A recent article in the Detroit Free Press attempts to paint a “fair and balanced” portrait of private school vouchers, the expected lynchpin of Betsy DeVos’ agenda as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education.
The author consulted an apparently impressive array of education scholars, authors, professors, and reform leaders in an effort to bolster this argument, and, indeed, most of the “experts” consulted offered relatively tepid support for vouchers as an easy solution to the problems in public education that have been created by a decade or more of neglect and systemic disinvestment:
In Washington, D.C., a research study released in 2013 found that students who used federally funded vouchers to attend private school are far more likely to graduate from high school on time and posted better reading scores. But in Louisiana, reviews of the Louisiana Scholarship Program — in 2015 and 2016 — found that students who received vouchers to attend private schools performed significantly worse on state exams.
“In just the last year or so, we’ve had a couple of studies with negative findings for the first time,” said Michael Petrilli.
Charter school advocates say their students outperform their demographic peers in traditional public schools. A Free Press review of 2016 academic data — based on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress — showed that when poverty is taken into account, there was no statistically significant difference when charter performance was compared with traditional public schools on the English language arts portion of the exam. Students in traditional schools performed better in math.
“The evidence we have is somewhat limited and frankly mixed,” said Matthew Chingos, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit research organization. Chingos has studied a voucher program in New York.
In a study of research on vouchers — released in December 2015 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonpartisan research organization based in Cambridge, Mass. — the authors concluded that the effects of vouchers “have been neither the rousing success imagined by proponents nor the abject failure predicted by opponents.”
Patrick Wolf, a distinguished professor in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, described his own review of studies that looked at test score improvement as mixed.
In Milwaukee, which has the longest-running voucher program in the nation, a five-year study found that while there was “little evidence that the choice program increased the test scores of participating students,” the students who received vouchers were more likely to graduate, enroll in college and remain in college.
A study of a federally funded program in the District of Columbia found the likelihood of students graduating from high school increased 21 percentage points if they received a voucher. There was modest improvement in reading scores and no impact on math scores.
A study commissioned by the Fordham Institute — of the Ohio EdChoice voucher program — found that students who used vouchers to enroll in a private school consistently performed worse academically compared with their public school peers. It also found that performance improved for students who were eligible for the voucher but didn’t use it.
Performance also declined for students who took advantage of the Louisiana Scholarship Program, according to separate teams of researchers.
So, the findings here hardly seem encouraging for those, like Ms. DeVos and Mr. Trump, who believe that vouchers will provide the silver bullet when it comes to “fixing” our nation’s “failing schools”.
However, what’s truly remarkable about the mixed nature of these findings is the idealogical leanings of the group of “experts” gathered here. Let’s meet them:
Now, of course, anyone is entitled to their opinions on any number of subjects, education included. It becomes a concern, however, when allegedly unbiased news articles offer so many of these clearly idealogically-biased pro-voucher persons and groups as “experts” without properly identifying them, and choose not to provide a proportionate number or amount of opinions or comments from those with opposing views. This article, for example, includes comments from only one actual education researcher, Dr. Robert Floden, Dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University. Here’s what Dean Floden had to say:
“There was a great expectation of how this was a solution that was going to fix things,” Floden said. “It’s maybe not a disaster, but certainly it’s no silver bullet to make things better for kids.”
Perhaps the real danger of presenting such an imbalanced overview of the findings on vouchers is that some of our elected officials are even more ideologically skewed than the “experts” quoted above. Even in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence that the research here has not shown that diverting public funding to private schools improves student learning, or provides anything in the way of positive results, some politicians continue to insist that vouchers are the answer to our state’s problems with respect to education.
Consider, for instance, this stunningly “evidence resistant” comment from Michigan State Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township:
Vouchers are meant to “augment the reality that kids who grow up in certain ZIP codes are destined to unfortunately too often substandard education through the delivery of their local public schools,” said Kelly. “I think they ought to have every advantage that the wealthy people have.”
He believes a Trump/DeVos partnership will pave the way for vouchers in Michigan. Concerns about private schools not being accountable if they receive public money are unfounded, Kelly said. DeVos, he said, supports requiring private schools that receive voucher students to administer state exams annually to those students. He said he would also support requiring voucher schools to file financial audits on what they did with the voucher funds, demonstrate some minimal academic growth, and follow health, safety and civil rights laws.
“Nearly half the states have some form of voucher or ESA (education savings account), putting Michigan woefully behind the curve,” Kelly said.
The jury is still out on exactly what Mr. Kelly’s “wave” may be bringing, but the early returns suggest increased profits for private and religious schools, and even more budget problems for already struggling public schools. The media’s stacking of that jury by presenting an unbalanced, biased view of the value of vouchers as an educational strategy is a dishonest and manipulative approach to forming public policy.
Michigan, and our children, deserve better.