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Janresseger: Public Funds Public Schools Website Provides Compendium of Research on School Vouchers

Ohio was one of the first states, in 1996, to impose school vouchers, and today across Ohio and many other states, vouchers are devastating local school district budgets. Nationally, the nation’s loudest voucher cheerleader, Education Secretary Betsy Devos, continues to promote vouchers and their cousins—tuition tax credits and education savings accounts.  To support advocates for a strong system of public education, Public Funds Public Schools—a project of the Education Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Munger, Tolles & Olson—provides a compendium of research exploring whether vouchers are an effective school reform strategy. The research inventory is online. It is, I presume, being updated as new research is released.

In Ohio, at least, legislators try to justify vouchers as the salvation of students enrolled in so-called “failing” schools.  Public Funds Public Schools‘ summary of research studies is invaluable for public school leaders, parents, and community advocates who need to be able to document that vouchers are not, in fact, an effective strategy for expanding educational opportunity for our nation’s poorest and most vulnerable students. In fact, the expansion of vouchers has devastated the very school districts that need greater public investment to serve concentrations of children living in poverty, but vouchers extract essential dollars from those very districts.

Why is this online resource so important? The school district where I live and where we educated our children is the best example I know. Cleveland.com reports that in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District during the current 2019-2020 school year, EdChoice, one of Ohio’s four statewide voucher programs, extracted $7.2 million from the total $21 million in state funding provided to the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district.  Students living in our school district carried away a third of the district’s total state funding to pay for tuition in private and religious schools, but 94 percent of those students have never been previously enrolled in our district’s public schools. In other words, they have always attended private and religious schools, but the Legislature has now created a program that diverts local school district funds to pay for their private education.

Public Funds Public Schools introduces its research compendium: “Studies of voucher programs across the country have found that students who participate in private school voucher programs fare worse academically than students educated in public schools, and in some cases dramatically worse.  In addition, voucher programs undermine already struggling public schools.  Other damaging effects of vouchers include loss of civil rights protections, increased segregation, and erosion of the separation of church and state.  Private school voucher programs often lack accountability and transparency, yet cost millions of public dollars.”

Public Funds Public Schools organizes its research inventory into 8 sections.

Private School Vouchers Don’t Improve Student Achievement:  Here are summaries of 14 research reports, some as current as 2019 and others dating back to 2008.   Several reports confirm losses in math achievement over time in states including Indiana, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C.  Additionally, “A 2016 study of the Ohio private school voucher programconducted by a conservative think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and funded by the pro-voucher Walton Foundation, found voucher students ‘have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools…Such impacts also appear to persist over time, suggesting that the results are not driven simply by the setbacks that typically accompany any change of school.'”

Private School Vouchers Divert Needed Funding from Public Schools:  Two studies from 2018 and 2017 demonstrate funding losses to public schools in Arizona and Wisconsin.  For example, in Arizona, “the amount spent on private school subsidies from the General Fund… increased nearly 50-fold from $3 million in 1999-2000 to $141 million in 2015-16.”

Private School Vouchers Programs Lack Accountability:  Here are three research studies, including a nationwide study published by Education Week Research Center, showing that of the 29 states with voucher programs,”fewer than half the states require that private voucher school teachers have a bachelor’s degree, and not even a third publicly report student results on state tests or high school graduation rates. The study also found that only three states require private voucher schools to admit students regardless of their sexual orientation, while only six require that students be admitted regardless of their religion.”

Absence of Oversight in Private School Voucher Programs Leads to Corruption and Waste:  The two studies here extend the findings of lack of accountability from the previous section.  A 2017 Florida investigation, for example, found “the hiring of teachers without college degrees, falsification of fire safety and health records, and an absence of consequences for poorly performing schools.”  In Arizona from August 2015 to January 2016, researchers discovered $102,000 in misspending by parents in the state’s Education Savings Account voucher program.

Private School Vouchers Don’t Help Students with Disabilities:  The five studies in this section document that private schools accepting vouchers sometimes mislead parents about the kind of services available and too often fail to protect students’ rights.  One report in 2017 from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, “highlighted the important protections in federal law that students with disabilities lose when they attend private schools using a voucher and the lack of information provided to parents about these rights.”

Private School Vouchers Don’t Protect Against Discrimination   All three reports summarized in this section are recent.  Here are the findings of a 2018 policy brief from the National Education Policy Center: “First, federal law defines discrimination differently in public and private spaces. Second, state legislatures have largely neglected issues of discrimination while constructing private school laws. Third, because private schools are free to determine what programs to offer, they can attract some populations while excluding others.”

Private School Vouchers Exacerbate Segregation:  All five studies in this section examine racial segregation in private schools accepting public vouchers.  A 2018 academic working paper, for example, examined the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (the name for D.C.’s voucher program) since 2003, when the program was launched: “The author found that 70% of participating voucher students were enrolled in heavily segregated schools with 90% or more minority students, and 58% were enrolled in all-minority schools.”

Universal Private School Voucher Programs Don’t Work:  The one study described in this final section is international: The National Education Policy Center examined a universal school privatization voucher program in Chile.  In Chile’s program NEPC shows that schools were explicitly permitted to choose their students.  Not surprisingly poor children found themselves in low-performing schools: “There is plausible evidence that privatization is associated with pervasive discrimination and exclusion among students, low public trust, neglect of civic education, and a tenacious social movement clamoring for a stronger and more inclusive public option.”  NEPC adds something that has also been true of voucher programs across 29 states here at home: “It is extremely difficult to reverse privatization.”

The research accumulated by Public Funds Public Schools confirms the discovery by Christopher (now a professor at Indiana University) and Sarah Lubienski (a professor of mathematics education at the University of Illinois), whose 2014 book describes The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. The Lubienskis explain: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home… But after further investigation and more targeted analysis, the results held up. And they held up (or were ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analysis… These results indicate that, despite reformers’ adulation of the autonomy enjoyed by private and charter schools, this factor may in fact be the reason these schools are underperforming.  That is, contrary to the dominant thinking on this issue, the data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.”  (The Public School Advantage, pp. xvii-xviii)

(This post has been updated to correct that the CH-UH School District in Ohio lost one-third of its state aid to EdChoice vouchers, not one-third of its total budget.)

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...