School Choice & Charters

Privately Financed Vouchers Help Black Students, Two Studies Find

By Darcia Harris Bowman — September 06, 2000 3 min read

Black students who used privately financed vouchers to switch to private schools in four cities are showing steady academic gains over their public school peers, according to two studies released last week.

For More Information

Both reports on available online. Read the Harvard report, “Test-Score Effects of School Vouchers in Dayton, Ohio, New York City, and Washington D.C.: Evidence from Randomized Field Trials”; and the
Manhattan Institute report, “The Effect of School Choice: An Evaluation of the Charlotte Children’s Scholarship Fund.” (Both require Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

In New York City, Washington, and Dayton, Ohio, black students who received vouchers averaged 6 percentile points higher on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in mathematics and reading after two years than students who had applied for the scholarships but remained in public schools, a study by Harvard University researchers found.

A similar study conducted by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research found that the standardized-test scores of students who used such vouchers in Charlotte, N.C., increased by 6 percentile points after one year in math and 7 points in reading when compared with those of students who remained in public schools.

“It is now clear from several well-designed studies that school choice has significant academic benefits,” said Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of the Charlotte study. “Most sensible people are now recognizing that the evidence shows that it does.”

While black students in the Harvard study appeared to benefit from the voucher programs, students from other ethnic and racial groups showed no significant improvement over their counterparts in public schools.

Paul E. Peterson, a lead researcher on the study and the director of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, said one possible reason for the disparity is the quality of the public schools that the black voucher recipients attended before switching to private schools.

In surveys conducted as part of the study, more black parents reported differences between their children’s public and private schools than parents of any other background, Mr. Peterson said.

“More black parents were saying the [private] schools were smaller, there were fewer discipline problems, more homework, and more communication with parents,” he said.

The Charlotte report did not break out results by race or ethnic group, Mr. Greene said, but the vast majority of students in that program also were African-American.

Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, which opposes vouchers, called the Harvard analysis “incomplete at best” and charged that it was “biased from the get-go.” She also accused the researchers of overstating the results.

Among other problems, she said, the authors failed to factor in differences that may exist between public school students who applied for vouchers and those who did not, or to account for relatively high dropout rates in the first year of some of the programs, all of which are financed at least in part by the Children’s Scholarship Fund of New York City. Mr. Peterson said the study does account for the dropout rates.

Methods and Message

Mr. Peterson was heavily criticized by voucher opponents in the mid-1990s for his analyses of publicly financed voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee.

This time, however, the vouchers in each of the four programs studied were awarded by lottery, and researchers were able to compare students who won scholarships with those who did not but whose families wanted them.

“While one can always say the evidence is inconclusive, denying that there are academic benefits from school choice is beginning to sound like tobacco companies denying the link between smoking and cancer,” Mr. Greene said.

Some longtime skeptics say that while the methods of the latest studies are better, the message is still biased in favor of vouchers.

“One of the strengths of these studies seems to be the form of randomized selection they used,” said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington and a vocal proponent of traditional public education. “But they pushed the most favorable findings into the headlines and put the negative aspects in the footnotes.”

A bipartisan panel convened by Mr. Jennings’ organization last year concluded that no single study or group of studies available at the time provided definitive evidence that vouchers are an effective policy for improving education and raising student academic achievement. The group called for longer-term evaluations of voucher programs and more studies of broader scope and diversity.

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