Voucher critics made the two large statewide school choice programs into targets over the past year. Studies looking at just a few years’ worth of data found students fell behind their public-school peers on reading and math tests after accepting a voucher to attend a private school.
The drip-drop of negative findings countered what had been a steady stream of studies showing private school choice programs didn’t harm — and sometimes helped — student test score gains. A gathering narrative argued vouchers harm student achievement.
The new Indiana and Louisiana results reflect students’ progress over a longer time period. And they call that narrative into question.
They show voucher students who remained in private schools for a few years eventually caught up to their private school peers. Some even posted achievement gains over time.
This highlights a consistent trend in other voucher studies, including a recent re-examination of voucher data from Washington D.C. When students leave public schools to accept private school scholarships, they tend to lose ground initially. Over time, their test scores get better as they adjust to new schools.
Schools take the time to adjust to new students, too. Private schools in much of Louisiana and Indiana had to figure out how to serve an influx of low-income and working-class students who couldn’t previously afford tuition. And sometimes schools have to adjust to new standards, tests or regulations that come with scholarship programs.
The new results have drawn predictable reactions from teachers unions and school choice advocacy groups. They might not bring a clear-cut victory for either side of the debate. But they lend fresh credence to arguments from people like Lousiana School Superintendent John White, who argued partisans should give vouchers time to work before jumping to conclusions about their academic impact.
New years of data
Indiana’s low-income voucher students see positive outcomes in reading and no difference in math after four years, according to updated findings that still have not yet been formally published. They were first divulged on public radio by Professors Mark Berends and Joseph Waddington and later released by Chalkbeat.
As with previous research, the authors found a decline in student performance in the first year. But they also found as years go by, student achievement in private schools begins to climb.
“The longer that a student is enrolled in a private school receiving a voucher, their achievement begins to turn positive in magnitude — to the degree that they’re making up ground that they initially lost in their first couple of years in private school,” Waddington stated in an interview with NPR.