February 2004 Church & State | People & Events

Students taking part in Cleveland's private school voucher program are performing at the same rate as their counterparts in the public system, a new study has shown.

Researchers at Indiana University issued the final report of a five-year study of the voucher program in December. The report's author, Kim Metcalf, led researchers who tracked test scores of 6,000 kindergarten through fourth-grade students drawn from both the voucher program and the public schools.

The university team found no difference in test scores between the two groups. The study also found that, although the program was pitched as a way to help low-income minority students trapped in substandard public schools, many of the voucher recipients were affluent white children who were already enrolled in private schools.

"After adjusting for students' minority status and family income, there is no consistent pattern either of enhanced or diminished academic achievement for students who have used a scholarship to attend private schools from kindergarten through fourth grade," read the report's executive summary. "Further, students who exit the program to return to public schools often experience a comparative drop in achievement during their first or second year after leaving the program, but return over time to levels of adjusted achievement that is comparable to other students."

The program, launched in 1996, has cost more than $42 million since its inception. The money comes from a fund Cleveland schools have established to help disadvantaged students. Most of the private schools taking part in the program are Catholic.

In the elementary grades, private schools participating in the voucher plan must accept a voucher worth $3,000 as full tuition payment. High schools can charge additional fees and may subject students to other requirements, such as admissions tests.

The study found that these requirements discouraged many poor, African-American families from taking part. Some were unable to afford the additional fees, and others reported that none of the participating schools were in their neighborhoods or that the private schools failed to provide special services that children with special needs require.

Metcalf's study will probably be the last state-funded academic examination of the Cleveland program. In June of 2003, the Ohio Department of Education decided to discontinue funding for the Indiana University study.