New Evidence on School Vouchers

Some optimistic findings from Indiana and Louisiana.


Students attend class at the Encore Academy charter school on May 13, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Students attend class at the Encore Academy charter school on May 13, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. PHOTO: MARIO TAMA/GETTY IMAGES

Among teachers unions and their allies, an article of faith is that vouchers to allow attendance at private schools do nothing for students. All the more reason to look at two new studies tracking student performance in two states with voucher programs—Indiana and Louisiana.

Start with Louisiana. Today 7,100 students—nearly 90% of them African American—attend private or religious schools of their parents’ choice thanks to a statewide program that includes vouchers for private schools. In February 2016, Jonathan Mills of Tulane and Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas released a study that found declines in English and math after two years at a private school using a voucher.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Messrs. Mills and Wolf expanded their study to include performance after three years, and when they did the results flipped. Their new study shows that, by the end of the third year, the differences between voucher students and those in public schools had been erased. 

Meanwhile, researchers Mark Berends and R. Joseph Waddington focused on Indiana’s statewide voucher program that now serves more than 34,000 students. The study found that students using vouchers had declines in math and English for the first two years after leaving public school. But the longer these voucher kids stuck around in their new schools, the better they did—surpassing their public school peers in English after four years.

These studies are important in rebutting what has been an especially aggressive campaign this year against vouchers by unions and liberal journalists. With President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supporting school choice including vouchers, the campaign is on to discredit them with or without persuasive evidence.

Student improvement after the first two years at a new school is also consistent with common sense. Parents and teachers know that changing schools can be a big adjustment for children, and private schools typically have different cultural mores and teaching habits. Most parents don’t look for private schools if their children are prospering in their current school.

It’s also a mistake to judge a voucher program entirely on standardized tests. There are many other indicators—from personal safety, to discipline, graduation rates and speciality curricula. The idea behind state performance tests is to give parents and taxpayers a way to judge how well schools are teaching and hold them accountable.

But education choice—whether in charters or vouchers—comes with the built-in accountability that they must compete to attract students, and parents can withdraw their children if they are unhappy. Even if test scores aren’t notably different, why should the default be keeping kids trapped in public schools rather than letting parents make the choice?

These new studies should give a boost to those who believe accountability comes from parents who know better than a distant education bureaucracy what schools best work for their children.

Appeared in the July 10, 2017, print edition.

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