Finally, a study of voucher program


(Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel

We’ve been saying for a long time that Indiana, with the most extensive school choice program in the nation, needs to slow down on expanding vouchers until there is some evidence they’re doing what they are claiming to do.

And we’re happy to report that the current public schools chief agrees: “You know, we’re spending roughly $146 million on a program and not really reviewing it. That is irresponsible,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick recently told National Public Radio.

The good news is that we now have our first study. It’s neither a glowing endorsement for vouchers nor a slam dunk for opponents. But it’s a good first step and should get a healthy discussion and further examination going.

The study, by researchers Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky, matched roughly 3,300 low-income students (out of more than 34,000) in grades 3-8 who used a voucher to switch from their public school to a private school to similar students who remained in public schools.

It found that:

  • Voucher students experienced “modest annual achievement losses” in math, especially in the first two years after leaving public school.
  • In English/language arts, voucher students showed no benefits.

The results echo what other researchers have found: Voucher students often backslide academically after switching to private school. But — and this is backed up by a study of Louisiana voucher students — if students stayed in voucher schools long enough, the backslide stopped and their performance began to improve. By the fourth year, they were caught up.

This is significant because the study also found voucher schools were not skimming the best students. In fact, most voucher students were among the lowest-achieving students. It’s no surprise they might have trouble adapting to a private school’s more rigorous standards, but heartening that they are eventually able to pick it up.

As Waddington and Berends are the first to admit, their work, which is still being revised, will not end the debate over vouchers’ effectiveness. But it reinforces the notion that vouchers are a work in progress. They are a worthy experiment, but an experiment nonetheless.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to [email protected].

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