School Vouchers Get A New Report Card Cory Turner – June 26, 2017 3:00 AM ET


Kids parachuting into a private school with voucher money
Shout for NPR

It is the education debate of the Trump era. With the president and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos using policy and the bully pulpit to champion private school vouchers, supporters and critics have tangled over the question:

Do low-income, public school students perform better when they’re given a voucher to attend a private school?

For years, the answer from researchers has been a muddle, while a handful of recent studies have clearly shown voucher students backsliding academically. But no one has studied the largest, single statewide program in the nation …

Until now.

More than 34,000 students are enrolled in Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program. That’s 3 percent of students statewide. In a recent investigation of the program, NPR found some private schools turning away children with disabilities and LGBTQ students, but it was impossible to say, at the time, whether those students who are using vouchers are any better off academically.

Researchers Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky have spent years studying this question, and they’ve given NPR an early look at their findings.

The backslide

In their unpublished research, which is now being peer-reviewed, Waddington and Berends studied the standardized test scores of low-income, public school students (grades 3-8) who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch and who used a voucher to switch to a private school.

When comparing these students’ achievement after the switch to their test scores the previous year, the researchers found:

  • Voucher students experienced “modest annual achievement losses” in math, especially in the first two years after leaving public school.
  • In English/language arts, voucher students showed no benefits.
  • These results echo what other researchers have found: that voucher students often backslide academically after switching to private school.

When students stick around, they improve

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