Friday, March 27, 2015

Will School Vouchers Benefit Low-Income Families? Assessing the Evidence

Here are the bills that were heard today in the Senate Education Committee in the Texas House of Representatives.  Melinda Lemke and myself testified from a policy memorandum titled, "Will School Vouchers Benefit Low-Income Families? Assessing the Evidence" and co-authored by Dr. Huriya Jabbar, Dr. Jennifer Holme & doctoral students—Melinda Lemke, A.V. LeClair, Joanna Sanchez and Edgar M. Torres, Education Policy and Planning, University of Texas at Austin.

This policy memo provides a rigorous review of peer-reviewed research and government studies as opposed to research done by think tank organizations with a pro-voucher agenda.  Here is a summative statement from my colleagues' introduction:

We find that the empirical research shows that the effects of school vouchers on student outcomes generally are small or insignificant, and do not have the ability to close the racial achievement gap or generate large gains in student outcomes. In addition, even voucher programs that target low-income families or those attending failing schools have serious access and attrition challenges, calling into question the equity claims of voucher proponents. We conclude that the research on voucher effectiveness shows mixed resultssome studies show small positive effects on student achievement, and some show no effects. Overall these results do not align with the strong claims of voucher proponents. In addition, the take-up and attrition patterns of voucher recipients suggest that such policies might not  benefit  the  most disadvantaged  students.

Not only does this rigorous review of vouchers suggest that we exercise caution if we are to construe this as a policy panacea, but it should also mean something to us that precious little peer-reviewed research on the matter actually exists which means that many questions about the effects of vouchers remain unanswered.  It's important for us to consider all that we still do not know.

Again, from a research perspective, we do not know what happens to children after they are no longer in a voucher program.  We do not know whether when voucher laws are passed, exactly how the private sector (often parochial) schools prepare to meet children's needs.  What happens to those places once children that use school vouchers leave them?  We do not know from a public management perspective how state administrative bureaucracies manage dollars associated with potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of children moving in and out of the public and private sector.  And what costs—especially hidden ones—are associated with this specific kind of management?  All else equal, it sounds like an administrative nightmare.

There are so many questions for which there exist little to no peer-reviewed data that we should exercise utmost prudence before we as a state go down this experimental path, particularly in the name of "progress," "freedom," and "choice."

You may read the policy memorandum here

Angela Valenzuela, Ph.D., Director
Texas Center for Education Policy
University of Texas at Austin

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