No Test-Score Edge Found for Cleveland Voucher Students

February 21, 2006 2 min read

A new study of the Cleveland voucher program finds that participating students did not show higher test-score gains than comparison students, and in fact performed slightly worse in math.

The report by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, housed at Teachers College, Columbia University, adds fuel to the long-standing debate over private school vouchers.

Clive R. Belfield, the center’s associate director, said his reanalysis of data from 2000 and 2002 revealed no academic advantages for voucher users. And in mathematics, one of three subjects covered, he said the vouchers actually correlated with a “moderate disadvantage, equal to one-tenth of the black-white test gap.”

“The Evidence on Education Vouchers: An Application to the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program” is posted by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.

“Basically, this [report] asks: Each year, how much faster do voucher students’ scores grow, relative to other children’s scores?” he said. “The answer [is] ‘No faster, perhaps even slower.’ ”

Mr. Belfield said that some important constraints on the available data urge caution in interpreting the results.

“Ideally, one would want to use an experimental design,” he said, referring to a random-assignment approach with a control group. “In the absence of that, these are the only data we have.”

The Cleveland program, launched in 1995, provides students with tuition vouchers to attend religious or secular private schools. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state-financed program against a legal challenge in the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, saying that the vouchers did not unconstitutionally blend church and state.

Ohio is expanding its voucher effort with a program, starting next fall, that will provide state-financed scholarships of up to $5,000 each for as many as 14,000 students who attend public schools that the state declares in “academic emergency” for three straight years. Currently, more than 5,700 students receive vouchers worth up to $3,000 each through the Cleveland program, which gives preference to low-income families.

Findings Similar

Mr. Belfield’s study, issued this month, re-examines data that have been scrutinized by the Indiana Center for Evaluation at Indiana University, which was under contract with the state of Ohio to evaluate the program.

Kim K. Metcalf, who oversaw the earlier evaluation, said the new findings are fairly consistent, despite some differences in analytical approach that he described as “absolutely defensible.”

“He found essentially the same things we did over time,” Mr. Metcalf, who now is the director of assessment for the 11,000-student Monroe County school district in Bloomington, Ind., said of Mr. Belfield.

However, Mr. Metcalf said, his own research did not discern any negative effects for the vouchers.

“There appeared to be no consistent advantage or disadvantage for voucher users for 1st through 5th grade,” he said. “But unlike Clive, at no time did we find that voucher users did less well.”

The Belfield study, which examined 2nd and 4th graders in 2000 and 2002, makes some adjustments.

First, it adds a new group: students who used the vouchers temporarily but then returned to public schools. Other groups compared were students who received vouchers, those who requested vouchers but were turned down, and a sample of students in regular Cleveland public schools. It also adjusts for the prior achievement of students.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as No Test-Score Edge Found for Cleveland Voucher Students