Voucher proponents have increasingly pursued empirical evidence on the effectiveness of vouchers as a form of education improvement, in addition to advocating for vouchers on moral or ethical grounds. Voucher proponents contend that randomized assignment studies of students in voucher programs have consistently confirmed the effectiveness of vouchers. We examine such advocacy claims about these “gold standard” studies from a leading voucher proponent, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, to consider how such advocacy is presented. Although voucher advocates indicate that the research is conclusive, consistent, and thus generalizable, and essentially beyond reproach, closer examination of the studies put forth by advocates suggests little consensus or consistency across the reported findings. When there are positive effects, they do not translate across different contexts, populations, programs, grade levels, or subjects. Moreover, we highlight some limitations of these studies, which the advocates do not acknowledge, and show that, because findings on vouchers are less compelling or promising than proponents claim, the misrepresentation of empirical findings by advocates appears to be a key element of their advocacy agenda.
A report by the Urban Institute, The Effects of Means-Tested Private School Choice Programs on College Enrollment and Graduation, compares certain outcomes of three school voucher programs to traditional public school programs. It finds that students using vouchers to attend private schools sometimes have higher rates of college enrollment and completion than their public school counterparts. These findings, however, arise from comparisons of apples to oranges, because the two case studies showing some voucher benefits do not sufficiently account for pivotal differences between choosers and non-choosers. Only in the third case study, which uses random assignment and thus avoids these selection effects, do we see no voucher benefits. Two other concerns are important to note. First, the literature review places an unbalanced reliance on non-peer-reviewed sources. Second, the report attempts to “move the goalposts” away from the test-score outcomes that have been the center of voucher advocacy and debate for decades—coinciding with recent voucher studies finding null or negative effects on test scores. These shortcomings render the report of limited value for evaluating voucher policies.
An annual report from EdChoice is designed to provide a yearly updated list and synthesis of empirical studies exploring the impacts of school vouchers across a set of outcomes. EdChoice presents itself as a clearinghouse of “evidence” that school vouchers “work” and that school choice is an effective and efficient reform. Along those lines, the report showcases the purported personal and community benefits that arise from voucher implementation, such as an increase in test scores, educational attainment, parental satisfaction, increased civic values, improvements in racial segregation, and fiscal benefits through governmental cost savings. However, the report is a limited collection of cherry-picked studies chosen from an “overwhelming” number, largely from sources that are not peer-reviewed and primarily authored by voucher advocates. For these reasons, the report is so misleading that it is not useful for decision-making or research purposes.
A new report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Do Impacts on Test Scores Even Matter? Lessons from Long-Run Outcomes in School Choice Research, examines whether student achievement scores on math and English language arts tests align with “long-run” attainment outcomes such as high school graduation rates, college enrollment, and college graduation rates. Drawing on a systematic review of the literature, it concludes that the impacts of school choice programs on test scores are not well connected to such attain- ment outcomes, which are presented as more positive. This review considers two issues with the report: consistency and evidence. Regarding consistency, the report’s suggestion that achievement scores should play a smaller role in determining the efficacy of school choice models represents a stunning effort to move the goalposts in search of new justifications for supporting their preferred policies. After decades of pro-school-choice research and advo- cacy promoting test score comparisons with public schools as the primary measurement for evaluating school choice models (e.g., charters and school vouchers), the AEI report now suggests that less attention be given to these learning outcomes. Regarding evidence, the AEI report is riddled with numerous internal inconsistencies in its discussion and treatment of a set of studies that were selected by questionable methods. In view of the 180-degree turn based on questionable evidence, the report — despite the authors’ assertions — is of little use to policymakers.
The new Fordham report, Pluck & Tenacity, examines the impact of school vouchers on five private schools in Ohio. While the journalist who authored the report is primarily interested in the effect on this small set of schools, we focus here on an underlying assumption asserted in the executive summary of the report: that because of vouchers, “school outcomes will improve.” As presented in this report, this assumption about the beneficial impacts of vouchers is a case-study in how to engage in slanted selection and interpretation of research evidence. As we show in this review, the totality of three endnotes used in the report reflect not just an incomplete picture of the research literature on vouchers, but an extreme case of cherry-picking sources to support a contested policy agenda. Moreover, even with the few sources cited to put voucher outcomes in a favorable light, the report cherry-picks the findings that suit Fordham’s agenda, while ignoring the findings from those very same sources that do not support—and even contradict—the premise. Thus, the report is grounded in a twice-skewed and intellectually dishonest view of the research on vouchers and their academic outcomes. The subsequent journalistic celebration of five schools in Ohio then continues this unsystematic treatment of evidence, amounting to little more than cheerleading for vouchers.
School vouchers, a mechanism for school reform proposed by economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s, has been embraced by researchers and policymakers who advocate for market-based models for education. While the reform is not a new or novel idea, proponents in policy and research circles have brought vouchers back into the spotlight in the past few decades. Notably, advocacy efforts have resulted in the establishment or expansion of close to 30 voucher and voucher-like programs since 2012. Many of those voucher programs are “opportunity scholarship” vouchers where tax money “follows” students who choose to exit public schools in favor of private schools. (Using the term “opportunity scholarship” follows political strategist Frank Luntz’s advice to congressional Republicans to avoid the term “school voucher,” since it provokes a negative response from many (see Luntz, 1998)). Other programs offer after-the-fact tuition tax credits or education savings accounts to reimburse parents for the costs associated with private school tuition. Because of the politicized and divisive nature of school vouchers, national implementations of the reform has had a stop-and-go nature as some states such as Nevada and Indiana have enacted broad voucher programs while other states, such as Colorado and Florida, have seen their courts hold that vouchers are unconstitutional.