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After two decades of studying voucher programs, I’m now firmly opposed to them

In 2022 the evidence is just too stark to justify the use of public money to fund private tuition. Particularly when charter schools and inter-district enrollment have a better track record.

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

In recent years, nearly half of all states have created publicly funded private K-12 tuition plans, collectively known as school vouchers.

This summer, advocates of these plans are pushing to expand their reach, boosted by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Carson v. Makin that states permitting vouchers may not exclude religious schools.

Arizona just expanded its already large voucher program; in Michigan, former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and allies have proposed a voucher scheme modeled on plans elsewhere. In June, GOP supporters in Congress reintroduced legislation to create federal funding for voucher programs.

Vouchers are dangerous to American education. They promise an all-too-simple solution to tough problems like unequal access to high-quality schools, segregation and even school safety. In small doses, years ago, vouchers seemed like they might work, but as more states have created more and larger voucher programs, experts like me have learned enough to say that these programs on balance can severely hinder academic growth — especially for vulnerable kids.

I am an education policy professor who has spent almost two decades studying programs like these, and trying to follow the data where it leads. I started this research cautiously optimistic that vouchers could help.

But in 2022 the evidence is just too stark to justify the use of public money to fund private tuition. Particularly when other choice options like charter schools and inter-district enrollment are available to families and have a better track record.

There’s also a moral case to be made against voucher programs. They promise low-income families solutions to academic inequality, but what they deliver is often little more than religious indoctrination to go alongside academic outcomes that are worse than before.

Here’s how I know. From 2005 to 2010, I was part of an official evaluation of a voucher plan called the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, or MPCP, in Wisconsin. “Official” because it was required by state law, since back then even voucher advocates agreed that lawmakers and parents alike needed to know how these programs were doing.

Our evaluation tracked more than 2,500 voucher kids alongside 2,500 carefully matched public school kids. After five years, we found very little difference on test scores between the two groups.

We did see some small positive results for graduation rates, and we did learn that when No Child Left Behind-style accountability was required of voucher schools, their results got better. But in a separate study we also saw low-income families as well as Black students returning to Milwaukee’s public schools — and doing much better.

Vouchers fail to deliver for the kids who are often most in need.

The end of the Milwaukee evaluation coincided almost exactly with the circulation of a report showing shockingly bad early test score results for students in the Louisiana voucher program in the years following Hurricane Katrina.

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Over time, those poor test score results for vouchers held up, and were replicated by other studies.

Too coincidently, a group of advocates known previously for supporting test scores in standards and accountability started pushing parental satisfaction, school safety, character and “grit” — seemingly anything to move the goalposts away from academic outcomes, which had had been disastrous under the voucher program in Louisiana.

Now, it’s true that as parents we want more for our kids than the reading, math and science skills we can measure on tests. And those of us who teach for a living want to give our students more, too. But not at a cost of catastrophic academic results. Especially not for kids struggling in school to begin with.

Today we know that those bad Louisiana academic outcomes were no fluke, and indeed were beginning to appear in places like Indiana and Ohio.

All of these results have a straightforward explanation: Vouchers do not work on the large scale pushed for by advocates today. While small, early pilot voucher programs showed at least modest positive results, expansions statewide have been awful for students. That’s because there aren’t enough decent private schools to serve at-risk kids.

Many of the private schools that clamor to take voucher kids — think about the market here — are desperate for enrollment. They promise what amounts to the wide world for low-income kids. I’ve walked through hallways and seen signs promising an education of “Tradition! Discipline! Achievement!” Sometimes I’ll see a word about Christian faith and character.

But these student-desperate private schools too often fail to deliver.

Finally, we need to talk about money. Not public subsidies, which are inherent to vouchers, but private influence. My work has been funded by the Walton Family Foundation, for example, which has acknowledged ties to school choice reform. I believe that funding had no effect on any analysis of mine, but disclosure is always warranted.

Many pro-voucher studies have disclosed private funding— not just from Walton but, more to the point today, from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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In addition to funding research, the Bradley Foundation has given at least $31 million to political advocacy on behalf of vouchers. That’s like ExxonMobil or Shell funding studies that say fossil fuels are good for the environment.

This all matters because, with very few exceptions, every single study that has shown something encouraging about vouchers has been funded by these groups or their allies.

Today those voucher funders are also funding conservative state legislative races and promotion of the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

Joshua Cowen
Joshua Cowen
That doesn’t make positive voucher studies wrong exactly, but it further diminishes the extent to which we can take them seriously.

The bottom line is that the research case for vouchers doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, while the research case against them has been flashing warning lights for almost a decade.

It’s more than the research though. We’re talking about kids’ lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted learning everywhere, especially for kids already struggling in school.

Advocates are re-packaging vouchers as a solution to pandemic-related learning loss, while all but insisting that low-income parents ignore the learning loss caused by vouchers themselves.

The stakes are too high, and we already know too much to believe them.

Joshua Cowan is a professor of Education Policy at Michigan State University. He also was the founding director and co-director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) from 2016 to 2020. Twitter: @joshcowenMSU

This commentary about school voucher programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.