Vouchers: What the Research Shows

1. School voucher programs divert critical funds that public schools need to strengthen and improve learning.

The three states with publicly funded school voucher laws have either disregarded other, more sound approaches to reforming troubled public schools or pursued them with limited enthusiasm. This is hardly surprising given that vouchers drain funds from public schools.

Only two years after Ohio legislators enacted the Cleveland voucher program in 1995, the state's supreme court ruled that Ohio's public school funding formula violated the state constitution. Although the court has issued subsequent rulings reiterating its views, the legislature has failed to remedy this violation.17 Cleveland and other low-income districts continue to suffer. So far, Ohio's voucher law has funneled $43 million in taxpayer funds to private and religious schools-money that could have gone to strengthen after-school programs, reduce class sizes or implement other reforms in Cleveland's public schools.18 In the voucher program's very first year, budgetary pressures forced Cleveland's public schools to eliminate full-day kindergarten in all of its non-magnet schools.19 It has been estimated that Ohio spends more state tax money per voucher student than it does for nearly 90 percent of the state's public school children.20

From 1998-99 to 1999-2000, Wisconsin taxpayers paid $61 million to fund the Milwaukee voucher program.21 The program's cost continues to grow, adding to the financial pressures that are faced by Wisconsin's public schools during these sluggish economic times. Milwaukee's public schools have been forced to cut spending by roughly $45 million over two years.22 Around the state, the physical condition of public schools has suffered.23 By the 1999-2000 school year, at least 60 percent of Wisconsin superintendents reported that budgetary constraints had forced them to cut school maintenance and improvement funds.24 The voucher program also crowds out funding that could be going to proven programs, such as the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program-which reduces pupil-teacher ratios to 15-1.

While Florida has enacted the A+ and McKay voucher programs, the Sunshine State has not adequately addressed class size and funding issues. The state's per-pupil funding for public schools has increased by less than two-tenths of 1 percent over the last three years.25 Adjusted for inflation, the state's per-pupil funding has actually fallen. This failure to adequately fund public schools is also demonstrated by increasing class sizes. Florida ranks a dismal 44th in student-teacher ratios.26

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2. Claims that vouchers 'save' public schools money are patently false.

Voucher proponents claim that any loss of per-pupil aid that public schools suffer is offset by the money that public schools "save" because they are no longer educating voucher students. In both Milwaukee and Cleveland, however, a significant portion of voucher recipients never attended those cities' public schools.27

The claim that public schools save money also ignores financial realities. Per-pupil aid is intended to cover the overhead and fixed costs of operating a public school- teachers, counselors and other staff; utility costs; maintenance and repairs; computers; and other fixed costs. Losing a small handful of students to vouchers from across a school district does nothing to change these fixed costs.28 This was confirmed by a financial audit in Cleveland.29

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3. The so-called evidence behind vouchers is unconvincing.

Proponents have repeatedly stated that voucher programs raise the academic performance of students. But clever repetition doesn't trump the research. Last fall, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that state evaluations found little or no difference between the academic achievement of voucher students and public school students in Cleveland and Milwaukee-the two urban school systems with publicly funded voucher programs.30

Indiana University researcher Kim Metcalf, who has spent several years studying the Cleveland voucher program, released a report last year comparing groups of voucher students and public school students from the time they entered first grade through the end of second grade. Over this two-year period, the report found that the public school students demonstrated average learning gains that were greater in language, reading and math than the voucher students.31

Pro-voucher groups have been quick to point to a three-year study released recently by Harvard University professor Paul E. Peterson and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor William G. Howell. Peterson and Howell compared voucher students with those who remained in public schools, reporting that African-American voucher students in New York City consistently outscored those who remained in public schools. Yet beneath the surface of this study lie several critical details. First, neither white nor Hispanic voucher students showed any academic gains over their public school peers. In fact, the New York City data reveals that reading scores actually declined for all groups of Hispanic voucher students, except for those in 7th grade. Second, some researchers have questioned the validity of the study, pointing to data from Washington, D.C., that showed no gains after three years among black voucher students. Additionally, there were large fluctuations among subgroups in the Peterson-Howell study, as well as in different years of the study. Education Week reported that the data "raise as many questions as they answer" about students who receive vouchers.32 Third, even Peterson and Howell were less than enthusiastic, concluding that there is "no overall private school impact" on the test scores of voucher students.33

Of course, there is also the claim by voucher supporters that such programs create 'competition' that improves public schools. President Bush sounded this chorus in a June 27 statement praising the Supreme Court's Zelman decision, asserting that vouchers offer "proven results … not only for children enrolled in the specific plan, but also for children whose public schools benefit from the competition."34 In effect, the president's ghost-writers are lending their boss' credibility to an unproven assertion.

Stanford University professor Martin Carnoy found that under the accountability system that Florida created before vouchers existed, student improvement was greater than after vouchers were introduced in the Sunshine State.35 Researcher Jay Greene has contended that Florida's A+ voucher program helped to spur improvements in the F-rated public schools. But his analysis fails to consider the impact of additional resources, both state and local, that enabled Florida's F-rated public schools to extend the school day, week and year, as well as strengthen professional development for teachers. These elements-combined with accountability measures-may well have been the real cause of improvements in these Florida public schools.36 Indeed, Greene's own research leads to the conclusion that accountability measures and increased resources led to public school improvements in Texas, which has no publicly funded voucher program.37

If public schools cannot improve without the 'competition' of vouchers, then what explains why the public schools in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Dallas, Portland, Minneapolis, San Diego, Birmingham and Seattle raised both their reading and math scores in every grade tested last year? Neither these cities nor their states have publicly funded voucher programs.38

Lacking the evidence that vouchers offer children a better education, pro-voucher groups tend to downplay the research on academic performance. Instead, they emphasize surveys on the satisfaction of voucher parents. While parental attitudes are important, they aren't the only issue. The public deserves to know whether, in fact, vouchers truly provide students with a better education. Even a spokesperson for Cleveland's Catholic diocese-whose schools serve a large share of voucher students-recently stated that a parent's decision between public or private schooling should be based primarily on academic performance.39

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4. Voucher supporters present the public with a false choice. The choice isn't between the status quo and vouchers, but between proven reforms or vouchers.

Pro-voucher groups try to frame the debate in stark terms-either doing more of the same for struggling public schools or adopting voucher programs. But this is a false choice. Indeed, there are proven reforms that can make a difference for students in struggling public schools. Consider class-size reduction.

While the evidence behind vouchers is unconvincing and often anecdotal, the research behind smaller classes is abundant and impressive. In Wisconsin, the SAGE program is having a major impact in many public schools, reducing pupil-teacher ratios to 15-1 in the early elementary grades. Studies have confirmed that SAGE is helping to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students.40 And SAGE is not an anomaly. Significant class-size reduction efforts in other states have also been shown to improve learning-particularly for low-income students, as was documented by Tennessee's STAR study. STAR researchers evaluated the progress of more than 11,000 students, a comprehensive study that renowned Harvard statistician Frederick Mosteller called "one of the most important educational investigations ever carried out."41 Contrast this, for example, with the Milwaukee voucher program, which hasn't received a comprehensive state evaluation since 1995.42

Sadly, even this contrast between a proven reform and an unproven promise didn't stop Wisconsin's governor from proposing last year to increase spending on Milwaukee's voucher program, while cutting a similar amount from SAGE. It took a hard-fought campaign by parents, teachers and civic leaders to defeat the governor's proposed cuts in SAGE.43 Even so, having to compete for funding with the Milwaukee voucher program means the number of students who reap the benefits of SAGE is smaller than it otherwise would be.

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5. Voucher programs are sold as a way to 'rescue' kids in failing public schools, but the evidence shatters this myth.

Last year, an Ohio research institute reviewed information from the voucher program's application forms and what it found was stunning: nearly eight out of 10 students (79 percent) receiving vouchers had never attended a Cleveland public school or were already enrolled in a private school.44 Far from rescuing students from Cleveland's "failing" public schools, the voucher program has been subsidizing students already attending private schools.

For those voucher students who once attended the city's public schools, relatively few of them were actually attending "failing" schools. Catalyst for Cleveland Schools, a nonpartisan organization that reports on reform efforts, examined the 10 public schools that have lost the most students to vouchers. Catalyst found that these 10 Cleveland public schools were more likely than other city schools to have student test scores above the district average-in some cases, above the state average.45 Additionally, six of these 10 public schools were classified among the district's "empowered" schools, chosen for overall excellence.46 While voucher advocates talk a lot about "choice," a closer look at these 10 public schools reveals that they-combined with the district's other schools-offer parents a wide variety of options. For example, nearly half of these 10 schools are magnet schools at which teachers and staff have developed specialized programs and curricula.47

If leading voucher supporters were truly motivated by the desire to help kids in struggling, urban public schools, their efforts-from the very start-would have been tailored to these public schools. But the record shows otherwise. Before Ohio legislators finally enacted the Cleveland voucher program, then-Gov. George Voinovich had originally proposed a statewide voucher program. He eventually backed the Cleveland-specific plan when a statewide plan appeared unlikely to gain broad-based support.48

For many supporters, voucher programs that are targeted to inner-city districts are simply a convenient stepping stone to large-scale, universal voucher plans that would pay for private schooling for the children of all families -- no matter how high their incomes are. As noted earlier, the father of the school voucher movement, economist Milton Friedman, and many other leading voucher spokespersons have endorsed non-means-tested, universal vouchers.

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6. When given the choice, both the broader public and minorities embrace quality public schools and reject vouchers.

Voucher supporters cite a few polls to argue that they have the public on their side, while conveniently ignoring other more recent polls and indicators. In what is perhaps the most recent national survey on this issue, the USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll found that a majority of Americans remain opposed to vouchers.49 The 11-point margin of opposition to vouchers in this poll is impressive considering that the question never referred to the use of "tax" or "public" funds-terms that have been found by researchers to weaken support for vouchers.50

In the most recent Phi Delta Kappan (PDK)-Gallup Poll on the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, 72 percent chose "reforming the existing public school system" to "finding an alternative" to the existing system.51 This firm opposition to vouchers or anything that undercuts our public education system reflects Americans' overall positive views of the public schools their children attend. In fact, a majority of Americans (51 percent) gave the public schools in their communities a grade of either A or B. This was the highest percentage of A's and B's in the PDK-Gallup Poll's 33-year history. Among public school parents who were asked to grade the school their oldest child was attending, 68 percent assigned these schools an A or B.52

What about minority Americans? They are understandably more concerned with the public schools their children attend, but these citizens are not warmly embracing vouchers. A 2001 Zogby International poll offered African-Americans five options for improving education. Among blacks, the choice of "providing parents with school vouchers" finished dead last of the five options. In fact, African-Americans chose "reducing class sizes" over vouchers by a 7-to-1 margin.53 A 2001 poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation found that 61 percent of blacks and 59 percent of Latinos would rather see more funding "go toward the public schools than go to a voucher program."54 Black America's Political Action Committee-a group chaired by the arch conservative and pro-voucher Alan Keyes-released a poll in July that some are portraying as a sign that African-Americans strongly support vouchers. However, the poll asked black voters whether, if given the option, they would keep their children in regular public schools (45 percent) or enroll them in either a public charter school or a private school (48 percent).55 Had the poll question grouped the public school options together-regular public schools and charter schools-it is reasonable to assume that a firm majority would have favored public school options over private schools.

Perhaps the most important 'poll' is the ballot box. In November 2000, voters in Michigan and California handily defeated school voucher referenda. In both states, black and Latino voters rejected vouchers by at least a 2-to-1 margin.56

Moreover, there is new evidence in Milwaukee-home of the nation's oldest publicly funded voucher program-that even parents who are unhappy with the city's public schools their children attend prefer a high-quality public school over vouchers. This past school year, the number of students receiving vouchers to attend kindergarten for four-year-olds dropped by well over 100 students. Interestingly, this decline in voucher participation coincided with the Milwaukee Public Schools' decision last year to add full-day kindergarten for four- and five-year-old students at 27 schools.57

The number of Milwaukee parents opting for other public schools-suburban public schools or charter schools-far exceeds the number who have accepted vouchers.58 Access to suburban public schools is provided by Chapter 220, a state-funded program that facilitates desegregation by enabling minority students in Milwaukee to transfer to school districts on the city's outskirts. At one point, there were three times as many Chapter 220 applications from African-American students in Milwaukee as available seats in suburban school districts.59 Even though Wisconsin enacted its charter school law several years after it began the voucher program, the number of Milwaukee students attending charter schools is likely to exceed those attending Milwaukee voucher schools by next school year.60

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