Schools and Learning

This Education Professor Wanted To Believe That Private School Vouchers Work. The Research Convinced Him Otherwise.

  Rob Boston

Despite what the current Supreme Court might believe, private school vouchers are a serious threat to church-state separation. They force all taxpayers to support religious schools, even though many people disagree with the doctrines taught at those institutions and lots of these schools engage in blatant discrimination when admitting students and hiring staff.

But there’s another problem with vouchers: They don’t work. The idea behind vouchers was that students struggling in public schools would have somewhere else to go, and their academic performance would increase. That hasn’t happened.

We’ve had voucher plans in place since 1990 when Wisconsin officials created a program in Milwaukee. A slew of other states followed suit. This means we’ve had plenty of time to study these programs, and a growing number of researchers have concluded that they simply haven’t delivered.

Writing recently on the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit website that covers education issues, Joshua Cowen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University, was blunt.

“I am an education policy professor who has spent almost two decades studying programs like these, and trying to follow the data where it leads,” Cowen wrote. “I started this research cautiously optimistic that vouchers could help. But in 2022 the evidence is just too stark to justify the use of public money to fund private tuition.”

Cowen goes on to outline what he calls “the moral case to be made against voucher programs.” He asserts, “They promise low-income families solutions to academic inequality, but what they deliver is often little more than religious indoctrination to go alongside academic outcomes that are worse than before.”

For five years, Cowen was part of a team that studied children taking part in Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program. The study tracked more than 2,500 students participating in the voucher program as well as 2,500 “carefully matched public school kids.”

“After five years, we found very little difference on test scores between the two groups,” Cowen writes. He adds that a separate study “also saw low-income families as well as Black students returning to Milwaukee’s public schools – and doing much better. Vouchers fail to deliver for the kids who are often most in need.”

Those results are not a fluke. Similar outcomes were found in voucher programs in Louisiana, Indiana and Ohio.

Cowen’s conclusion is sobering.

“The bottom line,” he observes, “is that the research case for vouchers doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, while the research case against them has been flashing warning lights for almost a decade. … Advocates are re-packaging vouchers as a solution to pandemic-related learning loss, while all but insisting that low-income parents ignore the learning loss caused by vouchers themselves. The stakes are too high, and we already know too much to believe them.”

As part of a national recommitment to separation of church and state, it’s time to pull the plug on all these ineffective voucher program that threaten the stability of public education while doing nothing to boost academic outcomes.

P.S. To learn more about the problems with vouchers, visit the website of the National Coalition for Public Education, a group co-chaired by Americans United.

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