The record on vouchers is not mixed

It’s not a radical statement to say that private school choice has been a success. Every serious study into the efficacy of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships has shown either positive or neutral benefits for students. Virtually no significant research has found that they have academically harmed children.

That makes the popular narrative about school choice all the more frustrating. It says vouchers have done little good because the students who take public money to private schools don’t outperform their peers left behind in school districts. The mainstream press has advanced this story line, asserting that the research literature on vouchers is “mixed.” The latest contribution to this comes from Politico, which concluded in a 1,600-word story this weekend that, as taxpayers prepare to direct $1 billion annually toward private school tuition, “there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.”

Such a declaration, however, distorts the findings from multiple gold-standard and peer-reviewed studies, which are decidedly not mixed—if one’s definition of mixed means a combination of good and bad results. In that sense, the verdict on charter schools is mixed, but the judgment on vouchers is not.

The empirical record on vouchers reports either positive gains for scholarship recipients or no difference between voucher students and their public school peers, using a variety of student outcomes as an indicator (test scores, high school graduation, and college-going rates) and usually for a variety of student subgroups. Stephanie Simon of Politico correctly points to snapshots of voucher test results in a few jurisdictions such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Louisiana that are “mixed,” but practically no study that employs the gold-standard methodology of random assignment has found that vouchers have had a negative impact on students or schools.

To gain a better understanding on what’s in the literature, it’s necessary to summarize it:

  • Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul Peterson of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance examined a privately funded voucher program in New York City and found that black students who won the voucher lottery were 24 percent more likely to attend college than students who didn’t win the lottery. Chingos and Peterson didn’t see the same results for Hispanic students, but the positive effects for poor black students are remarkable given that the intervention cost about $4,200 per pupil over a three-year period.
  • An earlier look at the New York program by Chingos and Peterson also found that the same voucher program had large positive effects on the test scores of black students. Studies of two other privately funded voucher programs, in Charlotte and Dayton, also found improved performance on the standardized tests of voucher recipients.
  • In examining one of the most scrutinized school-voucher programs in the United States, Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas found that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program a) led to improved reading achievement among participants and b) increased the likelihood that a student would graduate high school by 21 percentage points.
  • Also, in his study of the Milwaukee voucher program, Wolf found that voucher students were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in a four-year college—and he and his team found that newer accountability provisions in the program led to higher reading gains among voucher students.
  • Two studies from David Figlio of Northwestern University found benefits from a tax-credit scholarship program in Florida. Figlio found that the Florida program boosted the academic performance of the public schools that were faced with the threat of losing students to the program, and he found that higher reading and math achievement levels among tax-credit-scholarship students, though modest, “suggested that successive cohorts of participating students may be gaining ground over time.”
  • Greg Forster also has summarized the evidence of the empirical research on school choice and found that eleven of twelve random-assignment studies (considered the gold standard) improved the academic outcomes of students who participated in voucher program. The one study that didn’t find improvement found no visible impact one way or the other. Bottom line: none of these found negative effects.

Of course, throughout these studies, some subgroups of students benefitted more than others. But it’s important to note that no group of students was worse off because of vouchers. That’s a nuance that’s rarely captured in the popular narrative, but it’s one that makes a stronger case for private school choice than most press reports allow.

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