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.

the secretary speaks

In departure from Trump, Betsy DeVos calls out ‘racist bigots’ in Charlottesville

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos condemned “white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots” in an email to her staff Thursday — without mentioning President Trump, whose equivocal stance on the racist violence in Charlottesville last weekend has drawn widespread criticism.

“While we should be anticipating and celebrating students’ returns to campuses across the country, we are engaged in a national discussion that has stirred ugly, hate-filled conversations and reopened hurtful wounds from shameful portions of our nation’s past,” DeVos wrote.

The letter was more pointed — describing the racist views as “cowardly, hateful and just plain wrong” — than DeVos’ initial tweets on the events. She has been silent since those posts until now.

 

In her email to staff, she emphasized that individuals, and schools, had a part in combating hatred.

“We can all play a role. Mentor a student. Volunteer at a school. Lend a helping hand and offer a listening ear,” she wrote.

But DeVos did not specify what role, if any, the department’s policymaking would play. She has received persistent criticism from civil rights groups for proposed federal budget cuts, her stance on discrimination of LGBT students, and her appointment to head the Office of Civil Rights. (DeVos specifically notes that, “Our Department, and particularly the Office for Civil Rights, exists to ensure all students have equal access to a safe, nurturing, quality learning environment free from discrimination or intimidation.”)

Meanwhile, criticism of Trump and Devos from education advocates has intensified in recent days.

New York City charter school leader Eva Moskowitz — who was initially considered for the job DeVos now holds, and who led Ivanka Trump on a school tour — released a strongly worded letter condemning the Trump administration (though she did not mention DeVos). On Twitter, Kevin Huffman, the charter-friendly former Tennessee education commissioner, called on DeVos to resign, saying, “It is not viable to serve all kids under a POTUS who defends and encourages white supremacy.”

This is on top of persistent hostility from many left-of-center charter advocates, including one of DeVos’s predecessors, Arne Duncan, who called bumps in federal spending for charters “blood money” if they came alongside to Trump’s proposed cuts to education.

The note was sent to staff, rather than posted as a press release. DeVos has not been shy in the past about weighing in on topics beyond education — she quickly issued a statement praising Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate change agreement, for example.

Here’s the text of her letter:

Team,

I write today with a heavy heart for our country. While we should be anticipating and celebrating students’ returns to campuses across the country, we are engaged in a national discussion that has stirred ugly, hate-filled conversations and reopened hurtful wounds from shameful portions of our nation’s past.

There is fear, pain, anger, disappointment, discouragement and embarrassment across America, and I know, too, here within the Department.

Last weekend’s tragic and unthinkable events in Charlottesville, which stole three innocent lives and injured many more, were wholly unacceptable. The views of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots are totally abhorrent to the American ideal. We all have a role to play in rejecting views that pit one group of people against another. Such views are cowardly, hateful and just plain wrong.

This is what makes our work so important. Our Department, and particularly the Office for Civil Rights, exists to ensure all students have equal access to a safe, nurturing, quality learning environment free from discrimination or intimidation.

Our own difficult history reminds us that we must confront, head-on, problems when and where they exist with moral clarity and conviction. Our nation is greater than what it has shown in recent days.

Violence and hate will never be the answer. We must engage, debate and educate. We must remind all what it means to be an American, and while far from perfect, we must never lose sight that America still stands as the brightest beacon for freedom in the world.

My hope is that we will use this as an opportunity to show that what unites and holds America together is far stronger than what seeks to divide and draw us apart. We can all play a role. Mentor a student. Volunteer at a school. Lend a helping hand and offer a listening ear.

Our work is truly the bridge to a stronger future. Let’s recommit ourselves to ensuring the future is brighter for all.

Betsy

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.