A university professor who studies education issues wrote recently that private school voucher plans don’t deliver academic improvement, and he called for the programs to be abandoned.
Writing 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 went on to outline what he called “the moral case to be made against voucher programs.” He asserted, “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.
“The bottom line,” Cowen observed, “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.”
Despite the failure of vouchers to improve academic performance, plans continue to grow in some states. Arizona legislators recently passed a statewide voucher plan that will be the nation’s largest program.
Under the plan, every Arizona student will be able to participate. It will cover tuition at private and religious schools, for home schooling and even for online learning.
Efforts by Democrats to add accountability measures to the program failed.
In 2017, Arizona lawmakers passed a bill to expand vouchers to every student in the state. The following year, advocates of public education collected enough signatures to put the matter on the ballot, where it was soundly rejected by the voters with 65% voting to end the voucher plan.