Study: Learning loss persists for voucher students

Indiana students who used vouchers to transfer to private schools fell behind their public-school peers academically, according to a study by researchers at the universities of Kentucky and Notre Dame.

And the loss of learning persisted for several years. That’s significant, because a preliminary version of the study, made public a year ago, suggested voucher students might catch up if they stayed in private schools for three or four years.

“We don’t see that rebound effect” in the published results, co-author and University of Kentucky professor Joseph Waddington told me. “The test scores remained where they were.”

The study, by Waddington and Notre Dame’s Mark Berends, was published last week in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. It found voucher students saw their scores on the state’s ISTEP-plus mathematics tests fall 0.15 standard deviation behind their peers the year they moved to a private school. They stayed that far behind for their second, third and fourth years in private schools.

How much is 0.15 standard deviation? Waddington said students in the study, on average, scored at about the 40th percentile on math tests. Vouchers students’ scores declined by 5 or 6 percentile points.

The study found no impact from vouchers, positive or negative, on English/language arts test scores.

“Although school vouchers aim to provide greater educational opportunities for students, the goal of improving the academic performance of low-income students who use a voucher to move to a private school has not yet been realized in Indiana,” the authors write.

Much news coverage last year of the preliminary results focused on the finding that voucher students regained the learning they lost. But that finding disappeared, Waddington and Berends said, as they fine-tuned their statistical analysis in response to suggestions from reviewers and editors at the academic journal.

The study analyzed grade 3-8 test scores from 2009-10 through 2014-15 for low-income students who used vouchers to move from public to private schools. Indiana gives a “full” tuition voucher – 90 percent of the cost of attending public school – to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The state’s voucher program has grown to include over 35,000 students attending more than 300 private schools, most of them religious schools, at a cost of $154 million.

The study found little difference in results for Catholic, Protestant or other private schools. Results were largely similar for white, black and Hispanic students.

Indiana legislators approved the voucher program in 2011 on the argument that it would give poor children access to better schools, but the study suggests that didn’t happen.

It may be, as West Lafayette attorney Doug Masson writes on his blog, that improving education was merely a pretext for lawmakers – that their real motivations were to punish teachers’ unions, reward friends and fund religious education. But if that’s the case, Hoosiers should insist on honest discussions about the policy rationale for continuing the program.

In fact, evidence keeps piling that voucher programs aren’t helping kids academically while they’re diverting resources from the public schools that serve most students. A recent study from the University of Virginia found that test-score advantages for private schools disappeared when researchers adjusted for students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. An update last week from the National Education Policy Center cited the Virginia study and a 2013 book by Indiana University professors Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher Lubienski as evidence that public schools are as good or better than private schools.

Voucher advocates can read the studies too, and they have moved on from talking about academics. The new rationale for vouchers is that parents should be able to choose the school that’s the best “fit” for their child – public or private, religious or not – and the public should pay, no questions asked.

Meanwhile, Indiana’s voucher program keeps changing, creating a moving target for attempts to evaluate it. Lawmakers created new pathways for qualifying for vouchers and eliminated the requirement that voucher students must first attend a public school for a year. Now, 55 percent of voucher students have never attended a public school.

Waddington and Berends said they’re working on further studies of the effects of vouchers on different categories of students and long-term factors such as graduation rates and college success.

1 thought on “Study: Learning loss persists for voucher students

  1. Pingback: Advantage, public schools | School Matters

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