School Choice & Charters

Effect of Vouchers on Achievement Unclear, GAO Says

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 10, 2001 3 min read
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Advocates for vouchers say they’re convinced of the success of the option, even though a U.S. General Accounting Office report issued last week concludes that research doesn’t provide a definitive answer on whether publicly financed tuition-voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee have raised student achievement.

“School Vouchers: Publicly Funded Programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee” is available from the U. S. General Accounting Office. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“We don’t disagree that there’s not conclusive evidence that the programs are absolutely, completely, 100 percent excellent,” said Kaleem Caire, the president and chief executive officer of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a nonprofit Washington group that supports school choice.

But he added: “They’re looking at straight test scores. They’re not looking at all the other factors that relate to student achievement.”

The GAO report, “School Vouchers: Publicly Funded Programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee,” released Oct. 1, reviews both research conducted by state-contracted evaluation teams and by independent researchers on the impact of the state-enacted programs on student achievement.

The study by the investigative arm of Congress focuses on whether students improved their standardized-test scores because that’s what the research studies have focused on, said Diana M. Pietrowiak, an assistant director of the GAO.

While the state-contracted evaluations found little or no difference between the academic achievement of voucher students and public school students in the two districts, some studies by other researchers found that voucher students did perform better on tests in some subjects.

“None of the findings can be considered definitive,” the GAO analysis concludes, “because the researchers obtained different results when they used different methods to compensate for weaknesses in the data.”

The GAO “didn’t look at issues of parent and student satisfaction,” said Christian N. Braunlich, the vice president of the Center for Education Reform, another Washington-based organization that advocates school choice. In addition, Mr. Braunlich said that he disagreed with the criteria used to exclude some studies.

A week before the report’s release, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that challenges the inclusion of religious schools in the Cleveland voucher program. (“Supreme Court to Hear Pivotal Voucher Case,” Oct. 3, 2001.)

Incomplete Information

The report points to other unknowns in how voucher programs have been implemented. It says, for instance, that it is unclear to what extent schools participating in the Cleveland and Milwaukee programs have used random selection for enrolling students because no one has monitored that aspect.

In addition, the report notes that all of the information about the test scores of Milwaukee voucher participants was collected in the program’s first five years. Such information hasn’t been collected in the past five years, yet the city’s voucher program has expanded greatly during that time.

All those unknowns point to what one opponent of vouchers contends is a general lack of oversight of the voucher programs by government and taxpayers.

Schools using vouchers “need to be treated more like the public schools,” said Marc Egan, the director of the Voucher Strategies Center at the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, which opposes vouchers. “They need to be open to the public in terms of how their dollars are spent, what their students are learning, and whether the students are learning better than their public school peers.”

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