Pundits have been wringing their hands over the “learning loss” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the largest decline in decades.
But if people care about what kids are and aren’t learning, they should be every bit as alarmed by the private school voucher programs that are spreading across the country.
That’s according to Joshua Cowen, a Michigan State University education policy professor. He’s been studying vouchers and following the research for two decades, and he says the evidence is crystal clear that voucher programs don’t work when it comes to helping students learn.
In a recent episode of “Have You Heard,” an education podcast, he said thorough evaluations of large-scale voucher programs – in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. – found overwhelmingly negative effects on learning as measured by test scores.
“We’ve seen some of the biggest drops in test scores that we’ve ever seen in the research community for people who take vouchers and go to private schools,” he said.
The impact on math scores, in some cases, was twice as large as the test-score decline associated with the pandemic, he said. It was on the scale of what New Orleans students lost when Hurricane Katrina shut down schools and forced families from their homes.
“They suffered that badly, in terms of their test scores,” he said. “We’re talking about nine or 10 months loss of learning. It’s massive.”
Cowen was part of an official team that evaluated an early voucher program in Milwaukee. Initially, he said, research on small-scale voucher programs in cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington showed some positive results. He was cautiously optimistic.
“But in 2022 the evidence is just too stark to justify the use of public money to fund private tuition,” he wrote this summer in a guest column for Hechinger Report.
Cowen said he naively thought the conclusive research findings would put a nail in the coffin for state voucher programs. In fact, the opposite has happened. There are now 29 voucher programs in 16 states enrolling over 300,000 students, according to the pro-voucher group EdChoice. Arizona recently adopted a “universal voucher” program. Some states have adopted Education Savings Accounts, private-school tax credits and other neo-voucher programs.
Indiana expanded its already large voucher program in 2021. The program grew last year to over 44,000 students at a cost to the public of nearly a quarter billion dollars. Nearly all participating private schools are religious, and some discriminate by religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. A 2018 evaluation of the effects of Indiana’s program – cited by Cowen and conducted by professors at Notre Dame and the University of Kentucky – found significant test-score declines in math.
Why haven’t voucher programs disappeared if they don’t work? The title of the “Have You Heard” episode sums it up: “Moving the Goalposts.”
Advocates initially promoted vouchers to help struggling students in “failing” public schools. They don’t even pretend that’s the case today. Vouchers are now an ideological project framed around “freedom” or “choice,” promoted by deep-pocketed ideologues like the Walton and DeVos families.
Families have every right to send their children to schools that advance religion but do an inferior job of teaching math and reading. But when states promote and pay for it? As public policy, that’s indefensible.
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