August 26, 2023

Josh Cowen: Research on school vouchers suggests concerns ahead for education savings accounts

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Writing for Brookings, voucher research expert Josh Cowen lays out some of the hard truths about voucher programs and the newest programs being passed by states.

Most of the new programs are technically structured as ESAs. ESAs are simply a vouchers-plus design: similar in nearly every respect; “plus” in the sense that allowable expenses include not only private tuition but other education-related items. What’s allowed ranges from a broad list like Arizona’s (tuition, backpacks, school uniforms, laptops/computers, and gym memberships) to Iowa’s, where simply tuition, fees, and expenses related to private attendance are covered.

Typically, if a student is in public school, they must disenroll to receive the ESA. Like traditional vouchers, ESAs are spending vehicles for non-public costs. And, notably, new reporting on ESA implementation shows almost real-time confirmation of what existing academic research on traditional vouchers has predicted.

Studies indicate that after traditional voucher expansions, the private school market floods with new pop-up providers. That’s exactly what is happening with the ESA-style expansions in Arizona now. Many new schools are nearly or entirely funded by the ESA payments—just as the average private school in older voucher programs was. Many of these schools will quickly close. There’s also existing academic evidence predicting that traditional voucher programs incentivize existing private schools to raise tuition, using the new dollars as something of a public subsidy. And that is exactly what recent reports are showing with ESA passage, with existing private schools raising their tuition.

These are vouchers, so research on school vouchers tells us what to expect. For one, test scores plummet where voucher programs are implemented. But Cowen points out other negative effects as well.

Mixed Attainment Results and High Student Exit Rates

There is mixed evidence on whether traditional vouchers improve educational attainment (high school graduation or college enrollment). Studies range from large positive impacts to none whatsoever. And these indicate whatever advantage may exist is driven by those who remain in a private high school all four years. That’s a huge caveat: In research on Milwaukee’s program, my team found not only rates of student exit approaching 20% annually, but also that those former voucher students saw academic improvements once returning to public schools. Other work in Florida and Indiana found exit rates similarly high.

Parents Still Want Academic Success

Most schools receiving traditional vouchers as payment are religious schools, and there’s evidence that parents using those programs are often seeking a particular religious program such as Catholic education. But those parents also have some expectation of basic academic quality. Studies on actual school application data provide insight into how parents make priorities. These show that although parents consider school features like demographics, safety, size, and distance to home, the academic performance of the school remains a determining factor. Similar results have been found in Washington, D.C. as well. Unfortunately, the voucher research literature suggests that even with new schools opening, there simply are not enough effective private schools to go around. This might explain the dismal academic results over the last decade—and suggests a very real risk in today’s ESA initiatives if they produce large increases in private school enrollment.

Oversight Matters

A major concern with today’s ESAs is accountability or oversight on both spending and academic outcomes. On the one hand, when the dismal Louisiana and Indiana voucher results came out, a major talking point among voucher advocates attributed that academic harm to “over-regulation.” On the other, the only empirical evidence of the effects of accountability on a voucher program found that once voucher schools were required to use the same testing and reporting requirements as their public counterparts, voucher performance improved substantially. The lack of accountability is already raising problems in newer programs. In Arizona, for example, families had a number of questionable expenses approved, and in North Carolina, some private schools are claiming more vouchers than students actually enrolled.

Districts Threatened With Funding Loss May Show Academic Gains

Finally, there is modest evidence that traditional vouchers may compel small improvements in the achievement levels of at-risk public schools. Such results have been found in Louisiana and Florida in multiple versions of that state’s voucher program. In these papers, competitive impacts are most apparent in low-income communities that stand to lose substantial funding to voucher programs. However, if the goal is to simply improve public school outcomes, studies showing the impact of directly funding public schools are far more prevalent.

There’s more to consider. Read the full report here. 



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