Do school voucher programs increase test scores enough?

An analysis of 25 years of school voucher program results finds that voucher programs do not significantly improve test scores, and worse, that vouchers distract from proven policies and programs with more proven impact on test scores and graduation rates.

Proponents of homeschooling, charter schools and other types of “school choice” say that voucher programs promote learning by providing access to different types of schools and by fostering competition that motivates public schools to improve. Public schools obviously have no choice in who to take, so the argument makes sense. But is it valid?

No, claims an education academic, though one with obviously a non-financial conflict of interest. Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Martin Carnoy says vouchers don't have enough impact on high school graduation rates and that the risks they pose outweigh the benefits. The big risk is financial drain, though 100 years of the status quo have led to all of the concern that exist now. It was also politically motivated, undertaken when Betsy DeVos was nominated to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos has pushed for the expansion of school vouchers nationwide, because voucher schools show higher graduation and college enrollment rates.

Carnoy analyzed education papers over the past 25 years, including programs in Milwaukee, New York City, Washington, D.C., Indiana and Louisiana. Most studies have evaluated the impact of vouchers through test scores (as a proxy for student achievement) and high school graduation and college enrollment rates (indicators of school performance). In Milwaukee, where the nation’s second-largest (after Indiana’s more recent) voucher program has been operating for almost 20 years, only a quarter of students attend their neighborhood school. “If choice were the answer, Milwaukee would be one of the highest-scoring cities in the country,” Carnoy said.

But test score data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tell a different story. Among black eighth-graders in 13 urban school districts, Milwaukee – where black students make up more than 70 percent of all voucher recipients – ranked last in reading and second-to-last in math. In cases where test scores did improve, Carnoy said, the increase appeared to be driven by increased public accountability, not vouchers. A four-year study in Milwaukee found no greater gains in state test scores among voucher students attending private schools until the legislature announced that all private schools accepting voucher students would be required to take the test and that the results would be made public. Researchers concluded that publicizing the results for the first time pressed these schools to focus more teaching on elements that might appear on the test, which helped increase their scores.