By Scott Sargrad
June 21, 2017
Invest in public schools – not private school voucher schemes – to improve education for all children.
Recently, Robin Lake, a thoughtful and accomplished education researcher, wrote an op-ed in U.S. News and World Report on the topic of private school vouchers. She described how she came to the conclusion that policymakers should not "reject vouchers out of hand," based in part on her personal experience with public schools not serving her son well.
The piece was notable, since Lake was previously a voucher opponent. But her arguments were quite similar to the arguments pro-voucher advocates have been making for years.
Without a doubt, not all public schools serve all students well. Voucher proponents can easily point to individual students who have benefited from receiving a voucher to attend a private school. Some parents desperately want to send their child to a private school but can't afford it; when they say that they deserve the same choice as wealthier parents, it's hard to argue.
But if our goal as a country is to provide an excellent education for every child, private school voucher schemes that send taxpayer dollars away from public schools and into private schools are too risky a gamble.
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Although it's common for groups pushing vouchers to share the success stories, there are an equal or greater number of counterpoints. This includes parents like Anna Caudill from Tennessee, whose son cannot use the state's voucher program because private schools are not required to serve students with disabilities.
Or, the students who are barred from enrolling in Fayetteville Christian School in North Carolina because they – or their parents – identify as LGBTQ or belong to religions other than Christianity.
The argument that policymakers should continue to experiment with vouchers is also a dangerous one. While some studies have found some benefits for some groups of students, the most recent high-quality research has shown that vouchers have clear – and large – negative impacts on students.
From Indiana, to Ohio, to Louisiana, to the District of Columbia, vouchers have, on balance, harmed students – not helped them.
It's worth pausing for a moment to examine just how stunning the results of these studies are. In Indiana and the District of Columbia, students receiving vouchers actually moved backward in math, and made no progress in reading.
In both Ohio and Louisiana, the students did significantly worse in both reading and math compared to their peers who remained in public schools – with students in Louisiana moving from the 50th percentile to the 34th percentile in math after just one year.
And despite frequent claims that parents are happier after using a voucher, the evaluation of the District of Columbia program found no impact on parent or student satisfaction or parent involvement. (To be fair, the study found that parents perceived their private schools as safer – although the students did not.)
It might be tempting to consider allowing for small, limited voucher programs that are carefully targeted to the neediest students and include important civil rights, antidiscrimination and transparency protections. Unfortunately, history shows clearly that this is never the case.
Some of the biggest supporters of vouchers – including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos – are explicitly against these kinds of protections, casting them as over-regulation that limits choice.
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In fact, voucher programs often start small – such as targeting students with disabilities or families with lower incomes. Then proponents slowly but surely expand eligibility to all students and raise or eliminate income caps. Eventually, students using vouchers are those who have never enrolled in a public school, and increased spending on voucher programs leads to budget crunches that could harm public schools.
Of course, public schools are not perfect – not even close. That's why instead of directing taxpayer dollars to private school voucher schemes, states and the federal government should be investing public money in improving public schools.
This means providing more options in the public system by supporting the growth of effective charter schools; magnet programs; science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, schools; bilingual-themed schools; career and technical education; and training programs. And it means breaking down barriers to enrollment so that every child has access to great public school options, no matter their background.
Lake's piece was a good reminder to revisit my thinking on vouchers, and it's important to debate the issue on the merits. But for governors and legislators thinking about how to improve education for all students – and particularly for the most disadvantaged students – it's clear that the solution isn't private school vouchers. The solution is strengthening our public school system for all children and families.
Scott Sargrad is the managing director for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress.