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It’s not a radical statement to say that private school choice has been a success. Every serious study into the efficacy of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships has shown either positive or neutral benefits for students. Virtually no significant research has found that they have academically harmed children.
That makes the popular narrative about school choice all the more frustrating. It says vouchers have done little good because the students who take public money to private schools don’t outperform their peers left behind in school districts. The mainstream press has advanced this story line, asserting that the research literature on vouchers is “mixed.” The latest contribution to this comes from Politico, which concluded in a 1,600-word story this weekend that, as taxpayers prepare to direct $1 billion annually toward private school tuition, “there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.”
Such a declaration, however, distorts the findings from multiple gold-standard and peer-reviewed studies, which are decidedly not mixed—if one’s definition of mixed means a combination of good and bad results. In that sense, the verdict on charter schools is mixed, but the judgment on vouchers is not.
The empirical record on vouchers reports either positive gains for scholarship recipients or no difference between voucher students and their public school peers, using a variety of student outcomes as an indicator (test scores, high school graduation, and college-going rates) and usually for a variety of student subgroups. Stephanie Simon of Politico correctly points to snapshots of voucher test results in a few jurisdictions such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Louisiana that are “mixed,” but practically no study that employs the gold-standard methodology of random assignment has found that vouchers have had a negative impact on students or schools.
To gain a better understanding on what’s in the literature, it’s necessary to summarize it:
Of course, throughout these studies, some subgroups of students benefitted more than others. But it’s important to note that no group of students was worse off because of vouchers. That’s a nuance that’s rarely captured in the popular narrative, but it’s one that makes a stronger case for private school choice than most press reports allow.