School vouchers expand despite evidence of negative effects

For the past couple of decades, proponents of vouchers for private schools have been pushing the idea that vouchers work.

They assert there is a consensus among researchers that voucher programs lead to learning gains for students – in some cases bigger gains than with other reforms and approaches, such as class-size reduction.

They have highlighted studies that show the positive impact of vouchers on various populations. At the very least, they argue, vouchers do no harm.

As researchers who study school choice and education policy, we see a new consensus emerging — including in pro-voucher advocates’ own studies — that vouchers are having mostly no effects or negative effects on student learning. As a result, we see a shift in how voucher proponents are redefining what voucher success represents. They are using a new set of non-academic gains that were not the primary argument to promote vouchers.

How success is defined is particularly important now in light of the fact that Florida and Tennessee – which are both controlled by Republicans – have created new publicly funded voucher programs in May 2019.

In April, a large-scale study — conducted by voucher advocates — found substantial negative impacts for students using vouchers to attend private schools.

Certainly, other studies show a different kind of positive effect on the likelihood of a student enrolling and persisting in college. Other studies also show that vouchers have positive effects on perceptions of school safety, and on avoidance of crime and out-of-wedlock births. But these goals were not what was used to advance vouchers.

Vouchers being pursued politically

In addition to states, Republicans are pursuing vouchers at the federal level as well. For instance, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos – along with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and eight of his fellow Republican senators – are pushing for a voucher-like plan to establish what they refer to as Education Freedom Scholarships. The US$5 billion proposal would enable individual taxpayers and businesses to get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for contributions to “scholarship” organizations. Those organizations would then pass the money to families to use for private schools or other education related expenses for their children.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos talks with students in Nashville, Tenn., in April, as lawmakers voted to expand school vouchers. Mark Humphrey/AP
There is a largely partisan divide in Congress concerning the District of Columbia school voucher program – a federally funded school voucher program created under President George W. Bush.

The program, which is authorized under the Scholarships for Opportunities and Results Act, has gotten more than $200 million from Congress and served more than 10,000 children since it began in 2004. It is set to expire in September.

House Democrats are looking for problems with the D.C. voucher program. In response, Republicans are seeking additional information to back up the Trump administration’s proposal to double its funding, from $15 million to $30 million, even though a 2017 evaluation of the program showed “negative impacts on student achievement.”

The voucher advocacy movement

Given all the political interest in vouchers, it pays to revisit how there came to be such as disconnect between what the research shows about the negative impacts of vouchers and their popularity with policymakers.