Louisiana School Voucher Scheme Reduces Student Achievement

In the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Department of Education took the opportunity to turn the state’s education system into a vast experiment in free market education. The large majority of public schools in New Orleans were turned into privately operated charter schools that are publicly funded and a voucher scheme was introduced which provided public funds for students to attend private schools.

The whole experiment has been a massive failure.

Last year a major study published by the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University found that the New Orleans changes have created a set of schools that are highly stratified by race, class, and educational advantage. The most selective, highest achieving, best-resourced and most sought after schools within this system are out of reach of the large majority of students in the public schools in New Orleans.

Now a new study published this month by the US National Bureau of Economic Research shows that the voucher scheme has reduced student achievement. The researcher found that the scheme has lowered mean test scores and increased the likelihood of failure in math, reading, science and social studies.

The rapidly growing Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) is the fifth-largest voucher program in the United States. It provides public funds for disadvantaged students at low-performing Louisiana public schools to attend private schools of their choice. LSP vouchers are allocated by random lottery at schools with more applicants than available places. This feature enabled researchers to estimate the causal effect of the voucher by comparing outcomes for lottery winners and losers in the first year after the program expanded state-wide.

This comparison reveals that LSP participation substantially reduced student results. It lowered average mathematics scores by 0.4 standard deviations which is a large reduction. It also reduced science and social studies results by a large amount, while the decrease in reading was small. The study also found that receipt of a voucher increased the likelihood of a failing score by between 24 and 50 per cent.

The study also found that these impacts were similar across family income levels and geographic locations. The effects were more negative in earlier grades, though vouchers reduce achievement in later grades as well.

The study concludes that the negative effects of the program “reflect low private school effectiveness”.

Trevor Cobbold

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