Commentary | Education

Vouchers Are No Cure-All For Short-Changed Schools

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates. 


Vouchers are no cure-all for short-changed schools

by Martin Carnoy

It seems school voucher advocates are having a tough time finding the evidence to back up their claims that vouchers improve student performance.

Consider the recent report by pro-voucher Harvard researcher Paul Peterson, which showed seemingly impressive gains for low-income students in Dayton, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and New York City, who switched from public to private schools using vouchers to subsidize a portion of their tuition.

But critical analysis of the report quickly showed its results to be overstated. That criticism was reinforced after one of Peterson’s own colleagues, a researcher from New Jersey-based Mathematica, Inc., also refuted much of Peterson’s improvements in their math test scores and no improvement at all in their reading test scores. report.

In Milwaukee, where voucher proponents at first claimed victory, the consensus now among academics is that voucher students who managed to stay in private schools for four years saw only slight

Other studies show declining performance for former public school students who have taken up vouchers, including one in Cleveland. And another study by researchers at Columbia University shows that achievement gains by voucher students differ little from gains made by students who remain in public schools.

Yet it appears that voucher advocates have simply ignored these findings as they continue their search for evidence that advances their agenda.

Even if limited studies do show marginal gains by some students, vouchers are clearly not a cure-all. That is, do small gains for inner-city low-income African American children who attend established private schools provide a rationale for large-scale voucher programs, even those aimed at just the poor? Hardly.

Only about 8,000 of the available 15,000 vouchers in Milwaukee had been used after three years because of a shortage of seats in private schools. Very few new private schools entered the Milwaukee market, even with vouchers worth $5,500. And the larger the voucher program, the more likely that startup private schools will be of lower quality than those operating now.

It’s also difficult to gauge how well voucher students in Milwaukee are performing academically, because the private schools in the program are not required the administer the Wisconsin standardized state test.

Vouchers or other programs for improving student performance that are so heavily laden with these kinds of serious problems will not suffice for narrowing the achievement gap for African American and Latino students.

Of course, November 7 will be the true test of the appeal of vouchers to parents and voters. George W. Bush campaigns for them; Al Gore, meeting with wide support, opposes them. And in California, leaders of the pro-voucher Proposition 38 movement have tried to attract supporters by — get this — giving away iMac computers and trips to Hawaii, further proof of how desperate an effort they’re managing.

The bottom line: the more we examine the evidence, the less convincing are the claims that private education will solve the problems faced by low-income students. No matter how hard voucher advocates try to convince us otherwise, most pupils will stay in public schools.

If we are seeking to improve our public schools, particularly the lowest-performing schools serving the lowest-performing students, then we should invest in attracting more and better teachers, instead of draining valuable resources from an already burdened public school system.


Martin Carnoy, a professor at Stanford University, is a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., and a coauthor of Can Public Schools Learn from Private Schools?

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