Following up on this week’s New York Times story calling attention to a political resurgence in school vouchers and other schemes to divert public funds to private schools, Diane Ravitch underscores a central point that the article omitted: where vouchers have been implemented and studied over time, most notably in Milwaukee, they have failed to improve student outcomes.
One other example that shouldn’t be forgotten is the case of Cleveland, which began implementing a voucher program in 1996. Researchers at Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy tracked the scores of students who began first grade in the 1998–9 school year through their sixth-grade school year in 2003–4, comparing the performance of students who attended private schools using vouchers with students who remained in the public schools.
The study, which was published in 2006, found that by the end of the sixth grade, after controlling for differences in minority status, student mobility, and prior achievement, there were no statistically significant differences in overall achievement scores between students who used a scholarship throughout their academic career (i.e., kindergarten through sixth grade) and students in the two public school comparison groups (one that applied for but did not receive vouchers and another consisting of non-applicants).
Back in 2008, I wrote a Washington Monthly article about school vouchers, “An Idea Whose Time Has Gone,” which focused on the poor performance in practice of vouchers plans and the disillusionment of some formerly supportive conservative education experts. Then, as now, charter schools had evolved into the much more pervasive hobby horse of the right-wing. What I did not anticipate at the time was the subsequent rise of the extreme-right Tea Party movement and its state legislative lobbying machine, ALEC, which has been central to resurrecting the voucher idea. It was clearly naïve of me to think that conservatives would come around to discarding an idea just because it had been decisively proven to be ineffective.