Issues.”

See for yourself: A side-by-side comparison of ACSI’s suggested policy and one of its member schools’ policy on LGBT students.

The book suggests that schools say they may refuse admissions to or expel a student for “participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activity, or bisexual activity.” In most cases, ACSI member schools used the same wording.

The handbook also recommends that schools ask for a reference from a pastor. If “a parent of a young child indicates that he or she is in a homosexual lifestyle,” it advises school officials to tell the parent that their child will be denied admission.

If a school and a student reach an “impasse” regarding sexual orientation or gender identity issues, the handbook recommends the school “disenroll,” rather than expel, the student to avoid legal problems.

Despite the book’s advice, ACSI’s director of legal and legislative issues said he hoped schools are a safe place for kids questioning their sexuality.

“We’d want them to know that they could talk to their teachers or their school leaders about these things and they would be able to help them,” said Tom Cathey.

Thirty-three of ACSI’s member schools are eligible to receive vouchers next fall, making it the second-largest religious accrediting group among schools in Indiana’s voucher program. The largest religious accreditor in Indiana is the National Catholic Education Association, with 110 schools — and the group takes a different approach when it comes to LGBT students.

None of NCEA’s member schools shared anti-LGBT policies on their websites, and 12 of its schools offered protections for LGBT students in the form of anti-bullying or anti-harassment policies. (The group’s director of public relations, Margaret Kaplow, said the NCEA “does not lobby for or against policy of any kind.”)

Roncalli High School is one of NCEA’s schools to offer its LGBT students protections. The Indianapolis Catholic school’s anti-harassment policy states, “No racist, sexist or homophobic expression, language or behavior will be tolerated.”

Its co-director of guidance, Shelly Fitzgerald, said Roncalli aims to provide a positive environment for all students, including those who identify as LGBT.

“We counsel all kids the same, in terms of relationships, things that they go through — heterosexual or bisexual or questioning,” Fitzgerald said. If students aren’t comfortable talking with guidance counselors, she said, they can be referred to the school’s social worker or outside support groups, such as Indiana Youth Group.

Still, there are restrictions at some of NCEA’s member schools on how open students can be about their sexual orientation. Three define students’ dates as members of the opposite sex when they discuss school dances or prom in their handbooks.

Ambiguity and politics

The vast majority of schools in Indiana don’t mention LGBT students in their policies.

Suitts said he thinks recent media focus has pushed headmasters and school boards to be less clear on this front.

“Before, there was a greater tendency of headmasters to be verbal or forthcoming even if they didn’t have an explicit policy about whether they would accept gay students,” Suitts said. “But the Supreme Court decision and litigation, the whole discussion that’s going on, has made them much more obtuse on this issue publicly.”

However, supporters of school choice say that different belief systems are what make school choice important — even if some students are left out.

“I find it abhorrent that there are schools that say that children who themselves are gay are not welcome there,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice. “But if we believe in a pluralist system, then there’s got to be room — again, for what I may find abhorrent — to be a part of that, if we believe it’s important for parents, especially low-income and working class parents, to get to have a choice.”

Suzanne Eckes, a professor who has researched discrimination in private school voucher programs, said that allowing some schools to discriminate against LGBT students on the basis of religion is no different than racial discrimination.

“People say just don’t apply to one of those schools,” Eckes said. “And that doesn’t sit well with me, because we made the same argument in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s about black kids.”

Although DeVos has promised to unveil a national school choice initiative, it falls on states to decide whether private schools receiving public funds can discriminate based on sexual orientation — a decision, the education secretary has argued, that should continue to be made at the local level.