As President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gear up to dump hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into vouchers and other private education initiatives denounced by critics as ineffective and immoral, two new studies released on Monday reveal that, in many cases, voucher programs result in significantly worse academic performance than public schools.
"If policymakers were genuinely concerned about educating all children, they would be asking how to make our existing schools better."
—Kay McSpadden, high school English teacher
The studies were conducted in two states—Louisiana and Indiana—that have experimented substantially with vouchers, which are dubbed as financial "scholarships" ostensibly designed to help low-income and middle class families to send their children to private schools.
Both analyses produced similar findings: Students who participated in voucher programs performed significantly worse in their first two years attending a private school, only to see their results return to baseline by the third and fourth years. Overall, as the Washington Post reported, the studies "do not show that vouchers led to significantly stronger math and reading performance"—a fact that appears to undermine the crucial argument in favor of further privatizing American education.
At minimum the results should taken as a cautionary tale, argues Douglas Harris, director of Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, who led the Louisiana research.
"[T]he experience in Louisiana has to give pause to anyone pushing broad federal or statewide programs," he told the Washington Post.
The Indiana study—conducted by Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky—was much larger in scope, and it found that "voucher students fell statistically significantly behind their public school peers" in various subjects before rebounding after several years, NPR's Cory Turner and Anya Kamenetz noted.
In an interview with NPR, Waddington noted that the improvements in performance students begin to see after several years in the voucher program amount to simply "making up ground that they initially lost."
"It's like they're getting back to where they started," he said.
"Indiana diverted millions of dollars for years from public schools to private school vouchers, resulting in negative or negligible results for student outcomes."
—Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers
Since her promotion to the national stage by Trump, DeVos has come under constant fire for her long-time commitment to a right-wing education agenda that has so consistently produced "dismal" results. Most of the recent evidence on the effectiveness of voucher programs seems to indicate that they produce poorer outcomes than traditional public education, Kevin Carey reported for the New York Times in February.
But, Carey concluded, "new evidence on vouchers does not seem to have deterred the Trump administration, which has proposed a new $20 billion voucher program. Secretary DeVos's enthusiasm for vouchers, which have been the primary focus of her philanthropic spending and advocacy, appears to be undiminished."
This commitment to vouchers despite their multitudinous shortcomings has indicated to some that DeVos is more concerned with gutting public education—and rewarding private interests—than with promoting "school choice."
In a recent op-ed for the Charlotte Observer, Kay McSpadden—a high school English teacher based in York, South Carolina—argued if students are the main priority, vouchers should be abandoned.
"If policymakers were genuinely concerned about educating all children, they would be asking how to make our existing schools better," she wrote. "Instead, the federal and state policymakers are more committed to making education profitable for private investors."
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement following the release of the Indiana study that "the key question to ask" of any education reform effort is: "who does it help and who does it hurt?"
"Indiana diverted millions of dollars for years from public schools to private school vouchers, resulting in negative or negligible results for student outcomes," Weingarten said. "That funding could have been invested in public education programs that actually are helping students improve and succeed."
"The American public does not support DeVos's cuts or her privatization agenda," she concluded. "This latest study of vouchers should be yet another red flag to DeVos that she is going down the wrong path and it will hurt all students in the end."