Evaluations of Privately Funded Vouchers

In the past several days, you may well have read assertions by U.S. Senators, explaining their vote against the Gregg amendment to include a voucher pilot program in the big elementary/secondary education bill, to the effect that there is no evidence that such programs work. (Of course they were voting against a demonstration intended to find out whether such programs work!) But they were wrong. Paul Peterson and his team at the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) have created a veritable cottage industry of voucher studies, including careful evaluations of a number of the privately funded programs that have recently proliferated. Some of those studies include information on student achievement. Others don't. Two recent ones that don't look at achievement are nonetheless illuminating on many other fronts. In January, the Harvard team published its evaluation of San Francisco's BASIC Fund Scholarship Program. In March appeared a review of the national Children's Scholarship Fund. More are in the pipeline. Based on phone surveys of parents and students, their great contribution is comparing the experiences, attitudes and satisfaction of those who used a private scholarship to move from public to private school with those who did not. Both these studies are based on one-year effects. Both are full of interesting data and valuable insights. They abjure general conclusions and sweeping generalizations. On the whole, however, it appears that families making the public-to-private move end up more satisfied with their new schools on sundry dimensions, even though those schools lack many of the facilities and services that the public schools offer. Discipline problems are fewer. Teachers are more attentive. And so on. None of these studies is dispositive, but the cumulative evidence buttresses the widely held opinion that Terry Moe reports: private schools do a better job on multiple fronts. If you'd like to see the latest Peterson work in this area, contact PEPG at Taubman 306, Kennedy School of Government, 79 J.F.K. Street, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138. Phone (617) 495-7976; fax (617) 496-4428. Or surf to www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg/

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute