Louisiana Voucher Evaluation Illustrates the Need to Study Voucher Schools, Not Just Students

The School Choice Demonstration Project just released its Year 2 evaluation of the Louisiana School Voucher program and there is plenty to sort out. Everyone wants to know, of course, do vouchers work? That is the wrong question, but I will get to that in a bit. So what did the evaluation find?

First, there is evidence that the program improved integration in schools. Second, there is little evidence that the program has impacted users’ non-cognitive skills (incidentally, it is very cool that the research team is looking at this). Third, there is some evidence of a competitive effect on public schools. And last, and what will no doubt receive the most attention, the program is having a negative effect on student achievement, in particular math scores. To paraphrase Joe Biden, that is a big deal. Up to this point voucher studies generally show a neutral or small positive impact on student achievement.

The research team offers a few plausible explanations for the negative findings. First, they cite the use of the required state exam for private voucher schools as an “unusual” feature of the program.   I do not think the use of the state test for publicly funded schools should be deemed unusual, but their speculation that private school curricula may be misaligned with the exam is possible. If this is true, however, it brings up serious questions about the purpose of the voucher program, and the state test. What is the state test measuring exactly, and what are private schools trying to do? I think the days of voucher pupils not taking state tests are coming to an end, meaning state exams must be aligned to the needs of students, wherever they obtain a publicly funded education.

The second explanation is that the students in the program are particular hard to educate. This makes sense to me. The Milwaukee voucher program demonstrated that being successful with a vastly different student body means a culture shift, I find the best Milwaukee voucher schools are those that fully embrace the mission of serving low-income high-needs pupils. It is hard simply take a handful of voucher pupils and expect results.

The third explanation, that the success of other education reforms in Louisiana resulted in “unexpected growth” for students in the control group, seems incredibly unlikely to me, but I suppose it is possible. The last explanation is, in my opinion, the correct one: Private school quality.

As I have argued before and will argue again right now, the dominant scholarly approach to studying vouchers is incomplete because it ignores the most important unit of analysis: The schools. There is nothing magical about simply being given a voucher, what matters it where pupils use a voucher. The explanation that high-quality schools did not participate in the Louisiana voucher program because of regulation concerns may be true, but that too is incomplete. Building a school that serves low-income high-needs students takes time, and complete buy-in into the mission. I happen to think it also takes buy-in from the community and a broader commitment to and public acceptance of inclusion of private providers as part of the public school infrastructure.

I am hopeful the debate over the quality of the individual schools in the Louisiana voucher program leads to recognition that a voucher program is only as good as the schools involved (as I have argued here, here and here).   So, do vouchers work is the wrong question. What should we ask? Are the voucher and charter schools working? And if so, why?

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