How Gov. Jindal's Voucher Program is Like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments

Michael Holzman is this week's guest author.

Experiment: Take state tax-payers' money and give it to failing private schools. Then fill those schools with poor Black children.

Procedure: Observe, but do not intervene. Let nature run its course.

In Louisiana, 30 percent of white, non-Hispanic students whose family incomes are low enough to qualify them for the National Lunch Program read at or above grade level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) grade 4 reading test. Half that percentage, 15 percent, of eligible Black children read at that same level. This could reasonably be interpreted to mean that the state fails to provide an adequate education for more than two-thirds of lower income white students and 85 percent of lower income Black students.

Obviously, something must be done. But how the state opted to solve the problem is, in my opinion, as harmful as the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment* was.

Let me explain.

In 2012, then Louisiana Governor Piyush "Bobby" Jindal expanded an experiment on impoverished Black children (and a few others) known as the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP). As part of the program, children attending public schools rated below average can enter a lottery for LSP vouchers providing tuition at eligible private schools of their choice. As the average voucher paid the private school $5,311 per year and the average cost of the public schools from state and local sources was $8,605, the voucher program resulted in a 38 percent savings for participating students.


(LSP has been funded from sources not earmarked for state schools, as a result of a law suit. Since allocations for public schools are based on attendance, each student attending an LSP school reduces the revenue allocated to the sending public school by $8,605.)

This was a good thing for a governor determined to reduce expenditures. But was it a good thing for the subjects of the experiment, those children whose family incomes were low enough to qualify them for LSP vouchers, most of whom were Black? Would educational outcomes for these children improve if the already low funding for their education was reduced by more than one-third?

Given the legal requirement that the LSP voucher could not exceed state funding for public schools in the area, not all private schools applied to the program. Instead, the program serves a quite specific group: low-performing schools. Participating LSP schools, when compared to other private schools, are more likely to be affiliated with the Catholic church, more likely to serve Black students, and more likely to have had sharp declines in enrollment before joining the program.


Not to put too fine a point on it, the Louisiana Scholarship Program is a way to use state money to support failing, mainly Catholic, private schools, while reducing support for public education.


Some might say that all that is beside the point (or a debate for another day). The real question is: Does the LSP improve the education of students receiving the vouchers, giving them a choice of schools they wish to attend? Or, in other words, what happens to children who are deliberately sent to failing schools and have the amounts spent on their educations reduced by more than one-third?

A recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper has carefully examined the Louisiana Scholarship Program. The researchers, Atila Abulkadiroglu of Duke University, Parag A. Pathak of MIT and Christopher Walters of UC Berkeley, found that "LSP participation substantially reduces academic achievement." To be specific:

Attendance at an LSP-eligible private school lowers math scores by 0.4 standard deviations and increases the likelihood of a failing score by 50 percent. Voucher effects for reading, science and social studies are also negative and large. The negative impacts of vouchers are consistent across income groups, geographic areas, and private school characteristics, and are larger for younger children (NBER Working Paper No. 21839).

Stiff letter to follow, as the saying goes.

The exemplary research of Abulkadiroglu, Pathak and Walters tells us that giving impoverished Black students less funding for their education and placing them in failing private schools does not improve their educational opportunities. Perhaps the state should try increasing educational funding for students from impoverished families and placing them in successful schools. We know that would be helpful, just as the researchers involved with the Tuskegee Study knew that penicillin would have helped the Black men they watched die.

Is that comparison in bad taste? Too melodramatic? The high mortality and incarceration rates of poorly educated, impoverished, Black Louisianians indicates otherwise.


*The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, also known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study or Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, was an infamous clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service. Health professionals studying the progression of untreated syphilis in rural African-American men preyed on these men, most of whom were poor, by misleading them about the purpose of the experiments. The men were never given adequate treatment for their diseases, even when penicillin became the drug of choice for syphilis in 1947. Many of the men died, as a result.

Michael Holzman is a writer and historian.  His most recent books are The Chains of Black America: The Hammer of the Police; The Anvil of the Schools and Pax 1934 - 1941 (a novel), forthcoming. He can be reached at: michaelholzman42@gmail.com

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org.