Politics & Policy

In Louisiana and Indiana, School Choice Gets Back on Track

(Stock image: Dreamstime)
New studies show that voucher students perform as well as or better than their non-voucher peers.

Monday was a good day for advocates of school choice.

When the New York Times editorial board wrote in early March that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s favored “market-driven education policies . . . have proved to be failures,” it cited three studies. Two of them were only preliminary results, analyzing students’ first and second years in a voucher program. Today, full results for those two programs in Louisiana and Indiana have been released. The good news? The “failures” have been reversed.

“Both studies tell a similar story,” says Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, a nonprofit that advocates free choice in education. “After just a few years, voucher students perform as well or better than their non-voucher peers while using significantly less public funding.”

The preliminary results had suggested that voucher programs had substantially hurt students. At the time, the researchers wrote that the magnitude of the “negative estimates is unprecedented in the literature.” Yet it is well known that students initially struggle to adjust in their first few years upon switching to new schools. Placed in a new environment, students can often backslide. The transition is especially difficult if, as is common in voucher programs, the students have switched from a low-performing school to a better one.

Yet these two studies suggest that, given time, students can catch up and even show gains in academic achievement — as numerous “gold-standard,” random-assignment studies have previously found.

The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) is one of the most regulated voucher programs in America, forbidding selective admissions. Furthermore, it only serves students coming from low-rated public schools, and the private schools to which it sends these students also tend to be low-tuition, Catholic schools serving mostly low-income students.

But even with all of these impediments, the negative results from the first year of evidence, published in December 2015, have disappeared. A new study, written by Jonathan N. Mills and Patrick J. Wolf of the University of Arkansas, shows that, in their third year, LSP students recovered from their initial struggles. Ultimately, the voucher program was found to have no statistically significant impact on language or math scores.

In other words, even under the worst circumstances, the backslide has reversed itself. Opponents of school choice can no longer use the notion of a backslide to bludgeon choice advocates.

Similar results showed up in Indiana. The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program (ICSP) is the nation’s largest, serving 3 percent of Indiana’s students. Its negative preliminary findings were previously leaked and publicized in the New York Times. However, an early look at the study’s findings, published yesterday by NPR, has flipped the script. Researchers Mark Berends of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky write that even though voucher students “enter private schools substantially behind their private school peers,” they recoup their losses in mathematics and even make gains in their language scores by their fourth year.

Voucher programs are associated with improvements in public-school performance, probably owing to the effects of increased competition.

With time, the study suggests, voucher students and their new schools are able to adjust to one another, allowing the students to ultimately surpass their public-school peers in language achievement.

These results add to an important recent finding in many studies showing that voucher programs are associated with improvements in public-school performance, probably owing to the effects of increased competition. Deprived of the teachers unions’ usual argument that school choice hurts public schools, and now unable to point at the Louisiana and Indiana studies as evidence of failure, opponents of school choice are now left grasping at straws.


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