To ALEC in Texas: School Vouchers are Poppycock
ALEC is meeting in Texas right now with a “shameless” agenda to privatize public education. Who is ALEC? In December 2012 Cloaking Inequity first profiled the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is a national organization “composed of legislators, businesses and foundations” with great influence and connections to extreme think tanks and supported by funding from corporations that are seeking to drive a public policy agenda based on privatization and profit. At the time I relayed:
A recent flurry of legislation seeking to capitalize on public dollars into “parental choice” and “vouchers” were not inspired by legitimate, local, or a family “grass roots” base but from a national, well-funded effort from extreme think tanks modeled, written, and disseminated by ALEC. Diane Ravitch has extensively written on ALEC’s opinions and activities in the education sector here. Many state legislators have been provided training, technical assistance and handed the language for bills to direct the flow of public money into “parental choice.” As a consequence privatization and profit driving efforts in the education sector are growing as the public dollars are flowing. For example, see the 2012 ALEC Report on American Education. On pages 6 – 9 they summarize their successes in 2011 in regards to vouchers.
Notably, privatization and profit efforts in education have been tried elsewhere. A decade ago Chile decided that private (and non-democratic) organizations should provision schooling— education should be excluded as much as possible from a government’s budget. As a result their public system is shrinking rapidly and low-SES students are now more likely to be denied access to a high-quality education. If you are looking for model voucher legislation for privatization and profit, you have to look no further than Chile. While parental choice sounds attractive, those behind the legislative efforts for privatization are not interested in equity and social justice, despite their simple, impassioned, and convincing rhetoric otherwise. In their hands, our public system of education will continue to wither and collapse.
ALEC exposed writes:
For almost 20 years, a top priority item for ALEC has been the privatization of public schools through school vouchers. Like many ALEC efforts, this one was first implemented in Wisconsin. ALEC has dozens of bills related to this topic, along with books and analysis. In 1993, ALEC gave its first “Adam Smith Free Enterprise Award” to school privatization advocate and funder Richard DeVos. In the early 1990s, under the leadership of longtime ALEC member Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to implement a voucher program using public funds to send children to private schools. This experiment was limited to low-income students in the Milwaukee School District. Although recent tests have revealed that voucher students performed worse in math and reading than public school students, ideological proponents of privatization are nonetheless pushing to expand the Milwaukee program to other areas of the state, as well as to higher-income families.
Tracking the ALEC school voucher agenda, Governor Walker’s 2011 Wisconsin budget expanded voucher schools throughout Milwaukee County and to the Racine school district, lifted the cap on participation, and increased income eligibility to 300% of the federal poverty level. Other ALEC-originated school choice bills are also in the works for Wisconsin, including the Charter School Reform Bill (AB 51-SB 22) and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (AB 94). To learn more, click here.
So what does the predominance of the research on school vouchers in the United States say? Today I am pleased to announce the release of a new research brief entitled Remarkable or Poppycock?: Lessons from School Voucher Research and Data by Angela Valenzuela’s Texas Center for Education Policy (TCEP). I have included the text of the brief below. You can also click on the live link above to obtain a pdf copy of the brief. Please distribute widely.
Citation: Vasquez Heilig, J., LeClair, A.V., Lemke, M., & McMurrey, A. 2014). Remarkable or Poppycock?: Lessons from School Voucher Research and Data Austin, TX: Texas Center for Education Policy, University of Texas at Austin.
Remarkable or Poppycock?: Lessons from School Voucher Research and Data
July 29, 2014
Julian Vasquez Heilig, Ph.D
Anthony LeClair, M.Ed.
Melinda A. Lemke, M.Ed.
Allen McMurrey, M.A.
Vouchers, an old idea, are once again gaining prominence in U.S. educational policy discourse. Historically, localities in the U.S. have implemented small-scale and low-regulation voucher plans targeting low-income students and/or students attending low-performing schools. Currently, there are 22 conventional voucher programs in operation across 14 states (including D.C.), and another 16 neo-voucher programs across six additional states (38 programs in 20 states). The most profiled and studied voucher programs were implemented in Florida, Ohio, New York City, and Washington, D.C. (Ladd, 2002).
Publically-funded voucher programs gained momentum after the U.S. Supreme Court decided vouchers were constitutional in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002). The Zelman case concerned Ohio’s Pilot Project Scholarship Program which provided vouchers to low-income students in the Cleveland City School District to attend a public, private, and/or parochial school chosen by the parent. However, the legal debate continues at the state level. For example, in 2012, a Louisiana state court decided Governor Bobby Jindal’s school-voucher program violated Louisiana’s State Constitution.
A simple narrative purporting the benefits of student and parental choice within a market-based approach to education is the foundation of voucher discourse. Voucher policy proponents claim vouchers will increase parent choice, individual control over tax dollars, and create a competitive marketplace for students, especially those who are most disadvantaged (NEA, 2014). To advance the policy discussion, this brief offers a compendium of recent data and research on the U.S. domestic implementation of vouchers in order to inform policymakers of real-world outcomes and their implications for students and families.
In Texas, the evidence suggests that the Legislature ranks education spending very low on its list of priorities. Texas is currently in the midst of a school finance lawsuit, and has been sued by its citizens multiple times over the past few decades for inadequately funding K-12 public education. The Lone Star State cut $5.4 billion from public education in 2011 and later replaced only about 59% of the funding for the next biennium (without consideration of the rapid enrollment growth). Also, at 45th in per pupil funding, Texas is ranked below the vast majority of states in the nation (Vasquez Heilig, Jez, & Reddick, 2012).
Some proponents frame vouchers as a productive and useful alternative to increased state education spending. Although cost reduction is put forth as a potential benefit of voucher programs, this benefit often accrues at the statehouse and not the local level. Dependent upon district-level funding, a state may derive large cost savings from vouchers. Given per pupil funding averages about $9,000 in Texas, a “savings” of approximately $4,000 would be achieved with a voucher of just $5,000 – ideal for state policymakers, but not for local communities. Why? In this case, the responsibility for financing a student’s education is passed on to the families to pay any additional educational costs beyond the voucher. Furthermore, the receiving private institution— whether the school is run by Catholics, Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventists, or non-religiously affiliated— would subsidize the remainder of the cost.
What is the impact on local school districts? If Texas continues to fund school districts based on average daily attendance, then districts that lose students to private schools will see a decrease in state revenue that may not be accompanied by a decrease in district costs. In order for districts to realize costs savings, students who exit the district need to come from the same schools and grade levels in order for the district to reduce personnel costs— by far the largest portion of a district’s budget. Otherwise districts would have to employ the same amount of teachers, counselors, librarians, and support staff to serve fewer students. In rural schools this would increase the already problematic diseconomies of scale. According to TEA (2011), small districts that often tend to be more rural districts, get about $14,000 in state and local revenue per pupil because of their smaller size. Thus, not only would vouchers prevent decreased costs, it could cause an increase in per pupil costs.
What does the predominance of peer-reviewed literature indicate about vouchers and student achievement? Reviews of the research literature on school vouchers and academic achievement across the past decade suggests that statistically significant achievement gains for voucher students in a variety of state-based voucher experiments are limited and inconsistent across student groups.
In a review of nationwide voucher experimentation, Belfield and Levin (2005) concluded the following:
Empirical evidence has not settled the issue to the satisfaction of those who have not made prior commitments to one side or the other. To this point, some of the studies have found small, positive impacts of choice, competition, and vouchers on student achievement; others have found none. No study has found any substantial difference in student achievement, for example, an impact that would potentially close the achievement gap among races. (p. 550)
In 2009, Barrow and Rouse posited, “the best research to date finds relatively small achievement gains for students offered education vouchers, most of which are not statistically different from zero” (p. 37). According to Weaver (2011), studies of voucher programs in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Milwaukee, and other areas demonstrate that vouchers negligibly effect student academic achievement. Simply put, the vast majority of the peer reviewed research literature in the US (and elsewhere in the world) during the past decade demonstrates that school vouchers fail to significantly improve student achievement.
Voucher proponents counter that 11/12 “gold standard” randomized studies show an impact for vouchers. This statement is deceptive because only 4 of the 12 the “gold standard” randomized studies were independently peer-reviewed and published in academic journals. This external review is important as randomized studies can still suffer from fatal statistical weaknesses (i.e. peer-effect bias). Thus, the true “gold standard” for empirical work is not solely methodological choice, but also the independent peer review process that all articles must navigate through to publication in an academic journal.
Notably, reviews of voucher research have revealed that many of the peer-reviewed voucher articles were produced by researchers known to have received hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct the research from publicly pro-voucher organizations. Education Week (2011) examined the background of individuals conducting research on school vouchers and student achievement and concluded research purporting voucher success was primarily sponsored and funded by organizations that support vouchers.
In sum, it is difficult to find rigorous and independently funded scientific studies conclusively demonstrating that vouchers have a positive, empirically measurable impact on student achievement. The predominance of the research conducted on vouchers’ effects on student academic achievement offers no compelling evidence to justify initiating or expanding their use. Thus, contrary to voucher advocates’ claims, widespread implementation of school vouchers is not likely to generate substantial gains in student achievement or improve educational outcomes of the students that are being targeted by voucher programs (Ladd, 2003). Educational policy should be based on data and research rather than ideology. In summary, academic studies indicate that data are at best, inconclusive regarding vouchers’ effects on educational access and student achievement (Ladd, 2002).
The premise that vouchers create a competitive marketplace for students and parents is questionable once market dynamics are thoroughly considered. The marketplace is a place of winners and losers, an inherent aspect of such a system. Unrestricted, universal school choice has in practice increased the segregation of diverse learners (e.g. ability, socioeconomic status, and behavior) (NEA, 2014). Why is this the case? When private entities run schools, they get to choose their students. While public schools must admit all students, private schools can discriminate in admissions on the basis of student behavior, academic achievement, personal interviews, income, costly special needs, and by religious preference (NEA, 2014). These discriminatory practices also can play out in the hiring of teachers and administrators (Weaver, 2011). Whereas public schools must work through and resolve student behavioral issues, private schools have free reign to remove students if they are deemed disruptive to the learning environment, merely passing the “problem” down the road.
The mechanisms in place empowering private schools, through vouchers to control their demographic population, are many. Practices known as “creaming” and “cropping” are primary concerns. Creaming is a mechanism through which schools choose to enroll the best and least costly students (Carnoy, 1998; Elacqua, 2012; McEwan & Carnoy, 2000; Miron, 1996; Parry, 1996). Far more prevalent in small-scale domestic voucher implementation is “cropping” (Lacerino-Paquet, Holyoke, Moser, & Henig, 2002). Cropping occurs when private schools deny services and enrollment to diverse learners on the basis of their disability, socioeconomic status, and language learner status (Etscheidt, 2005). These students are costly to educate, and private “choice” schools can legally turn them away. Often these students are “steered away” or “counseled out” of the school (Jessen, 2012). These issues are a cause for concern especially if equity, equality, and demographic representation are held as valuable and essential to the goals of public education. In effect, school choice via vouchers means schools can choose.
Voucher advocates claim that they will improve disadvantaged students’ educational opportunities (Sugarman, 1999). They also argue school choice is already available to upper-class families through residential mobility or private school enrollment and using vouchers to expand school choice to low-income families will reduce stratification as parental income becomes less important in determining who attends private schools (Neal, 2002; Nechyba, 2000).
The predominance of the peer-reviewed evidence does not support voucher proponents’ assertions. In summary, some of the most important critiques associated with voucher implementation in the U.S include the following:
- Although a reduction in educational costs is put forth as a potential benefit, that benefit often accrues at the statehouse and not the community level;
- Widespread implementation of school vouchers is not likely to generate substantial gains in student achievement or in the productivity of the U.S. K-12 education system;
- Private schools have the legal right to use creaming and cropping mechanisms to exclude students based on demographics, behavioral, and academic grounds.
Thus, it is readily apparent from the research examining U.S. voucher implementation that vouchers are not a substitute for systemic and sustained educational investments. As noted by Darling-Hammond (2010), the systemic investments that are being implemented by the countries with the most successful educational systems in the world include, but are not limited to: implementing resource equalization mechanisms among public school districts and public schools; requiring all schools to have certified teachers and principals; and a strategic national focus on higher education-based teacher training.
In conclusion, voucher proponents often utilize fairly simplistic arguments about markets, competition, and educational opportunity as justification for vouchers. Another common tactic of voucher proponents is to portray their interests as a civil right issue by showcasing persuasive student stories— especially those of African American children. However, ALEC and many other powerful proponents of vouchers appear to support the policies because they are seeking a fundamental neoliberal shift in the funding of education that voucher present and empower. The implementation of vouchers is cheaper and more “efficient” for policymakers because they shift the cost of educating students to families and parochial schools— ultimately reducing state funding and starving public schools (Vasquez Heilig & Portales, 2012). Clearly scaling-up vouchers would introduce a new paradigm for the funding of education. However, the predominance of independent peer-reviewed research on small-scale U.S. voucher implementations has indicated that they are not a viable solution to remedy longstanding opportunity and achievement gaps or improving student success.
P.S. Also see a new peer-review research study on universal vouchers in the post New Research: Vouchers Increase Segregation and Offer Benefits to the Few
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Barrow, L., & Rouse, C. E. (2009). School vouchers and student achievement: Recent evidence, remaining questions. Annual Review of Economics, 1, 17-42.
Belfield, C., & Levin, H. M. (2005). Vouchers and public policy: When ideology trumps evidence. American Journal of Education, 111(4), 548-567.
Carnoy, M. (1998). National voucher plans in Chile and Sweden: Did privatization reforms make for better education? Comparative Education Review, 42(3), 309-337.
Education Week. (2011). Vouchers. Education Week. Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects
Elacqua, G. (2012). The impact of school choice and public policy on segregation: Evidence from Chile. International Journal of Educational Development, 32(3), 444-453.
Elliot, S. (2012, November 20). Indiana’s voucher program makes huge gains. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.edchoice.org/Newsroom/News/Indianapolis-Star—Indiana-s-Voucher-Program-Makes-Huge-Gains.aspx
Etscheidt, S. (2005). Vouchers and students with disabilities: A multidimensional analysis. Journal of Disability and Policy Studies, 16(3), 156-168.
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. (2002, January 1). The effects of town tuitioning in Maine and Vermont. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/The-Effects-of-Town-Tuitioning-in-Maine-and-Vermont.aspx
Jessen, S.B. (2012). Special education and school choice: The complex effects of
small schools, school choice, and public high school policy in New York
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Lacireno-Pacquet, N., Holyoke, T. T., Moser, M., & Henig, J. R. (2002). Creaming vs cropping: Charter school enrollment practices in response to market incentives. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(2), 145-158.
Ladd, H. F. (2002). School vouchers: A critical view. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 16(4), 3-24.
Ladd, H. F. (2003). School vouchers and student achievement: What we know so far. Education Reform, 3(1), 1-4.
McEwan, P. J. (2004). The potential impact of vouchers. Peabody Journal of Education, 79(3), 57-80.
Miron, G. (1996). Free choice and vouchers transform schools in Sweden. Educational Leadership, 54(2), 77.
National Education Association (2014). Five talking points on vouchers. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/17011.htm
Parry, T. R. (1996). Will pursuit of higher quality sacrifice equal opportunity in education? An analysis of the education voucher system in Santiago. Social Science Quarterly, University of Texas Press, 77(4), 821-841.
Saul, S. (2011, December 13). Profits and questions at online charter schools. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/education/online-schools-score-better-on-wall-street-than-in-classrooms.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
Texas Education Agency Office of School Finance. (2011). School finance 101: Funding of Texas public schools. Retrieved from http://www.tea.state.tx.us/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=2147509970
United States Census Bureau, Office of Management and Budget Bulletins. (2009). OMB Bulletin No. 10-02. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/assets/bulletins/b10-02.pdf
Vasquez Heilig, J., Jez, S., & Reddick, R. (2012). Is Texas leading its peers and the nation?: A decadal analysis of educational data. The Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis. University of Texas at Austin.
Vasquez Heilig, J. & Portales. (2012). Are Vouchers a Panacea?: Data from International Implementation. Austin, TX: The Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, University of Texas at Austin.
Weaver, H. L. (2011, August 31). School vouchers inflict more harm than good. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.aclu.org/blog/religion-belief/school-vouchers-inflict-more-harm-good
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002).
 Tax-credit voucher programs–dubbed “neovouchers” in a recent book by the University of Colorado’s Kevin Welner–provide a non-refundable tax credit to individuals or corporations contributing to non-profit corporations, which then distribute the money to students attending private schools.
 NEPC relates “Yet many randomized studies of voucher impacts suffer from a failure to account for peer effects. That is, students who use vouchers are not simply placed in private schools, they are placed in a more fertile peer environment enriched by children whose parents are willing to shoulder costs (search costs, transportation, uniforms, tuition/fees) to send their children to a private school. Thus, these studies typically do not tell us the extent to which a voucher (or type of school) accounts for any gains (if there are any) because they do not tell us the extent to which the enriched peer effect in the voucher school may account for any gains. Thus, as voucher advocates argue to focus less on student achievement and more on other academic behaviors—as reflected in the Fordham report—such as graduation and college attendance rates, research should be sensitive to the possibility that such outcomes are sensitive (and possibly more so) to the social mix of a given school.” See Lubienski, C. & Brewer T.J. (2013). Review of “Pluck & Tenacity: How Five Private Schools in Ohio Have Adapted to Vouchers.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-pluck-and-tenacity.