The evidence is clear, vouchers don’t work

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports vouchers.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports vouchers. AP

Students who accept vouchers to attend private schools lose ground academically and perform worse on standardized tests than students who remain in public schools.

That’s the takeaway from studies involving state vouchers in Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana, as well as the only federally funded vouchers in Washington, DC.

In April, the Institute of Education Sciences, the independent, non-partisan research wing of the Department of Education, published the performance measures of students who used Opportunity Scholarship Program vouchers in Washington, DC to attend private schools. On the whole, students posted a 7 percentile-point decline in mathematics and a 5 percentile-point decline in reading compared to students who applied for the vouchers but attended public schools instead.


Studies of state-supported voucher programs show similar negative impacts on learning. In Louisiana, voucher students fell from 50th to 34th percentile in math scores. In Ohio, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute said that the voucher program was “unambiguously negative across a variety of model specifications, for both reading and mathematics.” The largest voucher program in the US is in Indiana, and it, too, posted negative impacts on learning.

Researchers Christopher Lubienski, education policy professor at Indiana University, and Sarah Lubienski, a mathematics education professor at the University of Illinois, published a lengthy analysis of these recent voucher studies and concluded that “any apparent advantages for students in private schools are actually a reflection of the fact that private schools do a better job of attracting – not producing – high-scoring students.”

Voucher supporters argue that vouchers help children by giving them an opportunity to attend superior religious or private schools. Those schools, however, only appear superior because they already enroll high-performing advantaged children. The IES study shows that voucher children coming from “underperforming” public schools show no improvement at all on achievement, while students coming from higher-performing public schools lose considerable academic ground in private schools.

The Lubienskis point out that early voucher programs might have seemed more effective because of the “peer effect,” where less affluent students benefit from being around more affluent peers with more access to resources and more educated parents.

“Frankly,” the Lubienskis write in a recent Education Week piece, “there are only a limited number of academically advantaged peers to go around. And so, as choice programs expand, the private-school peer effect is diluted…the newer, larger-scale studies are starting to more closely approximate the nationally representative samples we previously analyzed when coming to our conclusion that public schools, in fact, have an edge over private schools in student learning.”

If policymakers were genuinely concerned about educating all children, they would be asking how to make our existing schools better. Instead, the federal and state policymakers are more committed to making education profitable for private investors. The proposed federal education budget allocates $400 million to expand charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools, and another $1 billion to push choice-friendly policies. None of that money will help children in public schools, and as the new studies show, children who actually receive the vouchers may be hurt most of all.

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: