The record on vouchers is not mixed
It’s no exaggeration 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, and virtually no significant research has found any signs of academic harm to children. This makes the popular narrative about school choice—that vouchers have done little good because the students who participate don’t outperform their public school peers—all the more frustrating. The mainstream press has advanced this story line. The latest version comes from (semi-mainstream) Politico and reporter Stephanie Simon, who concluded in a 1,600-word story this past weekend that, as taxpayers prepare to direct $1 billion annually toward private school tuition, “there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains” and that the research literature on vouchers is “mixed.”
Mixed, they say? Consider, for instance, the work of Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, who has examined the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and found that it led to improved reading achievement among participants while also increasing a student’s chance of graduating high school by 21 percentage points. Consider, too, that random-assignment studies of privately funded voucher programs in New York, Dayton, and Charlotte found higher achievement levels on standardized tests or higher college-going rates, or both, particularly for black students. Other empirical studies led to findings that range from the positive competitive effects vouchers have on public schools to the heightened level of achievement that comes from greater accountability (this last comes from Milwaukee, where Simon noted that snapshot test scores of voucher students look poorly but where a longitudinal analysis of the voucher program reports more positive results). But a single literature review from Greg Forster at the Friedman Foundation is perhaps most revealing: eleven of twelve random-assignment studies have showed improved academic outcomes of students who participated in voucher programs. The one study that didn’t found no visible impact on students one way or the other.
By declaring the literature on vouchers “mixed,” Politico and Simon have distorted the findings from multiple gold-standard and peer-reviewed studies, which—if one’s definition of mixed means a combination of good and bad results—are decidedly not mixed.