Families & the Community

Study: Catholic ‘Brand’ Satisfied Voucher Parents

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 17, 2011 6 min read
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What parents perceive as the Catholic school “brand” of academic rigor and strong discipline, among other traits, has held up for a majority of parents participating in the District of Columbia’s controversial school voucher program, concludes a study published in the spring edition of Education Finance and Policy, a peer-reviewed journal.

Out of 159 parents who used vouchers to send their children to Roman Catholic schools in the nation’s capital starting in the fall 1998 and from whom researchers were able to obtain surveys both initially and two years later, 79 percent were still using those federally financed vouchers for Catholic schools by the spring of 2000, the researchers found. But 33 participants, or 21 percent, had left Catholic schools and the voucher program—fewer than is often the case for urban voucher programs.

The researchers counted parents who kept their children in Catholic schools with vouchers for at least one school year as satisfied with the Catholic brand and those who had withdrawn as not.

The fact that so many families who had sought to use vouchers for Catholic schools stayed in those schools is “a pretty strong track record,” said study co-author Patrick J. Wolf, a professor of education and the holder of an endowed chair in school choice at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Typically, he said, about 70 percent of parents on average in an urban voucher program persist with it. “It certainly provides evidence against [the arguments of] some voucher critics that voucher programs are undesirable because they force parents to send their kids to religious schools when they don’t want to.”

The study’s other author is Julie R. Trivitt, an assistant professor of economics at Arkansas Tech University, in Russellville.

Very few families in the voucher program were actually Catholic, Mr. Wolf added, and the study shows that even so, many wanted to send their children to religious schools, particularly Catholic schools. In fact, non-Catholics were more likely to stick with those schools than Catholics, the study found.

Such research findings could be used to buttress arguments of Republican political leaders and others who have recently renewed efforts to launch or expand programs that provide public dollars for children to attend private schools. Earlier this month, for example, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, signed into law a measure that opens up school vouchers to some middle-income families.

School choice advocates are also celebrating Congress’ recent restoration of the District of Columbia voucher program—called the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—as part of a fiscal 2011 budget deal.

Persistence vs. Proximity

Not so fast, says Christopher Lubienski, an associate professor of education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In an email, he raised questions about the methodology of the branding study.

The researchers “assume that any persistence is due to brand effect, but it could also be to people feeling invested in their choice, or to loyalty to the institution,” he said. “I was wondering if any non-Catholic preference for Catholic schools is due to brand, as they assume, or to proximity.”

He added that data on other school choice initiatives show “there is much evidence that parents are not meeting the ideal of the rational consumer. They look to other issues like race or use bad information.”

Catholic schools played a large role in two early and well-known voucher programs, in Milwaukee and Cleveland, as well as in Washington, said Mr. Lubienski.

“In all of those cases, Catholic schools were rapidly losing numbers and money,” he said. “Policymakers were enamored with the idea of using the declining Catholic school system to create an alternative to the public schools, and bought in to the Catholic ‘brand’ as better, more effective, and efficient schools.”

The data for the new study’s analysis came in part from questionnaires that 1,582 applicants eligible for the District of Columbia voucher program filled out about their school preferences. At that point, 40 percent of parents said they wanted a Catholic school. Of those parents who were eligible, 353 were offered and used vouchers. The analysis also focused on surveys conducted in 1999 and 2000 of voucher users; the study drills in on 210 voucher users who filled out the surveys three times.

The study only indirectly addresses the fact that parents may have selected Catholic schools because on average they charge less tuition than private schools do, noting that parents who prefer Catholic schools are willing to tolerate larger-than-normal class sizes because that keeps costs down. Mr. Wolf said he believes, nonetheless, that “branding is still doing a lot of the work” in attracting parents.

Amber M. Winkler, the research director for the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which favors school choice, noted that the study is small-scale and was conducted with old data, which the researchers are upfront about.

She said it’s useful, however, because “we have virtually no research on how schools of choice brand themselves.” Besides Catholic schools, she said, some charter schools, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, have been good at establishing brands.

Ms. Winkler said that as school choice grows, “schools would be wise to spend a lot more time thinking about how they can differentiate what they offer.”

Feedback Is Mixed

Judging from what parents said they wanted from a school in the initial survey, the researchers concluded that the data suggest that parents of the Catholic-school students in the Washington voucher program were satisfied with teacher quality and school safety, but were disappointed with academic quality and the level of school discipline. The study found that students were more likely to stay in the voucher program if their parents selected a Catholic school for religious instruction, the content of the curriculum, extracurricular activities, or special features of the school than if they selected it for other reasons.

The researchers speculated that Protestant families were more likely to stay in the voucher program than those who were Catholic because the Catholic brand today fits more closely the expectations of Protestants than those of Catholics who may have an outdated view based on personal experiences.

But James C. Carper, a professor of social foundations of education at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, said the researchers’ findings on that point might have been different had they teased out of the data whether voucher participants simply identified themselves as Catholics or Protestants or if they actually practiced the faiths. He suggested that people who don’t attend church regularly, for example, may tend to be less bothered by a mismatch of their religion and that of their child’s school than regular churchgoers.

The Rev. Ronald J. Nuzzi, the senior director of a leadership program in the Alliance for Catholic Education, an alternative teacher-preparation program at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, said the finding rings true that perception of the Catholic brand has offered a shortcut for parents to select schools in voucher programs.

However, Father Nuzzi said the study overlooks an important aspect of Catholic schools: Their reputed high expectations for learning and an ordered, disciplined environment stem from the Catholic faith. In an email, he cited beliefs such as the “God-given dignity of each child” and “the call to do one’s best because God has blessed each person with certain gifts.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Catholic ‘Brand’ Held Up in Voucher Program

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