3 studies show poor academic results for vouchers

In Betsy DeVos, the US has its first top education official committed to making vouchers and other market-based reforms work, particularly for private religious schools, the New York Times reports. Unfortunately for that effort, new data suggest that vouchers may actually harm the students who receive them.

Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio together enroll about one-third of the total voucher students nationwide, so there is some correlative data about how voucher programs are doing.

In a February 2015 study in Indiana, researchers found students who received vouchers performed worse on mathematics tests than their public school peers who didn’t receive vouchers. A study a few months later in Louisiana found similar results in math and added reading to the list subjects in which voucher kids perform worse than their peers, although the academic progress recovered a little during the second year students were enrolled in the voucher schools:

While math performance is important for children’s futures, schools teach students other lessons as well, and the New Orleans study was remarkable in that it also examined students’ non-cognitive development by looking at:

In these areas, researchers found no real differences between voucher recipients and other subgroups, so the main focus of these findings is in tested academic subjects.

The third study, which comes from the conservative Thomas B Fordham Institute, a think tank, showed findings from Ohio consistent with the Indiana and New Orleans studies. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the report states. Results were worse in math.

I want to point out that these are correlative, not causative, studies, and none of them say giving kids’ families money to help offset tuition at private schools causes harm directly. There are any number of variables involved in these kids’ lives, including in the New Orleans study, the outcome of a lottery for selecting students in over-crowded private or charter schools in the city.

“The pupils who actually use a voucher to attend private schools are primarily low-income and minority children,” Fordham writes, revealing the likelihood that factors like poverty, unrelated to the quality of instruction at the schools, may have played a role in the test score reductions observed. It may also be the case that concurrent constancy in the scores of public school students who were eligible for, but didn’t use, the vouchers means the educational programming at the public schools wasn’t significantly affected by the presence of the voucher program.

But for three independent studies to come up consistently negative is telling. One study could be a hit or miss, but three in a row starts to look like a pattern.

So we ask, What are voucher students doing that makes them lose ground in math and reading over voucher-eligible students who continue to attend public schools?

Competition is replaced with brand loyalty

It seems pretty simple to me, so to explain briefly, we point out that vouchers are completely, 100 percent, about money, not education. They don’t confer upon students the right to get a better education; they confer on families the right to get money from the government, into which we all pay taxes.

We pay taxes for the benefit of the common good, but voucher programs redirect that money to private, sometimes for-profit corporations whose executives are sometimes more interested in cutting expenses to benefit shareholders than in looking after the quality of education provided to their students.

The schools have some rich CEOs, too, some of them making more than governors in the states that have passed laws that allow their very existence. There’s some positive news here, though. Last month, North Carolina’s governor asked business leaders to push for improving salaries for teachers in favor of tax breaks for themselves, according to a report in the Charlotte Observer.

“There are a lot of Republicans who support public education who are in the General Assembly,” the paper quoted Gov Roy Cooper, a Democrat, as saying. “One of the things we can all agree on: We aren’t paying our teachers and principals enough.”

It seems illogical that government would send tax money, collected from all citizens for the public good, to religious schools, whose corporations are exempt from paying taxes themselves. But that’s what voucher programs do: emphasizing money, not the quality of education, which has been shown in correlative studies to suffer for voucher recipients.

Now, money can drive improvements in school quality, based on market-friendly strategies that corporations are very good at and schools focus less on, such as competition. Still, if schools have to compete for money, they could be driven to serve their true customers, the students, in better or at least more efficient ways. At least that’s what voucher proponents argue, seeming to say that the threat of losing money will drive schools to improve their product.

Unfortunately, competition only drives improvements when people have a choice of suppliers. If McDonald’s is the only restaurant within walking distance of my house and I don’t own a car, they can serve garbage and I’m still going to eat it. There may be a Wendy’s in the next town, but competition won’t drive the McDonald’s in my town to serve me better if I can’t get there.

Just think about how Subway restaurants advertise on their napkins how much fat a Big Mac and Whopper have, compared to their low-fat sandwiches. For-profit schools and voucher proponents do the same thing with math and reading test scores, and it’s interesting that their own game is now being played against them.

Anyway, just as kids grow to make friends and love their teachers and school, I would probably grow to love McDonald’s in the above scenario. That doesn’t mean I’m eating right, but it means if someone sends me a survey, I’m going to give it a good score. Then, even if someone built a Wendy’s right next to the McDonald’s, my loyalty would have been cemented. It works like inertia in terms of market forces.

Imagine now that the McDonald’s is a for-profit school that’s convenient for me to get my kid to. Maybe it’s right by where I work, and I can drop my kid off in the morning. Assuming the school doesn’t have any actual scandals with money, I’m going to welcome a tax credit or voucher from the government to help with tuition at this school.

Personally I don’t pay attention to the “big picture” of school funding, because, as in the above analogy, how McDonald’s chooses to market its products to consumers isn’t really any of my business, and spending my money on a Big Mac is entirely my choice. I really don’t have any more information to understand school funding fully, so my tendency is to let the government do its thing with my tax dollars, knowing that they’re accountable to the people for their choices through our democracy. After a while, switching kids out of a school they love becomes harder and harder, and the quality does’t matter as much.

That’s just how good businesses, including for-profit schools, play the game with competition. They spend disproportionately on attracting new students, and less on keeping them, because they’re businessmen, and they naturally assume “brand” loyalty will kick in. And it does, because kids make friends and grow accustomed to routines at their own school, regardless of what’s happening at other schools. Competition has lost its sting, and math education suffers.

But vouchers make this strategy completely my business.

Online charter schools are the worst, too, when it comes to developing flashy marketing campaigns to attract students. Not surprisingly, these centers, focused solely on profit, are the worst at maintaining quality to keep students learning.

Why do the feds get involved? Because voters almost always reject the whole idea of vouchers (September 2015 Gallup Poll). This happened in 28 state-level referendums between 1966 and 2014 and continues today. Millions of voters have consistently rejected the idea of sending tax dollars to for-profit or religious schools. Even in Michigan, where Ms DeVos’s family owns and runs a charter school, voters readily rejected vouchers a few times (1970, 1978, 2000).

Not only do voters object on constitutional grounds, opposing the sending of money to corporations that teach religion, but they also don’t feel right about the privatization of public services, which hasn’t worked well in the for-profit prison industry, for example.

“Suppose a manager who runs a welfare-service facility can make two types of investment: some improve quality, while others reduce cost at the expense of quality. Additionally, suppose that such investments are difficult to specify in a contract,” summarized the Nobel committee in describing the contributions of Oliver Hart, a Harvard economist who won the prize in 2016. “If the government owns the facility and employs a manager to run it, the manager will have little incentive to provide either type of investment, since the government cannot credibly promise to reward these efforts. If a private contractor provides the service, incentives for investing in both quality and cost reduction are stronger.”

This research brings multiple conclusions, including the need, as government officials in North Carolina seem to know, to give teachers incentives to teach better. It also concludes that private industry will tend to emphasize cost reductions over quality improvements more than the other way around, which means, on average, the quality of services provided by privatized public functions will decrease over time.

When it comes to McDonald’s, I can always start my diet tomorrow. But with schools, a year or two lost can make all the difference in a child’s educational and life trajectories. High-tech jobs, we see in the US, require several foreign workers, because our schools in a milieu of contrived competition, spurred by unwanted government programs like vouchers, have turned away from providing services that retain students, like developing great and fun lesson plans. They are therefore more focused on cost-cutting measures and endeavors that attract new students, like marketing and advertising. The math is secondary.

At the end of the day, vouchers hurt traditional public schools and good private schools alike, although the reasons are somewhat different. Public schools lose money and then have to cut fun or educational programming, reducing the overall quality of the school. Private schools will tend to divert funding to attracting new students and consequently away from developing fun or educational programming for existing students. The only ones served by vouchers are the shareholders of the corporations that own for-profit schools or virtual centers that say they provide an education for US children.

About the Author

Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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