Okay–I know it’s just one more time beating that horse (an animal quite probably dead by now…), but I can’t resist. Brookings has just issued yet another study confirming the educational downsides of voucher programs.
The study was prompted by the recent expansion of voucher programs and “education savings accounts,” (ESAs) which are functionally the same thing–the use of public money to allow parents to send their children to private schools. That expansion has occurred primarily in states that voted for Trump in 2020, which should be a clue that these programs are based on ideology; their proponents simply ignore that pesky inconvenient thing called evidence.
(The Brookings report has multiple links to the previous academic research on each of the following points; I’m not including them, but if you click through, you will be able to easily access them.)
This study confirms a number of the findings of previous research: for example, that after expansion of a voucher program or implementation of an ESA, pop-up schools immediately appear, many of which will close rather quickly, and that existing private schools raise their tuition.
The study notes that a decade of research has confirmed that vouchers reduce student academic achievement. Brookings cites studies from Louisiana and Indiana, among others, that found quite substantial declines in student test scores. (Indiana’s pathetic legislature simply ignored the fact that Indiana’s voucher program had demonstrably failed to perform as promised. In its recent session, the legislature made the program available to virtually all of Indiana’s schoolchildren, and is now promoting it heavily.)
Perhaps because the reality fails to match the rhetoric, exit rates from the private schools accepting vouchers are high; in Indiana, as in several other states, some 20% of students who use a voucher to enroll in a private school depart every year–and interestingly, their return to public schooling improves their academic performance.
The research also notes the high percentage of private schools that are religious, but fails to make a point that I consider pivotal: when students leave public educational institutions where–despite residential segregation–they are more likely to interact with children whose races, cultures and religions differ from their own than in the more racially and religiously segregated voucher schools, their “tribal” identities are strengthened. That lack of diversity not only hampers their later interactions in a diverse society, it fosters precisely the sorts of polarization that bedevil contemporary society.
A problem that was highlighted in the research was the lack of accountability of these private schools, both educational and fiscal. In Arizona, “educational” costs that have been reimbursed under their program have been, shall we say, questionable, and in North Carolina, schools have claimed payment for more vouchers than students actually used. (While this study didn’t mention the problem, others have noted that a lack of public reporting requirements makes it very difficult for parents to determine how well a given private school is really performing. Too often, they end up making a choice based upon surface impressions–or more frequently, PR and marketing.)
As the study concludes, recent expansions of these programs will test prior findings–one of which, interestingly, is that “the larger the program, the worse the results.”
What is so discouraging about the persistent Red state expansions of these voucher programs is that these legislatures utterly ignore credible research, and–rather than applying those millions of tax dollars to the improvement of public education–throw millions of dollars into programs that demonstrably do not improve academic outcomes.
When voucher programs were first introduced, they were promoted as a way to allow poor children to leave failing urban schools. Recent program expansions have given the lie to that original argument; virtually every child in Indiana (and elsewhere) now qualifies to use public money to attend private schools–very much including children who had never attended a public school, and whose parents had previously been paying private school tuition.
Perhaps some of the proponents of vouchers remain unaware of the mountains of evidence and truly believe the hype. But given the other research I’ve cited about the segregating effects of educational “choice,” you’ll forgive me if I am cynical.