Dismal Voucher Results Surprise Researchers

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

Three new studies show surprisingly bad results from school vouchers:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

There’s always the chance that a single study, no matter how well designed, is an outlier. Studies of older voucher programs in Milwaukee and elsewhere have generally produced mixed results, sometimes finding modest improvements in test scores, but only for some subjects and student groups. Until about a year ago, however, few if any studies had shown vouchers causing test scores to decline drastically.

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

If the voucher programs are new, and all the existing private schools are aimed at (slightly) better-than-average students, perhaps the schools are just a terrible fit.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    There is no way to compensate for a low IQ.

  2. Ross says:

    “…received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores….”

    Which tests?

    “…started at the 50th percentile in math and … dropped to the 26th percentile…”

    Against which metric?

    The third study, from a “pro-voucher” foundation, compared “closely matched peers” in public schools. “Once again, results were worse in math.”

    Matched,how? Worse in which metric(s)?

  3. Wilson says:

    First thing to look at would be if the public schools are faking the test results, can’t trust those researchers if they don’t even consider the possibility

  4. Borepatch says:

    In this day of politicized science it’s worth knowing who funded the study. Given the huge reproducibility problem in science in general (and in climate science in particular), a health skepticism of social science seems called for – particularly when it runs counter to common sense.

  5. Alrenous says:

    We know the NCLB program has mainly caused a lot of test score fudging. If vouchers are all of a sudden causing declines, it’s pretty likely to be due to them being unaware they’re supposed to fudge. Or perhaps not knowing whose palms to grease to get away with it.

  6. Lucklucky says:

    “There is no way to compensate for a low IQ.”

    Of course there are; IQ is not a fixed number. It can be way improved and way downgraded.

  7. Chris C. says:

    I would want to know if the private schools are, as in some states I am familiar with, required to teach the same curriculum as the state-run schools. If what is being taught is garbage, the skill of the garbage handler is largely irrelevant.

  8. Wan Weilin says:

    So an under-educated and unprepared student moves from an under-rated public school into a superior educational environment. The students are at a disadvantage in the rigors of a good educational environment. It’s like doing chemo right before you die instead of early then blaming the chemo for poor success.

  9. Kirk says:

    Given how politicized this stuff is, I really don’t trust the numbers without seeing who paid for them, and how they were derived.

    A hundred-odd years ago, we had high-school graduates like my grandmother teaching in one-room schools out in rural Eastern Oregon. Oddly enough, all of her students managed to leave her tutelage knowing how to read and write up to at least the standard expected for literacy, back then–Which was a hell of a lot higher than the dumbed-down curricula they consider passable today.

    Why is it, that with all the resources and time lavished on these schools today, along with the highly-credentialed personnel we put in charge of education, that we have such lousy results, by comparison?

    Could it possibly be that we’re being swindled, one and all, by these so-called “educators”?

  10. Bill says:

    This cracks me up.

    Since you can’t tell where you were (public school systems engage in massive fraud about student test results) and you can’t tell where you are (you don’t suppose that a for-profit school would in any way, um, short-change or cheat students) and you can’t tell where you are going (one way to encourage more spending on education is to falsely label a student as needing more education)…

    This cracks me up.

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