Vouchers don’t help, they hurt

Dear Donald –

I’ve written before about the basic problems with Betsy’s obsession with private school vouchers. As your first budget rolls out in the coming weeks and months, it’s likely that you’ll recommend a sizable federal investment in them. Based on what you’ve said before, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t over a billion dollars next year. 

In education, we like evidence to support our initiatives.  We may try something to improve results for kids, and if it doesn’t work, we move on and try something else. In government, taxpayers don’t like their money getting spent on things that don’t work. So that begs the question, what do we know about vouchers?

A new article in the New York Times summarizes three recent studies on private school vouchers and, in very instance, it’s not that kids who took the vouchers didn’t do any better than the kids who stayed in public schools, it’s that they did worse than kids who didn’t take the vouchers. That’s right. Worse. Kids who were at the 50th percentile when they took the voucher actually ended up in the 26th percentile. In Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio, students did worse in private schools than they did in public schools. 

There are a wide array of factors that could explain this. First of all, undersubscribed private school are more likely to accept vouchers, as they have seats available and may need revenue. These schools may actually be undersubscribed for the very reason that they are lower quality. Also, it is possible that the protections and supports that students have in public schools, such as epically education and related services,  are missing in private schools. 

Other studies have shown that students attending private schools using vouchers were more likely to advance in school and graduate, though that outcome is questionable given that criteria for advancement and graduation are determined by the individual private school, so public and private school students are not necessarily being held to the same standard, unlike with standardized testing data. 

And to be sure, any increase in soft skills that result from the private school attendance are surely offset by the marked falloff in academic performance. If you told a parent that their student could attend a private school and get a little better at code switching but would fall half a year or more behind their peers educationally, I don’t know of many who would take you up on the offer. 

 It’s unheard of for educational interventions to actually hurt students. Rule #1 in research is to first do no harm. If this study were being overseen by an Institutional Review Board, they’d quickly pull the plug on it. It’s unethical do continue doing something you know creates a harm. Now it seems as though we’re going to make it federal policy. 

Public policy should be based on what we know works, or at least what we think might work.  We know this doesn’t work. Let’s stop pretending. 

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