Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference last week at National Harbor, Md. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A new study reports that there is no evidence that school vouchers — which use public dollars to pay for private school tuition and are favored by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — offer students significant academic advantages and are a proven education reform strategy.

The study comes at a time when DeVos and President Trump have made clear that expanding school “choice” is a priority, arguing that traditional public schools are failing too many students and that parents should have choices. Trump has said he wants to spend $20 billion to help states expand voucher programs, and the people who administer the only federally funded voucher program currently operating, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, say they expect to get more federal money soon to expand  by “hundreds of new students” for the 2017-2018 school year.

Critics say DeVos and Trump want to privatize the public education system, the most important civic institution in the country. They say that school “choice” options — including charter and online schools — exacerbate segregation and do not broadly help improve student achievement; that traditional public systems, which educate the vast majority of the country’s schoolchildren, are financially harmed by choice; and that vouchers used for religious schools violate the constitutional separation between church and state.

The study, released Tuesday and written by Martin Carnoy, a Stanford University professor and research associate at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, reviews the evidence based on the effectiveness of vouchers. It includes examinations of evaluations of programs in Florida, Indiana, Minnesota and Louisiana as well as in Chile and in India. It finds “limited improvements at best in student achievement and school district performance from even large-scale programs” and says:

In the few cases in which test scores increased, other factors, namely increased public accountability, not private school competition, seem to be more likely drivers. And high rates of attrition from private schools among voucher users in several studies raises concerns. The second largest and longest-standing U.S. voucher program, in Milwaukee, offers no solid evidence of student gains in either private or public schools.

In the only area in which there is evidence of small improvements in voucher schools — in high school graduation and college enrollment rates — there are no data to show whether the gains are the result of schools shedding lower-performing students or engaging in positive practices. Also, high school graduation rates have risen sharply in public schools across the board in the last 10 years, with those increases much larger than the small effect estimated on graduation rates from attending a voucher school.

The report says this lack of evidence that vouchers significantly improve student achievement, as measured by standardized test scores, the favored metric of school reformers, “suggests that an ideological preference for education markets over equity and public accountability is what is driving the push to expand voucher programs” and that the risks of pursuing these programs “include increased school segregation; the loss of a common, secular educational experience; and the possibility that the flow of inexperienced young teachers filling the lower-paying jobs in private schools will dry up once the security and benefits offered to more experienced teachers in public schools disappear.”

There are 25 voucher programs in 14 states, allowing families to use taxpayer dollars to pay for private or parochial schools, according to EdChoice, a pro-school-choice organization: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana (two), Maine, Maryland, Mississippi (two), North Carolina (two), Ohio (five), Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin (four) as well as in Washington.

There are also tax-credit scholarship programs, which allow individuals and corporations to receive full or partial tax credits when they donate to nonprofit organizations that provide private school scholarships. EdChoice says there are 21 tax-credit scholarship programs in 17 states. One of the guests Trump has invited to his speech Tuesday night to Congress is Denisha Merriweather, who went to a private school in Florida with help from a tax-credit scholarship program.

School-choice advocates on Capitol Hill also say they expect tax code reform — promised by Trump — to include a federal tax credit that would incentivize corporations to donate to state “scholarship” programs that offer tuition to private and religious schools. There is a bill in the House, H.R. 610, that would strip the Education Department of all powers except to award block grants to qualified states for vouchers for eligible students.” Although the bill isn’t expected to become law, the idea behind it, once seen as beyond extreme, has gained some currency in the era of Trump and DeVos.

DeVos has been an advocate of vouchers for decades — and has made clear that she and Trump intend to promote school “choice” as a top education priority. In a speech she gave last week to Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference, she said in part:

But today, we know the system is failing too many kids.

Why?

Because our nation’s test scores have flatlined.

Because 1.3 million children drop out of school every year.

Because the previous administration spent seven billion of your dollars on “School Improvement Grants,” thinking they could demonstrate that money alone would solve the problem. Yet their own report, issued as they walked out the door, showed that it had zero impact on student outcomes and performance.

They tested their model, and it failed … miserably.

The irony is that her model — school choice — has been tested, too, for several decades, and it hasn’t proved to be successful in broadly boosting student achievement.

Studies show that charter schools — another favored DeVos reform, which are publicly funded but allowed to operate largely like private institutions — don’t, on average, do better in terms of student achievement when measured by test scores than traditional public schools. And online charter schools often do much worse, according to a major 2015 study funded in part by a private pro-charter foundation. It found, for example, that students in online charters lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math during the course of a 180-day school year. (It’s as if they didn’t go to school.)

The Carnoy report concludes by saying that any Trump administration “push for vouchers and charters could be seen as distracting from implementing programs that can, in fact, improve student learning.” They include investing more in excellent teacher pre-service training, in early-childhood education, in after-school and summer programs, in improved student health and nutrition programs in and out of schools, and in implementing high standards in math, reading and science curriculums.

 

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