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 once 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, especially in math.

In the last few years, a spate of studies have shown that voucher programs in IndianaLouisianaOhio, 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 the 53rd percentile dropped to the 37th percentile in math. In D.C., students using a voucher fell 10 percentile points in math and about 4 points in reading after two years, 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. There’s only mixed evidence that scores eventually improve though.

In Indiana, students in the program saw initial dips in math that persisted for four year years. (An earlier version of the same study found evidence of bounce back among students who remained in private schools.) In English, there was some evidence that voucher students improved over time, though there was no statistically significant effect after four 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 lagged 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. In DC, negative effects in math remained after two years.

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 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 research is somewhat more positive, but the studies are also limited and generally older. In each case, the researchers looked at students who entered voucher programs many years ago — a necessary trade-off when examining 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 recent follow-up study confirmed these results, but found that vouchers had no statistically significant effect on students’ likelihood of actually completing college.

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). But a 2018 follow-up analysis found that voucher recipients were no more likely to enroll in college.

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. A 2017 study of Florida’s school tax credit, the largest private school choice program in the country, found that it led to increases in college enrollment but had limited effects on degree completion.

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

recent study of Louisiana’s program — the one that initially showed big declines in test scores for elementary and middle school students — found that students who won a voucher to attend their top-ranked private high school were 6 percentage points more likely to enroll in college than students who lost the lottery. The difference, though, was not statistically significant, meaning the researchers can’t confidently say that the voucher made the difference.

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 and students perceived private schools as substantially safer; parents also seemed more satisfied with them overall, though these 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 very little 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, 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. A more recent study looking at students who entered the program between 2004 and 2010 found that it boosted college attendance.

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.

color blind

The feds are discouraging districts from using race to integrate schools. A new study points to a potential downside

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Trump administration recently made waves by removing Obama-era guidance that offered ways for school districts to consider students’ race in order to diversify and integrate schools. The rollback could have harmful consequences for students, according to a new study.

The paper offers a test case of the rule, and it suggests that move — at least if it affects any districts’ policies — could hurt academic outcomes, including college enrollment, by making racial segregation worse, although the study only focuses on a single district.

“There’s a general sense that student outcomes are going down in these schools that are more racially segregated from these race-neutral admissions,” said Jason Cook, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the study.

The paper, which has not been formally peer reviewed, focuses on an anonymous urban school district that, after a federal investigation in the early 2000s, was forced to end race-conscious admissions to its coveted magnet middle schools. To maintain some diversity in its student body, the district ran separate lotteries for black and non-black (largely white) students. After the federal mandate, though, the district put all students in one lottery, and in turn the schools became notably more segregated — rising from about 77 percent to 85 percent black.

After the policy from 2003 to 2007, the research finds that the spike in segregation corresponded to a decrease in college enrollment for black students by a couple percentage points. There was also an indication of modest declines in test scores in sixth grade and in high school graduation rates, though these results weren’t statistically significant for black students. There was no clear impact on 10th-grade test scores.

These effects aren’t huge, but neither was the increase in segregation, and the results generally point in a negative direction.

Separately, the paper shows that in general magnet schools in that district were less effective when they were made up of predominantly black students, perhaps because they have a higher concentration of struggling students and recruit lower-quality teachers.

The paper also shows that as schools became more predominantly black, more of their white students left, creating a vicious cycle that intensified segregation. “Racial segregation is self-perpetuating,” concludes Cook.

The district in question did not attempt to use race-neutral measures, like poverty status, to promote integration. Research, though, has shown that such approaches are less effective for achieving racial integration than considering race directly.

There is one particularly important caveat to the results, though: The policy change meant that more black students had access to in-demand, high-performing magnet schools. That is, in changing the lottery to stop what amounted to preferences for non-black students, the shift increased segregation but it also meant that a small number of black students had access to top schools they otherwise might not have.

That remains a key point of contention in other cities debating integration. In Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, a longstanding court decision has prioritized the creation of integrated magnets — done in part by giving white students from the suburbs preference in admissions to magnet schools in the city. After a local newspaper series looked into this practice, critics said the system was effectively shutting out local students from the best schools; supporters contended that the rules are necessary to prevent resegregation of those schools.

The latest study can’t answer knotty philosophical questions about how to divvy up seats in coveted schools, but it does suggest each side has a point — admissions rules do, by definition, keep some kids out, but removing those rules can lead to unintended consequences, including making those schools less effective.

Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who has studied school segregation and is writing a book on the topic, pointed out that the latest study has limits. “That particular paper is focused on one specific district, so even if it’s done really well, you still would want to consider whether [it applies in] other districts,” he said.

But Johnson said the findings are largely consistent with past research including his own, which focused on school desegregation efforts in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. “For African-Americans we saw significant impacts,” he said. “High school graduation rates increased, college attendance and college completion rates increased, the type of colleges they attended were more selective, …[there were] increases in earnings, reductions in annual incidence of poverty.”

More recent research has shown that the resegregation of districts led to dips in high school graduation rates among black and Hispanic students. A school integration program on the San Francisco Peninsula caused jumps in test scores and college enrollment (though also arrest rates for non-violent crimes).

In recent decades, as court-mandated integration orders have ended, race-based segregation has gotten worse or held steady, depending on how it’s measured; income-based stratification has consistently worsened. The recent move by the Trump administration is not legally binding, and only a small number of districts have voluntary race-conscious integration policies in place.

Johnson, for his part, fears that defeatism has overtaken the urgency to integrate schools. Some people, Johnson said, have the mindset that “we can’t socially engineer integration.”

“The reality is we did socially engineer segregation,” he said. “It would be natural to understand that we might have to re-engineer that through some intentional policy.”

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.