A new review of voucher research over the past decade reveals that vouchers over all “do not have a strong effect on students' academic achievement” and that proponents have shifted their rhetoric away from academic impact and instead highlight parent choice and other issues.

The analysis, called “Keeping Informed about School Vouchers: A Review of Major Developments and Research,” was done by the Center on Education Policy, an independent nonprofit that takes no position on voucher programs. It highlights changes in the voucher landscape since 2000, when the center released an earlier review of research on the subject.

“The rhetoric used to support voucher programs has shifted, with some proponents giving less emphasis to rationales based on achievement and more emphasis to arguments based on graduation rates, parent satisfaction and the value of choice in itself,” the report said.

Once seen as on the decline as a school reform tool, voucher programs are enjoying a resurgency. School vouchers, usually called scholarships, essentially involve the use of public funds to give to eligible families to use to pay tuition for their children at private schools.

Advocates say these programs give families choice in where to send their children to school; opponents say that public tax dollars should not be used to fund tuition at private schools that have no public oversight and are not required to accept all students. The Obama administration, which supports other aspects of the pro-choice movement, nevertheless opposes vouchers, making the sensible point that public dollars should not go to private schools and that the country’s challenge is improving failing public schools.

The analysis, which looked at 27 studies, found that while some of them “found limited test score gains for voucher students in certain subject areas or grade levels, these findings are inconsistent among studies, and the gains are either not statistically significant, not clearly caused by vouchers, or not sustained in the long run.”

Education Week quoted voucher supporters who, not surprisingly, criticized the report, saying it unfairly made broad generalizations and didn’t review all the research.

Most of the earlier voucher programs, the report notes, were targeted to low-income families in large cities or on students attending the lowest-performing public schools in a state. But the newer programs and proposals include reaching middle-income families. This past spring, Indiana passed the broadest voucher program in the country, which includes low-income as well as middle-income students.

Lawmakers in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin voted to expand voucher programs, while a voucher program in Washington, D.C., which was defunded by the last (Democratic-led) Congress, was revived and expanded by Congress after a push by Republican House Speaker John Boehner. The Douglas County School Board in Colorado voted unanimously to create a local voucher program.

The report notes that “policymakers risk alienating those who support vouchers as a means to improve education for low-income urban students,” and quoted former Milwaukee Superintendent Howard — a proponent of vouchers and other pro-choice alternatives for low-income students — as opposing Wisconsin’s voucher expansion.

Meanwhile, a handful of states either created or expanded programs that provide tax credits to corporations and individuals who contribute to organizations that provide money for families to send their children to private schools. They include Georgia, North Carolina, Iowa and Oklahoma. And this week, the Pennsylvania House Education committee is holding hearings on a proposed $1 billion statewide voucher program that would affect schools across the state.

Voters in California, Michigan and Utah, however, rejected voucher programs.

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