School & District Management

Voucher Studies in Louisiana, Indiana Show Problems in Early Years

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 26, 2017 5 min read
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UPDATED 2:30 p.m.

In results likely to add fuel to an already fiery debate over President Trump’s planned expansion of private school vouchers, new evaluations show mixed results for voucher students in Indiana and Louisiana, particularly in students’ first years in private schools.

“Indiana, Louisiana, even Ohio, they are all very different voucher programs, very different private schools participating, different students that are eligible, and the fact that there is this remarkable consistency in some ways is very surprising,” said R. Joseph Waddington, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky and co-author of the Indiana program evaluation. “Something that’s really come out of it is ... students seem to struggle to integrate when they transition into private schools.”

In Louisiana, researchers from the University of Arkansas found students statewide who switched from public to private schools using the Louisiana Scholarship Program’s lottery showed no benefit in language arts or math after three years, compared to students who remained in public school. Students showed a significant drop in performance in their first year—25 percentile points on average in math—but began to recover over the next two years in their new school.

The Louisiana evaluation found a subgroup of students who started as low-performing in English did grow significantly after three years, as compared to matched students who remained in public schools. However, students who started in private schools in lower elementary grades declined significantly in math during the same time.

The Louisiana evaluations “are significant for their insignificance,” said John White, the state schools chief, in an Urban Institute symposium on the voucher study. “You are left as a policymaker saying ‘what is the significance of [vouchers] from a policy standpoint.’”

White said he was not surprised that public and private schools performed generally equally when measured on the same scale, and argued that the study showed both that vouchers might show promise as an intervention for some students and that voucher programs need regulations and accountability for schools.

“These findings suggest that policymakers should drop ideological cases for either unregulated private school choice or no public funding of private schools at all. Instead, we should advocate for funding, admissions, and accountability systems that make available to the nation’s most disadvantaged children as many verifiably high-quality schools as possible, whether they be public or private,” he said.

Similarly in Indiana, a forthcoming study by Waddington of the University of Kentucky and Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame (which has not yet completed peer review), also found that students in grades 3-8 who switched from public to private schools using the Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program lost significant ground in math and showed no gain in language arts during the first years in their new schools, compared to students who remained in public schools. Indiana’s voucher program—which has grown to be the largest in the country—is not lottery based, so researchers created a matched group of more than 121,000 low-income students attending public schools to compare to nearly 4,000 voucher students who transferred from a public to a private school.

“Overall, voucher students are lower-achieving students from the public sector and enter private schools substantially behind their private school peers,” wrote Berends and Waddington in the study. “During the [Indiana voucher program’s] first few years of implementation, many private schools lacked the capacity or experience in educating new students who are academically behind.”

In Indiana as in Louisiana, the biggest declines came in the first two years; researchers found voucher students improved in later years if they stayed in their private school.

“There isn’t any single school voucher effect that we have identified,” said Patrick Wolf, professor and chair in school choice at the University of Arkansas, who co-authored the Louisiana evaluation. “There are a lot of different effects for different participants and we’ve a long way to go to nail down best practices” for developing voucher programs.

Both Indiana and Louisiana have large statewide voucher programs. With more than 30,000 students statewide in 2016-17, Indiana’s is the largest voucher program in the country—open to students in low- and middle-income families. Both states require private schools that accept voucher students to participate in accountability testing.

Admission and Integration

The Louisiana evaluation found schools that accepted vouchers were disproportionately Catholic and more likely to have lower tuitions and enrollment and higher proportions of minority students than private schools that did not accept vouchers. That led to the somewhat paradoxical finding that Louisiana vouchers left students’ original public schools more racially diverse—as black and Hispanic students left their their overwhelmingly black and Hispanic public schools—but the vouchers did not make the accepting private schools more diverse.

“The existence of a voucher doesn’t provide access necessarily, though it can be a step in that direction,” said Douglas Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, of the findings.

In Indiana, Berends noted that there was almost universal participation of Catholic schools and strong participation by other private schools in the voucher program—but he noted that the sheer number of schools entering the voucher program may have contrinuted to lower performance of students using vouchers.

“This program was kind of rushed in its implementation and some schools were just better prepared to serve diverse students than other schools,” Waddington said.

Special Education

The Louisiana evaluation also found vouchers affected students with disabilities. In Louisiana, students who went to private schools using a voucher were slightly less likely to be identified for special education, and those who previously had been identified as having disabilities were significantly more likely to have their identification for special education services taken away once they started private school.

The Indiana study did not track special education identification screening, but did find that students with disabilities who used vouchers to attend private schools performed significantly worse on English/language arts than those who remained at public schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

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