Ed 101

Research Says ‘Voucher’ Programs Can Help Students

Critics in Kansas, Elsewhere Argue Playing Field Tilted Against Public Schools

Leer en español by Tammy Worth   |   May 23, 2017

The drawings depict rainbows, hearts, flowers and crosses — thank-you’s to the Catholic Education Foundation in Kansas City, Kansas, from pupils attending parochial school on need-based scholarships.

The money is coming from the Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship Program, a 3-year-old Kansas initiative where businesses provide funding through tax-deductible contributions.

Since its inception, the scholarship program has provided nearly $600,000 in scholarships to approximately 300 low-income students around the state. Participants are eligible for up to $8,000 annually to attend a school of their choice.

This is one drawing submitted by a student thanking the Catholic Education Foundation for a scholarship through a Kansas tax-credit program.

Yet not everyone shares the students’ view that the program is all about clear skies and sunshine. In fact, the Kansas program is part of one of the most controversial movements in K-12 education today.

The question is this: Should students be allowed to take money that would’ve gone into the public system and apply it to tuition-based schools? One of the biggest proponents of such plans is Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. secretary of education.

To some critics, these subsidy programs, including vouchers and tax credits, breach the wall between church and state, and Adrienne Runnebaum, director of tax credits for the CEF, acknowledged that the scholarships shore up the bottom line of private schools.

But, she said, the program “really is about the students, and if these families are truly seeking this opportunity, we want to do all we can to make it possible.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are more than 51 million children enrolled in public schools nationwide.

EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based education reform organization, estimated subsidy programs in more than 30 states handed out about 440,000 subsidies in the 2016-2017 school year. The total of these programs was about $2 billion, as opposed to the nearly $587 billion spent on public school education this year at all levels of government combined.

So, do vouchers work? Possibly the best summary of their efficacy comes from Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions. Wolf, who has studied school choice and vouchers for decades, said any benefits seen by vouchers “tend to be positive, and tend to be modest,” with much of the improvement seen in areas other than test scores.

Kansas and Missouri

There are seven “scholarship granting organizations” for the Kansas program, including Renewanation, a Virginia-based nonprofit founded in 2008 to promote Biblical education across the country.

Focus On: School Choice

Here at Take Note, we're asking: How do you create school choice through (blank)? For people in the Kansas City metropolitan area, school choice can be both a blessing and a curse. It provides an array of education options, but the system can also be confusing, or perhaps even detrimental to existing school districts.

One of its board members, Larry Daugherty, lives in Lenexa and is the former superintendent of Maranatha Christian Academy in Shawnee, according to the organization’s website.

Renewanation has not funded any scholarships in Kansas yet, but it has raised $968,000 for a similar program in Virginia.

The vast majority of the students in the Kansas program participate through the Catholic Education Foundation.

In Missouri, one Senate proposal would create the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program. This program would allow taxpayers and businesses to make tax-deductible contributions to assist students who are disabled, wards of the state or children of active military service members. It would cap donations at $25 million annually.

In the Missouri House, Rep. Kurt Bahr, a St. Charles Republican, has proposed similar legislation. He said tax credits are the best way to keep education local and to allow parents, instead of school boards, to decide the best options for their children.

“If they feel their child needs something different than the public school in the ZIP code they live in, and if they aren’t rich enough to pay for an elite private school or can’t home-school, they should have other options,” Bahr said.

What we know

The longest-running voucher effort in the nation is the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program created in 1990. Today, about one-fifth of Milwaukee students are getting publicly funded education in private, mostly religious-affiliated schools, said Alan Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School.

Borsuk, who has tracked the program since its inception, said there is always demand for vouchers and the desire isn’t necessarily based on test scores or academic outcomes. Instead, he said, parents want a religious education or choose schools they perceive are safer or have a more personal touch.

Long-term outcomes in Milwaukee are about the same for private schools as they are for public ones — neither of which is very good.

A comparison last year by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that:

  • 27 percent of voucher students were proficient in English on state exams as opposed to 25.6 percent of public school students.
  • 16 percent of vouchers students were proficient in math, whereas 15.8 percent of public school students were.
  • In Racine, another Wisconsin city with a voucher program, 27 percent of public school students ranked as proficient in English, and 22 percent in the voucher program did.

  • Statewide, students in the voucher program edged out public school students on the ACT exam, scoring 20.9 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

In 2015, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology evaluated the then-new Louisiana voucher program.

They found that attending a private school eligible for the program lowered math, science and social studies scores after the first year, possibly because lower-performing voucher schools were the first to jump into the program because they needed the money. The negative effects were more prominent in lower grades than for older students.

The authors looked at research on other voucher programs across the country — in New York, Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio. They found test scores often do not change dramatically, but taking part in the D.C. voucher program did increase high school graduation rates.

The Whole Child

Wolf, the University of Arkansas professor, and his colleagues found that students in voucher programs tend to have slightly lower math scores, but they were 21 percent more likely to graduate from high school than their public school peers.

He said it’s these other “non-cognitive” outcomes (like better civic attitudes, more volunteerism and less criminal activity) that are the sweet spot for improvement in voucher programs. This is likely because public schools are evaluated on tests scores, so they place a larger focus there.

“Private schools are free to educate the whole child, and for many of them, that is structured to emphasize various aspects of child development like volunteerism, self-discipline and conscientiousness,” he said.

And some of the improvement in graduation rates and other test scores may be explainable by the students choosing to attend private schools. Parents of children using vouchers have to seek out these opportunities, and many observers agree that greater parental involvement typically means more successful students.

Mark Tallman, associate executive director for advocacy for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said public schools are required to deal with all children regardless of disabilities, income levels and special needs. The situation is different for private schools.

Even if you limit these programs to low-income students or those with disabilities, you are still working with families whose parents are taking an active role in their education and not, for instance, a homeless student living in a shelter with no parental supervision.

Wolf has compared students in voucher programs and said about 14 percent of children taking part have some sort of disability (about 13 percent of public school students currently receive special education).

He also found that voucher students tend to be low-income, African-American and score about average on standardized tests. He also found that they are more religious and that their mothers are better educated and spend more time in the schools.

In essence, Wolf said, voucher programs may not necessarily be skimming the cream from public schools, but they still have something like 2 percent milk.

Tallman and others also argue that schools accepting voucher money and scholarships should be evaluated the same way as public schools. The program in Kansas, for instance, doesn’t require tracking of students’ academic progress.

“We know how many students are in the programs, but we have no idea how well they are actually doing — if it’s any better or not,” Tallman said. “If you are going to have competition between public and private schools, private should have to do everything public schools do.”

But a crucial component of the voucher issue may not even be educational attainment or graduation rates.

Wolf said some of the most interesting research he did was with groups of parents who moved their children from public schools to private schools through voucher programs — and then back into the public school system. Even though they weren’t happy with their respective private schools, he said they still felt it had been a valuable experience.

“It didn’t work out for them, but they appreciate the fact that they had a choice and learned something about how to choose schools,” he said. “Americans like options, especially for something as important as the education for our children.”

 
—Tammy Worth is a freelance journalist based in Blue Springs, Missouri.
 
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
 
 

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