May 2, 2023
Josh Cowen: How School Voucher Programs Hurt Students
Published by Peter Greene
Josh Cowen is a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. He’s been studying voucher programs for two decades, In a recent issue of Time, he explains some ofthe results that he’s found.
Let’s start with who benefits. First and foremost, the answer is: existing private school students. Small, pilot voucher programs with income limits have been around since the early 1990s, but over the last decade they have expanded to larger statewide initiatives with few if any income-eligibility requirements. Florida just passed its version of such a universal voucher program, following Arizona’s passage in the fall of 2022. In Arizona, more than 75% of initial voucher applicants had never been in public school—either because they were new kindergartners or already in private school before getting a voucher. That’s a problem because many voucher advocates market these plans as ways to improve educational opportunities for public school children.
And what about the students who do leave public schools? Some plans, like the currently proposed
bill in Texas, restrict eligibility to students in public school for at least one year. But for the children who do transfer using a voucher, the academic results in the recent scaled-up statewide programs are catastrophic. Although small, pilot-phase programs
showed some promise two decades ago, new evaluations of vouchers in Washington, D.C., Indiana
, and Ohio
show some of the largest test score drops ever seen in the research record—between -0.15 and -0.50 standard deviations of learning loss. That’s on par with what the COVID-19 pandemic did to test scores, and larger than Hurricane Katrina’s impacts on academics in New Orleans.
And these harmful voucher impacts from existing statewide vouchers lasted for years, with little else on balance to show for it.
What explains these extraordinarily large voucher-induced declines? Aren’t private schools supposed to be elite educational opportunities? When it comes to private schools accepting voucher payments, the answer is clearly no. That’s because elite private schools with strong academics and large endowments often decline to participate in voucher plans. Instead the typical voucher school is a financially distressed, sub-prime private provider often jumping at the chance for a tax bailout to stay open a few extra years.
In Wisconsin, 41% of voucher schools have closed since the program’s inception in 1990. And that includes the large number of pop-up schools opening just to cash in on the new voucher pay-out. For those pop-up schools, average survival time is just 4 years before their doors close for good.
Here’s another problem: for most students, using a voucher is a temporary choice to begin with. In states that have reported data on the question–Indiana, Louisiana, and Wisconsin—roughly 20% of students leave voucher programs each year, either because they give up the payment or because schools push them out. In Florida, where vouchers just expanded, that number is even higher: around 30% per year in pre-expansion data.
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