Second Generation Voucher Research

My recent work on voucher school failure (co-authored with Fredrik Andersson) is getting a good amount of attention from both voucher opponents and supporters. I am of course happy to see people paying attention to my work. Someone even referred to me as “Professor Idiot,” which makes my kids, who are huge fans of the Captain Underpants books, happy. As an academic, I am hopeful that scholars studying school choice will place more focus on what I call second generation voucher research.

The first decades of voucher research focused on the question, do school voucher programs work? There is no clear yes or no answer to that question (in part because people want different things out of voucher programs), but my overall synthesis of the research is that offering a student a voucher is unlikely to automatically result in substantive academic gains for urban students. In previous work, Fredrik Andersson and I argued that the performance of voucher reforms is dependent on the quality of the organizations participating. Ours is an obvious argument, but one that gets too little attention in my humble opinion.

Second generation voucher research must focus on the questions, can vouchers work, and if so, how? Milwaukee is my test case for these questions because the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program’s (MPCP) market share and maturity demands they be explored. I do not claim to have all the answers, but researching the experience of mature school choice programs, the good, bad, and ugly, is crucial to answering these questions. Off the top of my head, here are some questions worth studying:

  • What causes school failure?
  • Who opens new schools and why?
  • What is the appropriate funding mechanism for vouchers?
  • What would local control of a voucher program look like?
  • Can private voucher programs be part of a state’s accountability framework?
  • Can non-religious networks of voucher schools be created?
  • Is there a place for private school authorizers?
  • Should vouchers solely be targeted to low-income pupils?
  • Is it possible for a school board to constructively oversee a school choice program?
  • What are the appropriate barriers to entry for a school voucher program?

I could go on, but I hope the theme is clear, there is a need for more voucher research that looks beyond the narrow focus on student level impacts. Why? Education is a public good, and the public’s acceptance of voucher reform is dependent on impacts that go far beyond test scores.

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