College & Workforce Readiness

Voucher Advocacy Shifting Focus, Report Says

By Christina A. Samuels — July 27, 2011 4 min read
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Voucher proponents have shifted their advocacy efforts from extolling the academic achievement of voucher participants to focusing on the value of school choice as a virtue in itself, according to a report from the Center on Education Policy, in Washington.

The education research and advocacy group reviewed and synthesized a selection of a decade’s worth of research and policy moves in vouchers and school choice for the report, released today. In it, the researchers note that studies generally have shown that vouchers have “no clear positive impact” on student academic achievement and mixed results overall. In response to those studies, the CEP suggests, voucher advocates have started talking more about other perceived benefits of vouchers, including more parental choice and satisfaction, and higher graduation rates.

“It’s not to say that people don’t make an achievement argument, but we found more emphasis on some of these other areas, such as choice as a right and value in itself,” said Nancy Kober, a consultant to the CEP and a co-author of the report, called “Keeping Informed about School Vouchers: A Review of Major Developments and Research.”

But organizations that support vouchers criticized the CEP review, suggesting that the authors chose which studies they wanted to review and shaded responses to make academic achievement of voucher recipients look weaker than it really is.

The CEP does not have an official view on vouchers, Ms. Kober said. However, the organization wants lawmakers to have the latest information before considering such policies, particularly in light of the revenue shortfalls that many states are experiencing.

“What is the best use of public tax dollars when about 90 percent of students in the U.S. go to public schools?” Ms. Kober asked. “When you have limited money, what’s the best use of that money to reform the schools where most of the children will be? That’s a critical question for the state legislatures to be looking at.”

Publicly Funded Programs

Publicly funded school vouchers allow parents to receive money from the government that they can then use to pay tuition at a private school of their choice. The CEP review focused on those programs. It did not examine studies of privately funded vouchers; tax credits to families or corporations for payments made for children’s private school tuition, such as in Arizona; or voucher programs intended solely for students with disabilities or students in foster care.

After reviewing 27 studies, the researchers found some general trends:

• Several recent studies show gains in achievement are about the same for low-income students receiving vouchers as they are for comparable public school students. For example, students in grades 3-8 who participated in the Milwaukee voucher program had rates of achievement growth over three years that were similar to those of a random sample of Milwaukee public school students with similar characteristics.

• Voucher programs are moving beyond their traditional base of serving low-income students to broader-based programs that would be available to middle-class families, such as new programs in Indiana and Douglas County, Colo.

• Many of the studies that have been done on vouchers have been conducted or sponsored by groups that support that particular educational reform effort, such as the Foundation for Educational Choice, based in Indianapolis, and School Choice Wisconsin, located in Milwaukee. Ms. Kober hypothesized that other groups may be turning their attention to different public school reform issues.

Groups that support vouchers are fully capable of conducting rigorous research, Ms. Kober said. However, those studies should be peer-reviewed and the funding sources made clear, she said.

The report also noted that some research found that voucher students graduate at a higher rate than their public school peers, and that overall achievement at public schools was higher in those schools most affected by voucher competition. However, the report said it is difficult to tease out causation in those results, because schools most affected by vouchers often are targeted for other intensive school reform efforts.

Surveys of voucher recipients showed they are generally quite happy with their choice, the report noted.

Some studies included in the group’s report have shown that vouchers reduce costs for some taxpayers, but by shifting the costs to another level of government.

Report Criticized

Both the report’s methodology and its conclusions came in for criticism from voucher advocacy groups.

“CEP’s study narrowly cherry-picks school choice studies in a handful of states and inaccurately characterizes the results of these studies,” said Andrew Campanella, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children, a leading voucher advocacy program based in Washington. He said the study ignores voucher programs, like those for students with disabilities, and discounts the credibility of research into school voucher programs in Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

Greg Forster, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice, said the CEP review is written to make it sound as if the results of a handful of studies can be used to draw broad conclusions. And the review also offers no definition of what would be a “strong” effect of voucher programs.

His organization has conducted its own analysis of empirical research into voucher programs and found that the benefits from such program are sometimes large, but usually modest in size. No studies have found a negative effect on voucher recipients, Mr. Forster said. If the benefits shown thus far are modest, that is a reflection of small programs that have limited numbers of students participating.

“We should aim for something higher, but we should not demand miracles of small, restricted programs,” Mr. Forster said. “When the small, restricted programs produce moderately positive results, that indicates we should be trying bigger things.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as Voucher Advocacy Shifting Focus, Report Says

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