Study: School Vouchers Not The "Quick Fix" Supporters Hoped

  • Calvin Wolf
  • Jul 1, 2017 11:21AM

From the heart of Texas to the halls of the White House, conservatives are itching to promote “school choice.” Although the initiative sounds pleasant enough on the surface, folks quickly get rankled when they learn that “school choice” can include some pretty controversial tactics.  When Republicans talk “school choice,” they usually mean school vouchers, which are government subsidy checks that go to help kids attend private schools. Supporters of vouchers argue that they should get some of their tax dollars back if their children are not attending public schools, but critics complain that the vouchers take money away from public education and, thus, weaken the entire system.

Voucher proponents have long argued that school choice is the only way out of poverty for many students who are condemned to idle in low-performing public schools. Why trap a kid in a failing public school when he or she could excel in a private one? Admittedly, that argument is pretty compelling. Politics aside, who could willingly let a child languish in obscurity, doomed to a subpar education and a life of unrealized talent?

Opponents of school vouchers have been given some ammo against the practice with the release of two comprehensive voucher program studies, which explore statewide initiatives in Indiana and Louisiana. The results?  A mixed bag. There’s some good news and bad news, and each half could become political fodder.

The good news for vouchers is that, if the voucher kid stays in private school long enough, he or she tends to come out a little bit ahead of his or her public school peers, especially in English Language Arts (ELA). This requires four years or more of remaining in private school. Though this gain is modest, proponents will herald it given America’s woeful ELA skills overall.

Unfortunately, the voucher kid will struggle at first. During the first year or two after leaving public school, the voucher kids actually perform worse than their public school peers on standardized tests. Only during the third and fourth year do they catch back up. Critics will seize upon this academic backslide, which is worse in math, and publicize it heavily.

A battle still looms over everything else in the research. Although test scores were quantifiable, it appears that other metrics were not controlled, such as students’ family income. While the researchers felt that the private schools in Indiana and Louisiana were not “cream skimming,” or simply accepting only the “best” public school kids, you can bet that voucher critics will disagree. Researchers also said the voucher system needs more time to “adjust,” but opponents will demand results immediately.

The verdict? School vouchers don’t do much to help most public school students who end up using them. Only those who stay in private school for four years or more are likely to see any academic gains. However, the researchers did not study kids who had always been in private school… and vouchers are eligible for those kiddos as well. 

But bringing up the fact that vouchers can go to students who have always attended private school is risky, because it subverts the popular argument that vouchers are good for helping poor kids and “saving” them from “failing” public schools. The students who have always attended private schools are more likely to be white and middle-class, and thus not befitting the narrative.  And appealing for more time to let the voucher system adjust sounds a tad hypocritical when many of the same Republicans who support school vouchers are the ones rabidly insisting that Obamacare is a nation-destroying failure less than a decade in.

If the GOP demands positive results on healthcare only a few years after Obamacare has kicked into full force, it cannot beg for more time to let school vouchers prove themselves. And the fact that voucher kids need four years to show academic gains is likely to cause consternation about cost, even from current supporters. It means that vouchers are certainly not a “quick fix” for academic woes, and that voucher money will have to be both ample and steady to improve education metrics in the United States.

The twin reports will likely hit hardest in Texas, where the legislature is in special session.  Despite the state’s pro-business Republicanism and devout support for vouchers at the top, particularly from lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, many moderate Republicans in the House are wary of anything that might weaken traditional public schools.  They rejected school vouchers during the regular session, and the un-rosy research about vouchers in Indiana and Louisiana definitely won’t help. It looks like the Texas special session will end with no money for school choice, same as the last few times.

Now it remains to be seen whether or not Donald Trump, who supports vouchers, will comment on the research and brand it “fake news.” Given healthcare on his plate, however, he might just let this one slide.