Research | Public Funds Public Schools

A wide range of research shows that private school voucher programs are an ineffective use of public funds.

Studies of voucher programs across the country have found that students who participate in private school voucher programs fare worse academically than students educated in public schools, and in some cases dramatically worse. In addition, voucher programs undermine already struggling public schools. Other damaging effects of vouchers include loss of civil rights protections, increased segregation, and erosion of the separation of church and state. Private school voucher programs often lack accountability and transparency, yet cost millions of public dollars.

Independent research is critical to understanding how these programs impact students and communities and to advocate for what’s best for all students. PFPS has compiled a selection of studies on private school vouchers:

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Private School Vouchers Don’t Improve Student Achievement

A 2019 study on the academic effects of the Louisiana voucher program by researchers at the University of Arkansas found that after four years, students using the vouchers to attend private schools “performed noticeably worse on state assessments than their [public school] control group counterparts.” The data showed “large negative effects” on assessment results, especially in math. The results of this study conducted over a longer timeframe appeared to contradict earlier claims that the negative academic effects of the Louisiana voucher program could be temporary. A 2019 companion study found that participation in the Louisiana voucher program did not improve rates of college enrollment.

A 2019 evaluation by the Institute for Education Sciences entitled “Evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts Three Years After Students Applied” found that the Washington, D.C. voucher program had no statistically significant effect on student achievement in reading or math after three years. It also concluded that the program did not improve parent satisfaction with schools or perceptions of school safety.

A 2018 evaluation by the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Alabama of the academic achievement of Alabama’s tax credit voucher recipients during the 2016-2017 school year found that, "On average, over time, participating in the scholarship program was not associated with significant improvement on standardized test scores." The results of the state-mandated evaluation showed that "scholarship recipients generally performed below the average U.S. student at their grade level."

A 2018 longitudinal study of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management found that low-income students who switched from public to private school using a voucher starting in the 2011-12 school year experienced, on average, an achievement loss of 0.15 standard deviations in mathematics on the statewide standardized assessment during their first year of private school compared to matched students who remained in public schools. This loss remained consistent regardless of the length of time spent in private school, therefore contradicting the claim that loss in achievement is the result of student adjustment to private school. A 2019 study published in the Russel Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences found significant losses in academic achievement for Indiana students who used a voucher to move from public to private school.

A 2018 report by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) evaluated the impact of Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) after two years of participation in the program. Math scores were a statistically significant 10 percentile points lower for students who used a private school voucher compared with students who applied but did not receive a voucher. The year before, IES had found that one year into the program, math scores were a statistically significant 7.3 percentile points lower for students who used a private school voucher compared with students who applied but did not receive a voucher.

A 2018 study entitled "Does Attendance in Private Schools Predict Student Outcomes at Age 15? Evidence From a Longitudinal Study," found that in unadjusted models, American students who attended private schools had better academic and social outcomes at age 15, however, these advantages were eliminated after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics. Low-income children or children enrolled in urban schools did not benefit more from private school enrollment.

A 2018 study summarized the impact of Indiana’s Choice Program on student achievement. The study found that students who used a voucher to transfer to private schools experienced an average loss of 3-4 percentile points in mathematics. The largest loss occurred during years one and two. Voucher students began to show improvement by their fourth year in a private school, but performed no better than their public school counterparts. The research found that in English language arts, there was no statistically significant difference in achievement.

A 2018 report by the Center for American Progress entitled “The Highly Negative Effects of Vouchers” compared the negative effects of participation in the Washington, D.C. voucher program with other negative factors such as feeling unsafe in school and teacher turnover. The authors found that attending a voucher school had a larger negative effect on math achievement than all other factors they reviewed. This was equivalent to the impact of losing one-third of a school year of learning.

A 2017 report by the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute entitled "School Vouchers Are Not a Proven Strategy for Improving Student Achievement," stated: "In the only area in which there is evidence of small improvements in voucher schools – in high school graduation and college enrollment rates – there is no data to show whether the gains are the result of schools shedding lower-performing students or engaging in positive practices." Regarding student achievement, the report concluded, "In the few cases in which test scores increased, other factors, namely increased public accountability, not private school comparison, seem to be the more likely drivers."

A 2016 study of Louisiana’s private school voucher program found that students who performed at about the 50th percentile in math and reading prior to participation in the voucher program dropped approximately 24 percentage points in their first year of private school. These students performed slightly better in their second year but still well below non-voucher students in both math and reading.

A 2016 study of the Ohio private school voucher program conducted by a conservative think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and funded by the pro-voucher Walton Foundation, found voucher students "have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools...Such impacts also appear to persist over time, suggesting that the results are not driven simply by the setbacks that typically accompany any change of school."

A 2015 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research compared outcomes of school voucher lottery winning and losing students in Louisiana’s Scholarship Program (LSP) (private school voucher program), finding that "This comparison reveals that LSP participation substantially reduced academic achievement."

A 2011 review by the non-partisan Center on Education Policy concluded: "Since 2000, more evidence has accumulated about the impact of vouchers on student test scores, particularly from longer-term studies of publicly funded voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and D.C. ...these studies have generally found no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private schools with vouchers."

A 2008 Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Working Paper reviewing "empirical evidence on the impact of education vouchers on student achievement," stated that, "The best research to date finds relatively small achievement gains for students offered education vouchers, most of which are not statistically different from zero."

Private School Vouchers Divert Needed Funding from Public Schools

A 2018 policy paper published by the Grand Canyon Institute estimated the cost of Arizona’s private school voucher programs, which supporters claim save taxpayer dollars. The author found instead that the cost of a student in a voucher program is 75% higher than the cost of a public school student. The study also found a slight decline in private school enrollment since Arizona’s first voucher program was implemented in 1999. At the same time, "the amount spent on private school subsidies from the General Fund has increased nearly 50-fold from $3 million in 1999-2000 to $141 million in 2015-16."

A 2017 policy memo published by the National Education Policy Center examined the fiscal impacts of the statewide Wisconsin private school voucher program on Wisconsin public school districts. Analysis showed that districts are at risk of losing a significant portion of their state aid as participation in the voucher program increases. The author concluded that Wisconsin demonstrates that statewide voucher programs can pose a significant risk to public school funding levels.

Private School Voucher Programs Lack Accountability

A 2018 policy brief published by the National Education Policy Center entitled "The State of Education Savings Account Programs in the United States" noted that there has been very little research about these types of private school voucher programs. For this reason, and because studies of conventional vouchers have demonstrated poor outcomes, the authors stated that policymakers should be wary of adopting or expanding these private school voucher programs, and "comprehensive evaluation systems" must be implemented.

A 2017 report from Georgetown University think tank, FutureEd, analyzed declining participation in Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded private school voucher program in the U.S. FutureEd noted that the use of vouchers has steadily dropped since 2013, due to design flaws and lack of demand. Eligible families and schools worry about funding that is wholly dependent on congressional will. They are provided no data regarding private schools’ quality and, historically, administration of the vouchers has been chaotic. Vouchers are awarded after many private schools have finished their admissions process and distributed financial aid. By contrast, enrollment and test scores in D.C.’s public and charter schools are on the rise.

Absence of Oversight in Private School Voucher Programs Leads to Corruption and Waste

A 2017 investigation of Florida’s private school program by the Orlando Sentinel found that the state’s private schools would collect almost $1 billion in school voucher money that year. The investigation also found very little oversight and accountability in these schools, resulting in the hiring of teachers without college degrees, falsification of fire safety and health records, and an absence of consequences for poorly performing schools, among other concerns.

A 2016 report to the State Legislature by Arizona’s Auditor General about a performance audit of the Arizona Department of Education’s oversight of the state’s private school voucher program noted that, "Between August 2015 and January 2016, department staff identified more than $102,000 in misspending, which included parents who spent program monies after enrolling children in public school, parents who did not submit required quarterly expense reports, and parents who purchased un-allowed items." The report included multiple recommendations for improved accountability.

Private School Vouchers Don’t Help Students with Disabilities

A 2018 policy paper from the National Council on Disability entitled "Choice & Vouchers—Implications for Students with Disabilities" examined private school voucher programs and "how this alteration in the flow of public funds results in critical and often misunderstood changes in protections for students with disabilities and their families, under not only IDEA, but also federal nondiscrimination laws."

A 2017 report by the Center on Education Policy found that limited research has been conducted on the impact, effectiveness, and quality of state special education voucher programs, which vary considerably across states. The report identifies areas of concern and questions that have not yet been examined by researchers and policymakers.

A 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office found that parents are often not informed that students’ special education rights are significantly diminished when they use vouchers to attend private schools. The report concluded that "in school year 2016-17, 83 percent of students enrolled in a [voucher] program designed specifically for students with disabilities were in a program that provided either no information about changes in [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] rights or provided information that [the U.S. Department of] Education confirmed contained inaccuracies about these changes."

A 2017 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities explored the implications of vouchers for students with disabilities. The report highlighted the important protections in federal law that students with disabilities lose when they attend private schools using a voucher and the lack of information provided to parents about these rights implications. The report also documented the financial implication for families participating in voucher programs due to the fact that the voucher amount often does not cover the full cost of tuition and fees at a private school.

A 2016 report from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates found that private schools may accept students with disabilities but expel them for behavioral or other reasons, and private school vouchers for special education students "typically fail to include all students with disabilities."

Private School Vouchers Don’t Protect Against Discrimination

A 2019 issue brief from the Center for American Progress entitled “The Danger Private School Voucher Programs Pose to Civil Rights,” analyzes the civil rights implications of participation in voucher programs. The authors explain the various rights and protections under federal law that apply to public school students but may not apply to students attending private schools through voucher programs, and document which civil rights protections exist for students participating in different voucher programs across the country.

A 2018 policy brief from the National Education Policy Center found that private school vouchers and other privatization programs open the door for discrimination: "First, federal law defines discrimination differently in public and private spaces. Second, state legislatures have largely neglected issues of discrimination while constructing private school voucher laws. Third, because private schools are free to determine what programs to offer, they can attract some populations while excluding others."

A 2018 working paper for the UCLA Civil Rights Project entitled "Private School Vouchers: Legal Challenges and Civil Rights Protections" includes a brief history of private school voucher programs, past legal challenges, legal justifications for the programs, and key policy issues focusing on civil rights concerns. The authors offer a series of recommendations for future policies, including ensuring that state voucher laws have "straightforward anti-discrimination provisions" and comply with federal law to protect and serve special education students and English language learners.

Private School Vouchers Exacerbate Segregation

A 2018 working paper entitled "Private Schools in American Education: A Small Sector Still Lagging in Diversity," examined trends in private school enrollment over the past two decades, including the racial composition of private school student populations, thereby "providing key data for evaluating the civil rights dimension of private school and voucher policies." The report found significant differences in the racial composition of private schools and public schools. White students were overrepresented in private schools, while Hispanic and African American students were underrepresented. Low-income families were also underrepresented in private schools.

A 2018 working paper, entitled "Washington, D.C.’S Opportunity Scholarship Program: Civil Rights Implications," evaluated the implementation of the District’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (private school voucher program) since its inception in 2003. The author found that student enrollment in the program has declined and become whiter; participation in the program has had no statistically significant effect on achievement; and private schools in D.C. are less segregated, though they have a majority of white students. The author found that 70% of participating voucher students were enrolled in heavily segregated schools with 90% or more minority students, and 58% were enrolled in all-minority schools.

A 2017 study by The Century Foundation concluded that, "On balance, voucher programs are more likely to increase school segregation than to promote integration or maintain the status quo." The study’s analysis of the Louisiana school voucher program confirmed "patterns noted in demographic studies of voucher users and private school attendance: that black students typically used vouchers to leave public schools where their race was overrepresented, but white students tended to leave public schools where their race was underrepresented."

A 2017 report by the Center for American Progress detailed the "Sordid history of school vouchers," starting with "segregation academies" in the Southern United States during Jim Crow. The report noted that today Southern private schools tend to have the largest overrepresentation of white students in the country, and "the strongest predictor of white private school enrollment is the proportion of black students in the local public schools." The report also described Indiana’s private school voucher program as a "case study" for the segregating effects of vouchers in states without a history of racial motivation for program creation, noting that, "Indiana’s voucher program increasingly benefits higher-income white students, many of whom are already in private schools, and diverts funding from all other students who remain in the public school system."

A 2017 report by the Century Foundation concluded that private school vouchers pose serious risks by diverting scarce resources, diminishing students’ civil rights protections, reducing student achievement and further segregating students. "Perhaps most troubling, private schools are not in the business of promoting and strengthening American democracy and democratic values," the report noted, adding that, "integrated schools underline the democratic message that in America, we are all social equals."

Universal Private School Voucher Programs Don’t Work

A 2018 policy brief published by the National Education Policy Center examined the effects of universal privatization and school vouchers in Chile with an eye towards how that country’s experience could inform debate in the United States. Key findings in Chile included the following: a family’s choice is limited because schools choose which students to admit; economic and cultural capital matters, and disadvantaged students end up in low-performing schools; better schools attract better teachers. The brief also noted that "there is plausible evidence that privatization is associated with pervasive discrimination and exclusion among students, low public trust, neglect of civic education, and a tenacious social movement clamoring for a stronger and more inclusive public option." And finally, "It is extremely difficult to reverse privatization."

For some additional resources about the impacts and outcomes associated with private school vouchers, click here.

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