School Vouchers: There Is No Upside

Our guest author today is Josh Cowen, Professor of Education Policy at Michigan State University.

What if I told you there is a policy idea in education that, when implemented to its full extent, caused some of the largest academic drops ever measured in the research record?

What if I told you that 40 percent of schools funded under that policy closed their doors afterward, and that kids in those schools fled them at about a rate of 20 percent per year?

What if I told you that some the largest financial backers of that idea also put their money behind election denial and voter suppression—groups still claiming Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Would you believe what those groups told you about their ideas for improving schools?

What if I told you that idea exists, that it’s called school vouchers, and despite all of the evidence against it the idea persists and is even expanding?

Where Al Shanker Stood: School Vouchers

With all of the recent debate about school voucher proposals, we decided to reprint this January 1997 New York Times column by Al Shanker in which he discusses inconsistencies in many conservatives' position on vouchers.

\We are used to seeing conservatives go all out in support of vouchers. But what about a conservative who argues against providing public money to send students to religious and other private schools? Timothy Lamer, whose op-ed piece, "A Conservative Case Against School Choice," recently appeared in the Washington Post (November 6, 1996), is such a novelty. Lamer thinks that conservatives who push for vouchers are ignoring or distorting their principles. He intends his article as a wake-up call to conservatives, but it should suggest to members of the public generally that there is something fishy about the conservative crusade for vouchers. How come conservatives are pushing something so alien to their usual point of view?

Here are some voucher arguments advanced by push-for-vouchers conservatives that go against the conservative grain:

How Can We Tell If Vouchers "Work"?

Brookings recently released an evaluation of New York City’s voucher program, called the School Choice Scholarship Foundation Program (SCSF), which was implemented in the late 1990s. Voucher offers were randomized, and the authors looked at the impact of being offered/accepting them on a very important medium-term outcome – college enrollment (they were also able to follow an unusually high proportion of the original voucher recipients to check this outcome).

The short version of the story is that, overall, the vouchers didn’t have any statistically discernible impact on college enrollment. But, as is often the case, there was some underlying variation in the results, including positive estimated impacts among African-American students, which certainly merit discussion.*

Unfortunately, such nuance was not always evident in the coverage of and reaction to the report, with some voucher supporters (strangely, given the results) exclaiming that the program was an unqualified success, and some opponents questioning the affiliations of the researchers. For my part, I’d like to make a quick, not-particularly-original point about voucher studies in general: Even the best of them don’t necessarily tell us much about whether “vouchers work."

The Louisiana Voucher Accountability Sweepstakes

The situation with vouchers in Louisiana is obviously quite complicated, and there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue, but I’d like to comment quickly on the new “accountability” provision. It's a great example of how, too often, people focus on the concept of accountability and ignore how it is actually implemented in policy.

Quick and dirty background: Louisiana will be allowing students to receive vouchers (tuition to attend private schools) if their public schools are sufficiently low-performing, according to their "school performance score" (SPS). As discussed here, the SPS is based primarily on how highly students score, rather than whether they’re making progress, and thus tells you relatively little about the actual effectiveness of schools per se. For instance, the vouchers will be awarded mostly to schools serving larger proportions of disadvantaged students, even if many of those schools are compelling large gains (though such progress cannot be assessed adequately using year-to-year changes in the SPS, which, due in part to its reliance on cross-sectional proficiency rates, are extremely volatile).

Now, here's where things get really messy: In an attempt to demonstrate that they are holding the voucher-accepting private schools accountable, Louisiana officials have decided that they will make these private schools ineligible for the program if their performance is too low (after at least two years of participation in the program). That might be a good idea if the state measured school performance in a defensible manner. It doesn't.