Voucher debate update

Students given vouchers in Louisiana do worse than their peers. But new research shows some kids catch up

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Past research on Louisiana’s school voucher program came to a bleak conclusion: students who used the program to transfer to a private school saw their test scores plummet.

A new study complicates that narrative, finding some good — or at least, less bad — news about the closely watched program.

The research shows that, for students who received a voucher at the middle or end of elementary school, there were no statistically significant effects on their math or reading test scores by the third year in the program. That’s a boon for voucher advocates who have argued against judging a program by its initial impacts.

This “is an initial study of a very long-term question: namely, can government create a level playing field for all types of schools so that the best of all types of schools are available to the most disadvantaged students?” John White, Louisiana’s schools superintendent, told Chalkbeat. “I think this study shows that we are on our way to making that happen.”

Still, other aspects of the study suggest that the program continues to have negative effects, often large ones, on some students, specifically those in early grades.

The findings come as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has promised a major federal push to expand private school choice. The Louisiana Scholarship Program, a statewide initiative that uses public funds to pay private school tuition for certain low-income students, is the seventh-largest voucher program in the country, serving over 7,000 students.

The research is a follow-up to an earlier study conducted by Jonathan Mills and Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas and has not been formally peer-reviewed. The study was funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation.

Mills and Wolf compare students who won the chance to participate in Louisiana’s program against those who applied for a voucher but lost the lottery. That means the researchers can be confident that differences between the two groups are caused by receiving the voucher.

For a number of technical reasons, the study focuses on just 514 older elementary school students who won a spot in a private school and remained there for three years, though they amount to only a small subset of the students using a voucher in the state.

The researchers find that by year three, the impacts of the program were slightly positive in English, moderately negative in math and science, and highly negative in social studies — but none of these results were statistically significant. They do find statistically significant positive effects in English for students who started out low performing in the subject.

White said the improvements in math and English compared to earlier years were reason for optimism.

The study also examines a larger sample that also included younger students. Here the results are decisively negative: Receiving a voucher led to large, statistically significant test score drops in both math and social studies.

But the authors caution that they are less confident in these results than in the findings exclusively for older students because they don’t have baseline test scores for such young students.

Why did the program seem to help students more when they remained for three years? White credits the threat of Louisiana’s test-based accountability rules, which are more stringent than most other states’ rules for private school choice programs. Critics have argued that these rules deter top-notch private schools from participating.

“The important finding is that, given accountability, schools improve — that includes private schools, as well as public schools,” White said.

The researchers are more skeptical of this explanation. They suggest that the improvement may have been the result of students for whom the program was not working returning to public schools, and adjustments made by private schools over time, including aligning curriculum to the state exam.

“It is possible that the private schools ignored those [potential] sanctions in year 1 and started taking them seriously in years 2 and 3, leading to the pattern of effects we observe, but it seems unlikely that they would place themselves in such a disadvantaged position from the start,” Mills and Wolf wrote.

Another study released Monday, of Indiana’s voucher program, showed that students in the program saw math achievement drop in comparison to public school students, but those who remained in private school for four years caught up in math and made gains in English.

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.