Private School Vouchers Don’t Improve Student Achievement

The US public school advocacy organisation Public Funds, Public Schools has published a review of recent studies of vouchers in the US. The studies show that private school vouchers have not improved student achievement and have multiple negative effects including exacerbating social segregation in schools. The findings on student achievement are reproduced below. The full review is available here.

A 2019 study on the academic effects of the Louisiana voucher program by researchers at the University of Arkansas found that after four years, students using the vouchers to attend private schools “performed noticeably worse on state assessments than their [public school] control group counterparts.” The data showed “large negative effects” on assessment results, especially in math. The results of this study conducted over a longer timeframe appeared to contradict earlier claims that the negative academic effects of the Louisiana voucher program could be temporary. A 2019 companion study found that participation in the Louisiana voucher program did not improve rates of college enrollment.

A 2019 evaluation by the Institute for Education Sciences entitled “Evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts Three Years After Students Applied” found that the Washington, D.C. voucher program had no statistically significant effect on student achievement in reading or math after three years. It also concluded that the program did not improve parent satisfaction with schools or perceptions of school safety.

A 2018 evaluation by the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Alabama of the academic achievement of Alabama’s tax credit voucher recipients during the 2016-2017 school year found that, “On average, over time, participating in the scholarship program was not associated with significant improvement on standardized test scores.” The results of the state-mandated evaluation showed that “scholarship recipients generally performed below the average U.S. student at their grade level.”

A 2018 longitudinal study of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management found that low-income students who switched from public to private school using a voucher starting in the 2011-12 school year experienced, on average, an achievement loss of 0.15 standard deviations in mathematics on the statewide standardized assessment during their first year of private school compared to matched students who remained in public schools. This loss remained consistent regardless of the length of time spent in private school, therefore contradicting the claim that loss in achievement is the result of student adjustment to private school. A 2019 study published in the Russel Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences found significant losses in academic achievement for Indiana students who used a voucher to move from public to private school.

A 2018 report by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) evaluated the impact of Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) after two years of participation in the program. Math scores were a statistically significant 10 percentile points lower for students who used a private school voucher compared with students who applied but did not receive a voucher. The year before, IES had found that one year into the program, math scores were a statistically significant 7.3 percentile points lower for students who used a private school voucher compared with students who applied but did not receive a voucher.

A 2018 study entitled “Does Attendance in Private Schools Predict Student Outcomes at Age 15? Evidence From a Longitudinal Study,” found that in unadjusted models, American students who attended private schools had better academic and social outcomes at age 15, however, these advantages were eliminated after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics. Low-income children or children enrolled in urban schools did not benefit more from private school enrollment.

A 2018 study summarized the impact of Indiana’s Choice Program on student achievement. The study found that students who used a voucher to transfer to private schools experienced an average loss of 3-4 percentile points in mathematics. The largest loss occurred during years one and two. Voucher students began to show improvement by their fourth year in a private school, but performed no better than their public school counterparts. The research found that in English language arts, there was no statistically significant difference in achievement.

A 2018 report by the Center for American Progress entitled “The Highly Negative Effects of Vouchers” compared the negative effects of participation in the Washington, D.C. voucher program with other negative factors such as feeling unsafe in school and teacher turnover. The authors found that attending a voucher school had a larger negative effect on math achievement than all other factors they reviewed. This was equivalent to the impact of losing one-third of a school year of learning.

A 2017 report by the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute entitled “School Vouchers Are Not a Proven Strategy for Improving Student Achievement,” stated: “In the only area in which there is evidence of small improvements in voucher schools – in high school graduation and college enrollment rates – there is no data to show whether the gains are the result of schools shedding lower-performing students or engaging in positive practices.” Regarding student achievement, the report concluded, “In the few cases in which test scores increased, other factors, namely increased public accountability, not private school comparison, seem to be the more likely drivers.”

A 2016 study of Louisiana’s private school voucher program found that students who performed at about the 50th percentile in math and reading prior to participation in the voucher program dropped approximately 24 percentage points in their first year of private school. These students performed slightly better in their second year but still well below non-voucher students in both math and reading.

A 2016 study of the Ohio private school voucher program conducted by a conservative think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and funded by the pro-voucher Walton Foundation, found voucher students “have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools…Such impacts also appear to persist over time, suggesting that the results are not driven simply by the setbacks that typically accompany any change of school.”

A 2015 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research compared outcomes of school voucher lottery winning and losing students in Louisiana’s Scholarship Program (LSP) (private school voucher program), finding that “This comparison reveals that LSP participation substantially reduced academic achievement.”

A 2011 review by the non-partisan Center on Education Policy concluded: “Since 2000, more evidence has accumulated about the impact of vouchers on student test scores, particularly from longer-term studies of publicly funded voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and D.C. …these studies have generally found no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private schools with vouchers.”

A 2008 Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Working Paper reviewing “empirical evidence on the impact of education vouchers on student achievement,” stated that, “The best research to date finds relatively small achievement gains for students offered education vouchers, most of which are not statistically different from zero.”

Other findings from the studies are:

  • Private school vouchers divert funding from public schools.
  • Voucher programs lack accountability.
  • The absence of oversight leads to corruption and waste.
  • Voucher programs do not help students with disabilities.
  • Voucher schools are allowed to discriminate against certain groups of students and families.
  • Voucher programs exacerbate segregation.
  • Universal voucher programs don’t work.

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