The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 28, 2017

So, do private school vouchers work?

June 29, 2017

Monday was either a great day for school vouchers or a great day for their opponents, depending on how you look at it.

A Supreme Court ruling in favor of a church that wanted to use state funds to resurface its school playground may pave the way for more school voucher programs, but it is still unclear how broadly applicable that ruling could turn out to be. Meanwhile, also on Monday, studies of two existing voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana were released showing that after an initial backslide, students receiving vouchers make up ground and perform roughly as well as their public school peers after a few years.

“People come to these studies and ask, do voucher programs work? I view that as the wrong question to ask,” Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White said Monday at an event hosted by the Urban Institute. “The question is, are there good schools of all governance types available to low-income children?”

School voucher programs work by providing students, usually from low-income families, a government-funded scholarship to attend a participating private school, rather than a public school. The Louisiana Scholarship Program, which began in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2008, awarded 7,110 scholarships to students statewide in 2015–16. Students who receive these scholarships are low income and low performing; 87 percent of students are black. The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program is the largest statewide program in the country, serving more than 30,000 students, all of them low income.

The two studies released Monday show similar patterns. In Indiana, researchers found that students lost ground in math—as measured by test scores—in the first two years after leaving public school, but began to improve after four years if they stayed with the program. Similarly, in Louisiana, research after the first and second years of the program found voucher students performed worse than their public school counterparts, but after three years, performance was roughly similar across both groups.

To voucher proponents, that student performance at private schools is ultimately on par with that at public schools shows vouchers are working as intended, giving families an equal but different choice. To opponents, however, these studies show vouchers are a failed endeavor, causing backslides academically and not leading to any sustained improvements. (We don’t know what the long-term effects of vouchers are, though a study of DC found voucher students graduated at higher rates.)

“The significance of this study is that it puts truth to the lies on both sides of the aisle,” White said.

He viewed the Louisiana results as commentary on accountability as much as on vouchers, hypothesizing that it could have been the increased regulations and accountability measures, which affected both public schools and private schools receiving voucher students, that led to performance gains.

“How do we get to a point on this issue where both conservatives and liberals can drop the ideology and ask a simple question, which is what kind of rules, incentives, and programs, what kind of systems, do we need to make every possible quality school available to the most disadvantaged kids?” White asked.

school vouchers event

A panel of school choice experts discussed school voucher programs in Louisiana at an Urban Institute event last Monday.

School accountability, however, can be about as controversial an issue as vouchers, and Beth Blaufuss, president of a DC private high school that accepts voucher students, said if increased accountability measures had been part of the deal, she would have thought twice about participating in the voucher program. She believes that when parents choose her school, or any private school, they’re choosing against the public school accountability system.

“For me, success is measured in the hundred faces of this year’s graduating class,” Blaufuss said. “So my metrics are very different, but they’re also the metrics that every parent has.”

The problem, at least for policymakers who might be looking to existing programs as they consider instituting vouchers, is that White and Blaufuss might both be right. Both the Louisiana and Indiana voucher programs exist with strong school accountability environments, but that doesn’t necessarily mean accountability is the key.

“Our tools for determining the overall effects of programs are much stronger than our tools for sorting out exactly what elements increase or decrease the efficacy,” said Patrick Wolf, a professor at the University of Arkansas and one of the lead researchers on the Louisiana study. “We have a long way to go before we nail down elements of design.”

The researchers and practitioners at Monday’s event worried, however, that in the current political environment, policymakers may not be willing to wait to nail down those critical details.

“I’m not sure every state should go out and try this,” said Douglas Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which released the Louisiana study. “This is how federalism works. We have a few states try something, we have a few cities try something, and we watch. If it seems to generate improvement, that would be the point at which we say, okay, maybe other states should look at it. But I think we’re moving faster than that.” 

In this Aug. 17, 2011 photo, students enter Our Lady of Hungary Catholic School for the first day of school, in South Bend, Ind. Indiana’s new voucher program that provides state-funded scholarships to private schools, the nation’s broadest, is proving to be a boon for Roman Catholic schools that nationwide have been struggling against dwindling enrollment numbers for years. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond).

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