The Studies Agree: Voucher Plans Simply Do Not Work

The New York Times recently ran a story about researchers being surprised by the “dismal” results school voucher programs have so far produced.

As The Times notes, “[A] wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling – the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.”

This wasn’t news to Americans United. We’ve been tracking studies of voucher plans since the early 1990s. The results have been consistent: Vouchers don’t work.

The Times singled out three recent studies. One is from Indiana, where Vice President Mike Pence was once governor. While in that office, he pushed through a wide-ranging voucher plan. As The Times notes, researchers examining the Indiana plan found that students who used a voucher to attend a private school showed no improvement in reading and actually lost ground in mathematics.

The grade is in on voucher plans, and it's not good.

In Louisiana, researchers examined a voucher program that mainly targets low-income African-American students. Again, results in reading and math were alarming. The Times noted, “Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.”

The final study, from Ohio, was conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-voucher group, and funded by the Walton Family Foundation, an entity connected with Walmart, the discount store behemoth that also backs vouchers. Even these voucher advocates concluded: “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.”

In a similar story, Business Insider noted that an in-depth analysis of U.S. voucher programs showed no evidence that they boost student achievement.

“These are very well-done studies," Mark Dynarski, an education researcher and voucher expert, told Business Insider. “And what they're showing is incontrovertible evidence that no, those kids did not learn more.”

These stories didn’t specifically discuss the federally funded voucher “experiment” in Washington, D.C., but studies show that it too has been a flop. It has led to no statistically significant improvement in reading or math.

These new studies reflecting earlier findings. A 1998 study of Cleveland’s plan, for example, found “no significant difference” between voucher students and their public school counterparts in math, reading and science. In 1999, a study of Milwaukee’s plan noted “no pattern of superiority of choice students over [public school] students or vice versa.”

Since then, studies have fared no better for the voucher crowd. The studies either show voucher students doing no better or worse than public school students.

But that’s just the beginning of the problems with vouchers. Over the years,  numerous media reports have come to light over the years of fly-by-night private schools that offer shoddy education in unsafe buildings and hire unqualified staff. This trend too has continued.

In addition, most private schools that receive vouchers lack the ability to educate special-needs students; many discriminate on the grounds of religion when admitting students and hiring staff, and others engage in forms of rank discrimination that would never be tolerated in a public schools, such as firing workers who are married and use IVF to start a family or get married to their same-sex partner.

Here’s the bottom line: The nation began experimenting with vouchers in earnest about 25 years ago. The plans haven’t delivered the increased academic performance that proponents promised. But there’s one thing these plans have certainly done: prop up sectarian private schools with taxpayer funds.

Yet in the face of clear failure, voucher plans not only aren’t being shut down, they’re often being expanded. President Donald J. Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are big voucher boosters. Trump has endorsed a nationwide plan with a price tag of a staggering $20 billion.

That fact alone is telling. And what it tells us is that these days, the battle over vouchers is primarily about ideology. The plans continue to be promoted by think tanks and politicians who don’t like public schools, public services or public anything, really. Their goal is privatization at all costs.

Call that what you will – but let’s stop pretending voucher plans are designed to help children. More than 25 years of facts, figures and statistics prove otherwise.

Learn more about the problems with vouchers at the website of the National Coalition for Public Education, a group Americans United chairs. And let your senators and representative know that you oppose voucher schemes here.