The Consequences of School Voucher Programs


The recent appointment of Betsy Devos as the U.S. Education Secretary reignited the controversial issue of school voucher programs. Proponents of vouchers, including Devos, argue that school choice increases public schools’ performance due to the competition presented by private and charter schools. However, research shows that vouchers, at best, provide mixed results for students.

Lower Student Performance

A study conducted by the Brookings Institute observes the impact of statewide voucher systems implemented in Indiana and Louisiana. The results show that a student in Louisiana ranked in the 50th percentile of math scores while in public school, but fell to the 34th percentile after one year using a voucher and attending a private school. Reading results also declined; students at the 50th percentile fell to the 46th percentile. Indiana experienced similar results. Students’ scores fell from the 50th percentile to the 44th percentile in math after a year of using a voucher. These results show that private schools do not necessarily provide students with a better education than public schools.

The Brookings study does show that voucher students in New York City and Washington, DC had improved reading and math scores; however, additional research supports the findings from Indiana and Louisiana. According to the National Education Association, low-income students participating in a Milwaukee voucher program did not perform significantly better than their public school counterparts. In Cleveland, students attending newly established private schools via voucher programs performed at significantly lower levels than both their private and public school peers by the end of their second year.

It is important to note that although private school students historically score about 15 to 20 points higher on standardized tests than those in public school, it is not necessarily due to better teaching. High-performing students often self-select into private schools, causing increases in scores. Parents of children in low-performing public schools cannot surmise that their child would perform better in a private school.

Decreased School Choices

Aside from achievement discrepancies, other obstacles exist in the voucher system. The vast majority of students in states and cities with robust voucher programs do not use them due to an array of barriers, disproving the myth that vouchers expand choices for parents. For example, Milwaukee’s voucher program only allows for 15,000 participants, which is less than 10 percent of the city’s public school students. Only 5 percent of Cleveland students use vouchers, two-thirds of which have never attended public schools. In Florida’s statewide voucher plan, only 7 percent of schools in the state said that they would accept voucher students.

The Case for Improving Public Schools

Research shows that improving existing public schools allows for greater increases in student achievement. Milwaukee public school students who attended schools with smaller class sizes and enhanced professional development for teachers outperformed other public school students in the city and private school students. In Florida, schools that were identified as “critically low achieving” improved after two years of program redesign and increased community involvement. Additional methods that show promising results include teacher pre-service training, after-school and summer programs, student health and nutrition programs, and increasing standards in math, reading, and science curricula.

Rather than harmlessly co-existing with public schools, research shows that the presence of charter schools actually harms public schools. Once schools lose students to other options via voucher programs, schools struggle to pay expenses such as utilities, maintenance, and staff. Additionally, public schools are often responsible for educating English learners and special education students, which places a large financial burden on them. Some districts, such as Nashville, Los Angeles, and Buffalo have lost between $57 million and $591 million due to the increased presence of charter schools.

School vouchers are not a saving grace for American students. Although they have been successful in some locales, existing research shows that students often stagnate or even regress once participating in a voucher program. Rather than funneling students out of public schools, local governments should improve the deficiencies in public schools so students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to receive a quality education.

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