School vouchers' impact appears neutral, according to report by University of Kentucky researcher; study looked at 3,000 students in Indiana who used vouchers to attend private school

Lexington Herald Leader, July 9, 2017

School vouchers are not a cure-all, says study with UK ties

BY VALARIE HONEYCUTT SPEARS

New research from University of Kentucky Assistant Professor Joseph Waddington shows that school voucher programs — and more broadly, school choice — aren’t a cure-all in the race to improve education outcomes, UK officials said in a news release.

Waddington’s research, with co-author Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame, sheds light on how Indiana’s school voucher program, the largest in the nation, is affecting students. The study examines the performance of more than 3,000 third- through eighth-grade students in Indiana who used a voucher to transfer from a public school to a private school.

School vouchers are state-funded scholarships given to parents to pay for some or all of their child’s private school tuition. Indiana’s program is the nation’s most expansive, providing vouchers to more than 34,000 low- and modest-income families, and has not been studied prior to Waddington’s and Berends’ work, the UK news release said.

One of the questions the study sought to answer was: What is the impact of receiving a voucher and switching to a private school on student math and English-language arts achievement compared to peers remaining in public schools?

Using standardized test scores, Waddington and Berends found that, on average, the math performance of students in the voucher program declined during the first two years in private school, compared to their public-school peers. By their fourth year in private school, voucher students caught up to their public-school counterparts in math.

In English/language arts, voucher students’ performance did not decline or improve when compared to public-school students, the study found.

The study, currently under review at an academic journal, focuses on low-income students in the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program from the 2011-12 through 2014-15 school years. The research recently received national news coverage on NPR, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. The Washington Post reported that President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promise to pour billions of dollars into expanding vouchers nationwide.

School vouchers, Waddington told the Herald-Leader, “ isn’t a cure-all type policy.”

“Over time, voucher students may adjust to their new schools, and private schools may make adjustments that better meet the educational needs of voucher students although our findings cannot confirm this possibility with a high degree of precision,” the researchers said in the study.

In mathematics, students who remain in a private school with a voucher for three or four years make up what they initially lost relative to their public school peers. In English/language arts, students experience losses in year two, but recoup those losses in year three. By year four, voucher students have higher English/language arts achievement than their public school counterparts, though that is only marginally statistically significant., the researchers said.

The researchers said that fourth-year estimates are highly variable as a result of data limitations and a portion of voucher students who left their private schools and returned to public schools

School vouchers are one way some states are trying to solve education inequalities between socioeconomic groups. The website edchoice.org said that 15 states and Washington D.C. have school voucher programs. Kentucky does not.

“Kentucky is still a ways off from potentially implementing a large-scale private school voucher program,” Waddington, in the UK College of Education’s Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation, told the Herald-Leader.

He said in an interview that the message from his study for Kentucky is one of caution “in that we still need more time to understand the long-term effects of these programs so that other states that may be considering implementing these programs can do so in a more targeted manner.”

Gary Houchens, appointed to the Kentucky Board of Education by Gov. Matt Bevin, said to his knowledge there are no efforts to bring school vouchers to Kentucky.

The state constitution, which explicitly bars any public money from going to a faith-based school, “probably makes a voucher program impossible” in Kentucky, Houchens said.

“For this reason I think school choice advocates in Kentucky will continue to focus on implementing quality charter schools and also supporting the idea (of) scholarship tax credits, which require no transfer of public funds,” he said.

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