Past research has linked school vouchers and choice programs with better academic outcomes. But most of the more recent studies are painting a different picture for students who choose these alternatives to leave public schools.
As a growing number of mostly Republican-controlled states are moving to expand school vouchers and education savings accounts, the research on school choice and academic achievement remains mixed, say analysts at the FutureEd think tank at Georgetown University.
A 2002 analysis, for instance, found significant improvements in test scores among Black students who used school vouchers in New York City, Washington D.C., and Dayton, Ohio. More recently, a 2021 summary of more than 20 research projects conducted in the U.S. and elsewhere identified “moderate evidence of positive achievement” for students choosing school vouchers.
Finally, students who participated in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program were more likely to enroll in a public college, particularly a community college, than other students, according to a 2019 Urban Institute report. Students who entered the program earlier during K12 had even higher chances of enrolling in higher ed.
At least a half-dozen other studies, however, have revealed declining or stagnant academic performance by school voucher students over the last several years. Students who won private school scholarships from Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program were neither more nor less likely to enroll in college than students who applied for but were not awarded scholarships, the Urban Institute found in a separate 2018 study.
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Another analysis of the Washington, D.C. program discovered no effect on students’ grades three years after they applied for the programs. Achievement actually declined during students’ first two years in the program but they caught up in the third year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Students who accepted or were offered scholarships had slightly lower rates of absenteeism, were more satisfied with their school and reported feeling safer.
Results were less promising in studies of school voucher programs in three other states :
- Indiana Choice Scholarship Program: Voucher students experienced a slight drop in math achievement during their first year at a private school compared to peers who remained in a public school. This loss persisted for as long as a student remained in private school.
- Louisiana Scholarship Program: Researchers initially found “large negative achievement effects” that improved after two and three years of participation in Lousiana’s voucher program. But in the fourth year, they again uncovered significant achievement declines, particularly in math, according to the University of Arkansas study. However, African Americans experienced significantly lower negative impacts from school vouchers.
- Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program: In the 10 years after the program launched in 2005, academic achievement improved among students who were eligible for vouchers but did not use them. But “students who used vouchers to attend private schools fared worse on state exams compared to their closely matched peers remaining in public schools,” the Fordham Institute found.
A 2017 national study found that school vouchers had a modest impact on high school graduation rates over 25 years but the Stanford University researcher who conducted the review concluded that “the risks [of vouchers] pose outweigh any advances.”
“Why the earlier, smaller-scale tuition programs showed more promising academic results is not clear,” the researchers at the FutureEd think tank concluded in their analysis. “It’s possible that as the programs expanded to include more students, there weren’t enough high-quality private schools to respond to the growing demand. It’s also possible that the curriculum at private schools does not align with what’s measured on standardized tests.”