Donald Trump and Betsy “Amway” DeVos will probably dismiss a recent New York Times article highlighting the failure of voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio to improve student learning as “fake news.” The problem in dismissing the Times report, at least for them, is that at least two of the studies cited in the article were backed by conservative groups generally supportive of vouchers and Trump’s educational agenda.
These reports on failing voucher programs take on major importance as a Republican-controlled House of Representatives prepares to consider H.R.610, “Choices in Education Act of 2017,” that would repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. If passed the bill would authorize states to use federal block grants to fund education vouchers, and severely cut back on federal support for public education.
In July 2016, the Fordham Foundation published a research study on the effectiveness of the Ohio state voucher program, EdChoice, for enhancing student performance. EdChoice provides publicly funded vouchers to about eighteen thousand Ohio students from low-income urban communities that allows them to attend private schools. Demographically, these students tend to be from less “disadvantaged” families than children attending traditional public schools. However, data drawn from student test scores between 2003 and 2013 found that the voucher students who attend private schools performed worse academically than their peers who remained in public schools. Negative performance was worse in math than in English, but their performance was poorer in both subjects and persisted over time.
Since Hurricane Katrina destroyed large swathes of the city in 2005, New Orleans has been a major demonstration project for vouchers and charters. A recent study generously concluded that at best, the results are “mixed,” with a “negative impact on participating students’ academic achievement in the first two years of its operation, most clearly in math.” Meanwhile, traditional public schools “maintained their previous level of performance or improved over time.”
The Brookings Institute examined the study and concluded “In Louisiana, a public school student who was average in math (at the 50th percentile) and began attending a private school using a voucher declined to the 34th percentile after one year. If that student was in third, fourth, or fifth grade, the decline was steeper, to the 26th percentile. Reading declined, too: a student at the 50th percentile in reading declined to about the 46th percentile.”
The study on student performance in the Indiana voucher plan was presented at a November 2015 conference by researchers from the University of Notre Dame. They compared test performance of 3,000 students who originally attended public schools but transferred to private schools using the vouchers with 500,000 similar students who remained in public schools. They concluded “voucher students who transfer to private schools experience significant losses in mathematics achievement, with null gains in English/language arts in comparison to their achievement gains in their previous public schools.”
The best support for charter schools comes from research conducted on a program in Massachusetts. This study found that charter schools can improve student performance when they are well regulated and held to the same assessment standards as traditional public schools, in other words, when they operate counter to the Trump/DeVos plan. The Times concluded, “the less ‘private’ that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”
I take a different position. Vouchers are not just ineffective, they are part of a plan to shift students and government funding to for-profit, private and religious schools that will destroy public education in the United States. Charters can be a different story. In the 1980s and 1990s charters were proposed as a way to promote experimentation in public education as part of the small schools movement. I support experimentation, but not privatization. Why not absorb charter schools into local public school systems so any good results can help transform the culture of the entire school system and ineffective reforms that hurt student performance can be eliminated?
On March 1, Intelligence Squared will sponsor a debate on the topic “Are Charter Schools Overrated?” The anti-Charter team includes Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State University, Sacramento and a board member at the Network for Public Education.
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