What to make of another negative result for school vouchers

Students in Ohio’s private school voucher program make less academic progress than their peers in public schools. But the program has a positive effect on public school performance, perhaps because it spurs competition. While the program is aimed at mostly disadvantaged students from struggling public schools, it tends to attract the better-off students within that group.

In short, the key findings from a new, deep dive into the Buckeye State’s EdChoice program undercut some of the usual talking points on both sides of the school choice debate.

The report, published last week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is the first study of Ohio’s largest voucher program based on individual test results. The study looked at data through the 2012-13 school year for a program that serves some 18,000 students.

The research was done by David Figlio, a researcher who’s well known in Florida school choice circles and previously performed evaluations of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program*, along with Krzysztof Karbownik, a postdoctoral research fellow at Northwestern University.

Their findings have implications not just for Ohio, but for private school choice programs in other parts of the country. Here’s a look at what the study found, and why it matters.

The results

Student disadvantages

Ohio’s voucher program is targeted at students who attend public schools that score low in the state accountability system. Students who use vouchers tend to be economically disadvantaged, but compared to students who qualify for vouchers, the ones who actually use the program tend to be better off, both academically and socioeconomically.

This is the opposite of what happens in Florida, where students who accept tax credit scholarships* tend to have lower test scores and lower family incomes than disadvantaged students who qualify but don’t use the scholarship.

Why the difference between the two states? Figlio offered some potential explanations during a lunch presentation at the City Club of Cleveland. “In Florida, it’s much easier for disadvantaged kids to access” private schools using scholarships than it is in Ohio, he said. More on that in a minute.

Public school competition

Researchers found the Ohio choice program triggered some real, but small, improvements in public-school test scores. The researchers note the improvements they found were equal to roughly one-eighth of the test score gap between black and white students.

In their foreword interpreting the results, Fordham’s Aaron Churchill and Chad L. Aldis note this finding counters the argument that vouchers hurt students who remain in public schools, either by triggering an exodus of high achievers, or by draining funding away.

“Quite the opposite has occurred in the case of EdChoice: Achievement improved when the voucher program was introduced and public schools faced stiffer competition (and the risk of losing their own students),” they write.

This builds on numerous other studies of private school choice programs, which found similar improvements in public schools that faced new competition for low-income students.

Negative impact on voucher students

On the other hand, the students who actually used vouchers saw their test scores suffer more than the students who remained in public schools improved (though the number of public-school students who benefited was much larger).

Churchill and Aldis note:

The students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools. The study finds negative effects that are greater in math than in English language arts. Such impacts also appear to persist over time, suggesting that the results are not driven simply by the setbacks that typically accompany any change of school.

The report notes several possible explanations for these results. Ohio voucher students take the same tests as public school students, but the state accountability system puts more pressure on public schools to increase test scores. Private schools might not tie their curriculum to the state standards, which the tests are designed to measure. That might put voucher students at a disadvantage. The 74 broke down some other possibilities.

Still, it’s also possible that some private schools are simply, in the words of the Fordham authors, “not performing as well as they should.”

What now?

Churchill and Aldis have four recommendations to improve Ohio’s voucher program. Their recommendations are clearly relevant to private school choice programs in other places.

Awaken the competition

Research in Florida has found that students who have more public school options are less likely to accept scholarships to attend private schools. In other words, there’s reason to believe some parents are shopping among public and private schools, and would benefit from having more options across the board.

Churchill and Aldis argue:

A competitive jolt can awaken sleepy, lazy, or slipshod schools to clean up their act and attend more closely to the academic needs of their students. On the policy side, this means that lawmakers should continue to encourage a rich supply of school options, including not just private schools (in their many flavors, including religious and non-sectarian) but also public charter, STEM, and career and technical schools. At the same time, families can do their part by demanding more quality school choices. Competition and choice—two sides of the same coin—can incentivize all schools to work harder at meeting the needs of their pupils.

Easy on the regulations

Studies have found regulations and paperwork requirements can make some private school leaders iffy about accepting vouchers or tax credit scholarships. Private schools in Ohio are already more heavily regulated than their counterparts in Florida.

With that in mind, the Fordham authors suggest: “Policy makers should tread lightly when adding to schools’ regulatory burdens: After all, freedom from regulation is precisely what makes private schools different and—for many— worth attending in the first place.”

Increase transparency

To truly unleash competitive forces, Churchill and Aldis write, “state leaders should help families better understand the quality of their options by providing easy-to-compare information on the performance of voucher-accepting private schools.” Right now, they only have access to basic student test results that don’t account for student poverty levels or their achievement levels when they enter private schools. And even that information is hard for the public to find.

They argue states should develop “value-added” measures that show how much progress voucher students actually make once they enroll in private schools. Then, states should make that information readily accessible to parents, “perhaps in a reportcard-like format akin to those adopted for public schools.”

This simply doesn’t exist in most places. As Jeb Bush and others have recently argued, it should.

Keep things simple for parents

In Ohio, children only qualify for vouchers if their schools are classified as low-performing, and the state has no obligation to notify them. Once parents figure out they qualify, they have to gain admission to a private school, and then apply for a scholarship.

This multi-step process can be hard to navigate. To increase real choice and competition, the Fordham authors suggest making the process simpler.

Parents should automatically receive notification when their kids become eligible for vouchers, they write, and they should be able to apply for a scholarship and then state shopping around for private schools. This, they write, “would not only empower parents but also give policy makers a much clearer picture of the demand for vouchers.”

What we still don’t know

A string of recent studies in LouisianaIndiana and now Ohio recently found negative results for students who accept vouchers. But a debate continues to rage in school choice circles about why that is, and what to do about it.

As a result, Figlio and Karbownik conclude, “deeper study into the causes of these performance differences—related to differences in school quality, test-curriculum alignment, or other factors— should be a priority.”

Churchill and Aldis, meanwhile, point to other unknowns about the Ohio program. Test results for voucher students tend to be negative, but what about graduation rates or college attendance? These remain unanswered questions for other private school choice programs, too.

In short, school choice programs are growing larger and more mature, but there’s still a lot left to learn, and a lot left to improve.

*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer Florida’s tax credit scholarship program.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Florida schools roundup: Testing, longer school days, discipline and more - redefinEDFlorida schools roundup: Testing, longer school days, discipline and more - redefinED

  2. Maybe lawmakers should stop trying to make private schools conform to public schools. There is a reason they are “private” and they should remain so.