School Vouchers Are a ‘False Road,’ and There’s Data to Prove It

“We’ve not done enough to help kids at the lower end of the socio-economic rungs,” says labor economist and Stanford University professor Martin Carnoy.

It’s not an accident these families, particularly in the African American community, are demanding vouchers, charters, and other forms of choice. But it’s a false road, and one that’s more apt to result in proponents of choice, when faced with the negative consequences of their ideas, turning back on these lower-served communities and saying to them, ‘Well, we gave you a choice. It’s your own fault if you chose the wrong one.’

With President Donald Trump’s appointment of billionaire “school choice” champion Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education, there’s strong speculation in the media that some sort of school voucher plan that allows parents to withdraw their children from public schools and send them to private schools at taxpayer expense will be a significant feature of a new federal education policy.

But a report from the Economic Policy Institute warns that the push toward vouchers and toward making public schools compete for funding is being driven by ideological preferences rather than evidence that competition and choice actually work.

Written by Carnoy, the report states there’s a “lack of evidence that vouchers significantly improve student achievement.” It also lists a number of serious risks that vouchers pose to the public education system, including increased school segregation, additional administrative costs, more reliance on inexperienced teachers, and greater likelihood students who are the most costly and difficult to educate will be turned away or pushed out by private schools that are not obligated to serve all students.

The ideology driving the push for school vouchers and other forms of choice can be attributed to the popular belief among policy makers and politicians of all stripes that market-based competition is the best means for creating positive systemic change, Carnoy told me in a phone interview.

“It’s a policy without evidence,” Carnoy said, and a form of “privatization” that he believes will do great harm in the long run, particularly due to the “diversionary effect” these ideas have in directing policy makers away from measures that are more apt to work.

“More competition flies in the face of what we know would be helpful. It’s purely ideological,” he added.

School vouchers fail

The EPI report’s findings contribute to a significant and growing body of research showing the negative impacts of school voucher programs on student learning and the public education system.

New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey writes, “a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.”

Carey lays out how recent studies of voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio reveal that students who use vouchers to attend private schools tend to fare worse academically, particularly in math, compared to their peers attending public schools.

Competition doesn’t help

Carnoy’s report takes the case against vouchers even further by addressing the assertion, often made by school privatization proponents, that pitting public and private schools against one another raises performance of the public schools which are spurred to improve by the threat of competition.

To take on that argument, Carnoy looked at Milwaukee public schools where a voucher program has been in place for more than twenty years.

“If choice has a significant positive impact on student achievement,” Carnoy argues in his report, “Milwaukee should be among the highest scoring urban school districts in the nation,” and students in “traditional public schools should have made large gains because of the intense competition from private and charter schools.”

But that’s not the case.

Years after the voucher program was put into place, Milwaukee’s African American students, who constitute the majority of students taking advantage of the vouchers, are still among the lowest performing in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Process (NAEP) in math and reading.

Also, while Milwaukee students in general showed gains on the Wisconsin state tests in mathematics from 2007 to 2008, their scores have not improved since. Their gains on state readings tests have not been “significant” either.

Carnoy cites previous research he conducted showing that “a one-time boost to achievement of students in public schools” shortly after Milwaukee’s voucher program started was not sustainable in the long run. “Further improvements did not occur despite increases in voucher uptake,” he writes.

Carnoy added that researchers looking elsewhere in the United States and even outside the country have not found any evidence that private school competition has led to a large sustained increase in public school student performance.

Vouchers’ hidden costs

Carnoy’s report acknowledges studies from Milwaukee and the District of Columbia have found some association between vouchers and improvement in high school graduation rates. But he describes the effects as “significant but small,” especially in relationship to the negative effects of vouchers.

Negative impacts include the propensity of voucher programs to increase racial segregation and their potential to flood the teacher workforce with practitioners who have less training and experience and don’t plan on making teaching a permanent career. Carnoy cited research showing the added administrative costs of a voucher program could “raise public educational expenses by 25 percent or more.”

When balancing the pros and cons of voucher programs, the “ultimate argument,” Carnoy explained to me, is that even if the effects of these programs are a wash, they divert resources and energy from more helpful programs, including high quality early childhood education, increased education funding, and teacher professional development focused on delivering better instruction.

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