If Evidence Mattered…

I post fairly frequently about my multiple problems with school voucher programs, and I apologize for the repetition, but really!

Vouchers tend to be a “work around” the First Amendment–a mechanism for transferring tax dollars to religious schools; they steal critical resources from public schools that need those resources; they are re-segregating the schools…I could go on.

Vouchers were marketed as a mechanism allowing poor kids to escape from failing public systems and enroll instead in private schools that would give them a much better education. Proponents also argued that having to compete for students would lead to the improvement of the public schools.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Vouchers are increasingly used by families that would have and could have sent their children to parochial schools with or without them (in Indiana, families making up to 100,000 a year); meanwhile, starving public schools of resources doesn’t exactly help them improve.

Most significantly, research consistently shows that those “superior” private/parochial schools have failed to improve the educational outcomes of the children who use vouchers to attend them.

Brookings recently added to the available evidence

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

The four different studies analyzed by Brookings used four different methodologies, but arrived at the same conclusion: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students who do not attend private schools. The four recent studies thus replicated the results of eight previous research projects, which Brookings also referenced.

The Trump Administration–and especially Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education–have been pushing voucher expansion. DeVos was largely responsible for the expansion of charter and voucher schools in Michigan, and does not appear to be deterred by the fact that student performance declined dramatically. An article in a Michigan newspaper, reproduced in the Washington Post, reported

In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices, thanks to the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools.

What remains in short supply is quality.

In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.

On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.

Or if you live downtown, you could try Woodward Academy, a charter that has limped along near the bottom of school achievement since 1998, while its operator has been allowed to expand into other communities.

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.

There is much more, and I encourage anyone interested in DeVos’ success in destroying Michigan education to click through, or to Google the numerous other articles chronicling the decline.

As the Brookings article notes, it used to be rare for policy initiatives to be expanded in the face of evidence that those initiatives are having negative effects on key outcomes. But this is an anti-evidence administration. Zealotry, religious convictions and (in Trump’s case) gut instinct–seasoned with breathtaking ignorance– are what guide policy prescriptions in Trump’s Washington.


  1. All that Devos is interested in is the profit schools produce, not the quality of the student.

  2. What are local statistics on these same issues? I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren in charter schools and some are voucher students. Even at high school levels they don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re” or “there” and “their” and their speaking and writing skills would have failed English Grammar classes when I was in public school. These are intelligent children and young people at all levels of this “education” system.

    I have been a member of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education (ICPE) for a few years and more recently a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Their reports show little, if any, headway being made in their struggle to provide quality education for all students. Assistance for Special Education and disabled students has always been lacking or non-existent.

    Locally we have had special taxes added to the cost of gas and to register our vehicles and Mayor Hogsett recently received a few million dollars in grant money to fill pot holes…then return in a few months to fill the same pot holes again. This city has a special fund to pay a small percentage for vehicle damage such as tire/wheel damage or blowouts caused by pot holes if that specific pot hole has been reported and is on the city’s list to be filled. There was a referendum on our last ballot to add a minimal tax to increase teacher’s salaries; it passed but where is it now? The number and amount of taxes specifically designated for infrastructure repair by far surpasses any aid the public education. Instead, the voucher system increasingly depletes the public education tax budget.

    I suppose there is a brighter side to our local picture; we will soon be supplied with an overabundance of adults qualified to fill pot holes.

  3. Jeffrey, I’d say Betsy is more interested in not paying taxes, and since we spend big dollars on education, she wants to shrink the education budget “hoping” the market will fill in the gaps.

    Once they reach economies of scale, the game will be over for public schools. Hedge fund managers will buy up the charters in ripe locations and start pumping Wall Street dollars into the schools.

    Free schools will be the refuge of the poor from the inner city who have zero mobility.

    We have the capacity for EdTech but for some reason; it has been stifled. Can the teachers be on video instructing the kids? Specific instruction based on each kids learning capacity?

    How many different institutions would collapse under EdTech? Play it forward to see all the possibilities.

    What would happen to all our high priced diploma mills and book publishers?

    We already have the capacity, but once again, the political will to pull the trigger is lacking due to the For-Profit models who throw tons of money at politicians.

  4. The competition and ‘choice’ that was supposed to improve schools in Michigan has instead sent them to the bottom of test scores nationally.

    In state after state – including Indiana – Republican lawmakers who didn’t think they had enough money for the public school system have drained public schools to fund TWO school systems – traditional public schools and charters. (With vouchers, Indiana is funding THREE school systems.) Charters do not have publicly elected school boards and are usually privately managed. There is little or no transparency and accountability to the public, so parents’ only option is to uproot their children and move them to another school. Taxpayers with no children in charters (or voucher schools) have NO way to hold charter and voucher schools accountable.

    As long as Indiana’s GOP has super-majorities in both houses, the outcomes of charters and voucher schools will make no difference to them. (The GOP is still protecting the horrendous virtual charter school profiteers who took taxpayer money for students they didn’t enroll.)

    Indiana has too many Betsy Devos clones in our own legislature.

  5. Maybe we need to recruit someone to go on FOX News to explain what’s happening. That way most of the people of Indiana would hear it for the first time. They might even feel compelled to vote out the Republicans.

  6. Betsy DeVos is taking programs developed in the Bush administration a supercharging them. When was the last time the Education Department was run by someone who knew anything about education? Or someone who cared about education enough to be an advocate for improvement instead of a free-market fanatic?

  7. However, if we can prevent the future generations from learning how to be smart enough to be leaders, then this country will have a plethora of slaves who can be forced to work at even lower wages than are now offered. This will enable the corporations to bring back jobs to this country. It will be good for the country. Right?

    Sigh…..sorry about the sarcasm this morning.

  8. Nancy; when the local Rolls Royce plant here put over 2,000 workers out of work, they later offered former employees the opportunity to reapply for their old jobs…at minimum wage. Years ago when Western Electric shut down; workers were offered transfer opportunities to Florida, Oklahoma and Hong Kong. The Hong Kong jobs were at minimum wage but offered government housing and a free bicycle.

    Corporations are the “people” who rule this country today and control the business of education, the only jobs they are not outsourcing to other countries. That could be because American students are not required to learn any foreign language and are barely taught English, many no longer teach cursive handwriting. Keep ’em dumb and give ’em a Bible and they will work for whatever pittance they are offered.

  9. Evidence doesn’t count – ideology counts. The idea foisted off on taxpayers that competition in the educational marketplace would improve overall outcomes has been proven false, just like the breakup of Ma Bell. Sometimes a controlled monopoly yields better results than breakups into competitors who have other fish to fry, and the Brookings report and the Michigan disaster tend to prove such hypothesis. However, and to reiterate, evidence doesn’t count – ideology does.

  10. A few thoughts. the private schools were a method to separate the classes, the children of the wealthy from those who were not. Intellect was not an important barrier to entry into the private school but, money was. We can see this in the recent scandals where the wealthy bought the entry for their children into prestigious schools.

    The other purpose was to defeat school desegregation. The “private academy” movement always existed, it exploded in the South once the Federal Government enforced the Law to integrate schools. Side Bar- the Rednecks and Neo-Confederates have never forgiven the Feds for this, in time this morphed into a fear of “Big Government” and all it’s manifestations. Especially, those manifestations like the EPA, and the breaking of “whites only” areas.

    Then we have the Profit Motive. School Privatization, has a hallmark of no political accountability to the voters. The non-public schools operate like a big business franchise. The difference is in the business world if a franchise fails it goes out of business. The world of non-public schools has no rigorous evaluation of failure, instead they are allowed to keep failing with no consequences.

    One of the other benefits for the Education for Profit ideologues is the destruction of Teacher’s Unions.

  11. Get to point you folks again…the rulers don’t want an educated populace to question what they are doing…go read “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”…ever more truthful today.

  12. This was never about improving education, it has been a long time goal of wingnuts to destroy public schools and get religion more involved with government.

  13. All the comments today have truth in them. Even Todd’s cynicism hit that nail very soundly.

    The Republican/DeVos plan for education has been on their agenda since Lincoln was shot. Not only does this perverse capitalistic vector toward serfdom validate the sinister profit motive for everything the Republicans stand for, it defiles the Jeffersonian ideal and value of educating everyone.

    In my book, “A Worm in the Apple: The Inside Story of Public Schools”, this and associated topics are discussed at length with plenty of citations. BTW, vocational education is simply too expensive to operate and maintain with shrinking budgets, so schools simply drop the curriculum leaving the non-college bound kids swinging in the wind. Typical Republican…

  14. its election time,again… ive been looking over the iowa visits,same ol.? what is needed here is a straight forward forum of citizens on both sides sitting down with the runners and have a taped interview with locals who are in the know,and a face to face with every candidate. plain language,no beat around bushes,taking up time,or get out and leave the field of candidates. its time for some civics lessons in this new field,from both sides,and civil. taking a few what ifs dont cut it,and absolutely no,pre screens of the issues,or questions or people. we have to be absolute in this run,if we are to eliminate this mob pressed on control of the economy and democracy. there is really no going back, wall street has the power to control this next election,and if we lose,they will control us from now on. currency is now a topic,they want to go to full plastic,and this will be a full monte on your privacy,all of it.
    best wishes…

  15. Vernon, I would agree with you Vocational Education was a good career path starter in High School. You may not have come out as a journeyman welder, electrician, or carpenter but, you had the basics. Back then in the late 1960’s companies would look to hire and train young people who had some exposure to Vocational Education. Then we got the For Profit Vocational Education Schools, that took your money and left you with a worthless certificate and a loan to pay off.

    We are always going to need someone who is a Plumber, Air Conditioning and Heating repair person, electrician, or auto mechanic.

  16. The idea that capitalism, with a goal of increasing value to shareholders, has anything to contribute to education, with a goal of maximizing the academic potential of every student, borders on silliness. Companies make money by reducing costs, often a process involving the laying off of workers or selling more product. Every widget a company produces is exactly like every other widget. There’s usually no mechanism for tailoring the product to the consumer unless it increases sales. There’s no mechanism for coping with the plethora of problems children bring to school with them that teachers are expected to compensate for.

    While motives vary, few proponents of charter schools are focused on improving K-12 education. Here in South Carolina a good education is so frightening that it is consciously rejected by our legislature. Their motive is that we must avoid teaching young people to think critically, or it could cost us our jobs. We’re good at creating and funding ever increasing religious education to make tender minds more obedient. That probably sounds cynical, but it’s not inaccurate. Currently there is a frantic drive to climb out of the national basement in educational quality. However, the very idea of smaller class sizes has already been nixed by politicians who pride themselves on being realists. Teachers argue that without that change, other efforts will prove futile. But it’s been so long since they had a raise they have decided to keep quiet about the one thing that might lead to progress.

    We have some excellent schools. They are all in upscale neighborhoods, similar to the rest of the nation. Until we are able to elevate education to the same level of esteem as winning football programs, we will cling to our mediocrity and continue the silliness.

  17. I agree 100% that the voucher program is thinly disguised effort to re-segregate schools and to put tax dollars into religious schools.

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