Josh Cowen: School Vouchers: There Is No Upside
Education scholar and researcher Josh Cowen has studied school vouchers for decades. For the Albert Shanker Institute blog, he spells out why vouchers are bad education policy.
What if I told you there is a policy idea in education that, when implemented to its full extent, caused some of the largest academic drops ever measured in the research record?
What if I told you that 40 percent of schools funded under that policy closed their doors afterward, and that kids in those schools fled them at about a rate of 20 percent per year?
What if I told you that some the largest financial backers of that idea also put their money behind election denial and voter suppression—groups still claiming Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Would you believe what those groups told you about their ideas for improving schools?
What if I told you that idea exists, that it’s called school vouchers, and despite all of the evidence against it the idea persists and is even expanding?
That’s the reality of education policymaking in 2023. Despite an ever-growing volume of data showing that direct and sustained dollar investments in public schools yields large and inter-generational opportunity, the alternative scheme to divert those dollars into individual accounts for private tuition and side-item educational expenses is alive and well.
But so is the evidence against school vouchers schemes, and because that evidence grows so quickly it’s important from time to time to stop and take stock. So here’s what a combination of independent analysis from the research community and old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting by journalists has shown us to be true today:
First, vouchers mostly fund children already in private school. Despite supporter rhetoric that voucher schemes are about new opportunities, the reality is 70-80 percent of kids in states like Arizona, Missouri, and Wisconsin were already in private school before taxpayers picked up the tab. In New Hampshire, that number is 9 out of 10 already-private kids. At the end of the day, vouchers are just a mundane lobbying attempt to win new tax goodies for a particular special interest.
Second, about that catastrophic academic harm. Although a few tiny studies from the late 1990s and early 2000’s showed small gains in test scores for voucher users, since 2013 the record is dismal. For the few kids who did use vouchers to leave public schools, their test score drops are between -0.15 and -0.50 standard deviations. That’s almost unprecedented. As a comparison, we have to look to education policy but to natural disasters to find a similar loss. On the low end of that range is the academic loss suffered by New Orleans kids after Hurricane Katrina. On the middle end is about what COVID19 did, on average, to student growth rates. In Louisiana, Ohio—where those harmful voucher effects approach half a negative standard deviation—the loss is almost twice the pandemic’s academic impact.