Private school vouchers help level the playing field

NOTE: This piece originally appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer in a slightly different form.

A recent Cincinnati Enquirer editorial by contributor Sarah Stitzlein sharply criticized Ohio’s current private-school scholarship programs and savaged Senate Bill 85, which would expand them. The recently introduced bill would open choice opportunities to working-class families by offering them partial tuition scholarships (aka vouchers) while continuing to offer full scholarships for pupils from low-income families.

Sadly, voucher critics distort private school choice and mislead the public as to why it’s worthwhile and how it works. They also distort or overlook key elements of the relevant research and make questionable claims about private schools.

Why vouchers? It’s no secret that wealthier parents enjoy a greater choice of schools for their children. They can afford to purchase homes in high-status suburban districts or cover the costs of private school education.

Yet few low- and middle-income families have similar opportunities. They typically send their kids to a public school that is assigned to them based on residential address. Many times, this works out fine. But when it doesn’t, students with limited means are stuck in schools that don’t meet their educational needs.

School choice, including private-school scholarships, opens opportunities and levels the playing field for less-privileged families. In Ohio, more than 35,000 youngsters already use publicly funded scholarships to attend private schools of their choosing. The overwhelming majority come from low-income and/or minority households or have a special need such as autism.

Skeptics contend that this accomplishes nothing because private schools don’t perform as well as public schools. In terms of academic outcomes, however, most studies across the nation have uncovered positive results for scholarship recipients. The Friedman Foundation’s literature review informs us that 14 of 18 “gold standard” experimental studies found that private-school scholarships had positive effects.

In recent months, choice objectors have ignored those decades of research and pointed to two studies – one from Louisiana, the other from Ohio – indicating that voucher students underperform their public school counterparts. (The Ohio study was commissioned by my organization.)

Disappointing as they were to choice boosters, everyone should recognize that both studies have important limitations. In Louisiana, the results were based on just the first two years of the statewide voucher program, too soon to gauge its longer term impact. Though rigorous in method, the Ohio research was limited in scope. Lead author David Figlio, a first-rate researcher from Northwestern University, was able to analyze only the test-score trajectories of voucher recipients who left relatively functional public schools – akin to D-rated schools. Due to methodological concerns, he could not examine students from F-rated schools. Those students – who arguably had the greatest need for vouchers – may have made significant progress (or may not have), but there was no statistically reliable way of studying their outcomes.

Importantly, Figlio also found positive competitive effects—the introduction of vouchers modestly improved public school performance. Critics routinely omit this finding as it undermines their frequent assertion that vouchers damage public schools.

Skeptics also assert that voucher programs are harmful to school integration efforts. Research has found little to support their claim: A 2010 study from Milwaukee finds that vouchers had a neutral impact on racial integration. And a more recent analysis from Louisiana found that voucher transfers reduced segregation in public schools and had no effect on the receiving private schools.

Keep in mind also that African-American leaders such as Howard Fuller and Polly Williams ignited the voucher movement almost 30 years ago in Milwaukee. Their goal was to give more low-income, minority students access to high-quality schools, regardless of who operated them. Figlio’s Ohio research found that more than three in five EdChoice voucher students are African-American or Hispanic. While diverse schools are desirable for several reasons, we ought not to stand in the way of minority families who want a good education for their children with or without integration.

Finally, critics claim that private schools may, in Stitzlein’s words, “teach undemocratic values.” Yet analyses by University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf show that students attending private schools are more civically minded than public school pupils. Based on his review of 21 empirical studies, Wolf concludes: “The statistical record suggests that private schooling and school choice often enhance the realization of the civic values.” It seems likely that private schools’ moral direction, disciplinary practices, and academic expectations help to instill stronger civic values.

District schools may well continue to educate the majority of students, even in choice-rich areas. It’s the arrangement most of us know best – including myself, a public school graduate. Yet familiarity and tradition are no substitutes for what is just and right. With or without choice, prosperous families will continue to purchase their way into high performing school districts, or pony up for private tuitions. But without choice programs, such as vouchers, working class families won’t have those same opportunities. That’s an injustice – and one that choice initiatives strive to solve.

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.