Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. secretary of education, is a strong proponent of allowing public education dollars to go to private schools through vouchers, which enable parents to use public school money to enroll their children in private schools, including religious ones. Vouchers are advanced under the rubric of “school choice”—the theory that giving parents more choices regarding where to educate their children creates competition and thus improves low-performing schools. (Charter schools, though technically funded and regulated similarly to public schools, are another key private school component of the choice argument and another top policy priority for DeVos.) DeVos’s nomination and confirmation have heightened the debate over using privatization, versus other school improvement strategies, to enhance educational outcomes for students and their schools.
This report seeks to inform that debate by summarizing the evidence base on vouchers. Studies of voucher programs in several U.S. cities, the states of Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, and in Chile and India, find limited improvements at best in student achievement and school district performance from even large-scale programs. In the few cases in which test scores increased, other factors, namely increased public accountability, not private school competition, seem to be more likely drivers. And high rates of attrition from private schools among voucher users in several studies raises concerns. The second largest and longest-standing U.S. voucher program, in Milwaukee, offers no solid evidence of student gains in either private or public schools.
In the only area in which there is evidence of small improvements in voucher schools—in high school graduation and college enrollment rates—there are no data to show whether the gains are the result of schools shedding lower-performing students or engaging in positive practices. Also, high school graduation rates have risen sharply in public schools across the board in the last 10 years, with those increases much larger than the small effect estimated on graduation rates from attending a voucher school.
The lack of evidence that vouchers significantly improve student achievement (test scores), coupled with the evidence of a modest, at best, impact on educational attainment (graduation rates), suggests that an ideological preference for education markets over equity and public accountability is what is driving the push to expand voucher programs. Ideology is not a compelling enough reason to switch to vouchers, given the risks. These risks include increased school segregation; the loss of a common, secular educational experience; and the possibility that the flow of inexperienced young teachers filling the lower-paying jobs in private schools will dry up once the security and benefits offered to more experienced teachers in public schools disappear.
The report suggests that giving every parent and student a great “choice” of educational offerings is better accomplished by supporting and strengthening neighborhood public schools with a menu of proven policies, from early childhood education to after-school and summer programs to improved teacher pre-service training to improved student health and nutrition programs. All of these yield much higher returns than the minor, if any, gains that have been estimated for voucher students.