Contexts Matter: Selection in Means-Tested School Voucher Programs

A common gripe among choice kvetchers is that private schools that participate in voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs “cherry pick” the best students. This research by University of California professor Cassandra Hart finds evidence to the contrary. After comparing the 2,764 elementary-aged students who applied to the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarship program (participants) to the 555,271 students who were eligible but chose not to apply (nonparticipants), Hart found that participants disproportionately came from public schools with lower academic quality and higher rates of violence than nonparticipants. What’s more, participating students had significantly lower math and reading scores than their nonparticipating peers, giving the lie to the “cherry-picking” argument. Interestingly, Hart also found that, relative to students who did not participate in the voucher program, participants were more likely to attend school in areas with stronger private-school options and weaker charter and open-enrollment alternatives. This suggests that, rather than looking for religious or private schooling in particular, many parents are searching for a better alternative than their zoned school and might avail themselves of quality public-school choices, if such existed. 

SOURCE: Cassandra M. D. Hart, “Contexts Matter: Selection in Means-Tested School Voucher Programs,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 26(2), June 2014: 186–206.

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