Scholars show little consensus on benefits of vouchers

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on February 14, 2013)

Tennessee may soon join several states experimenting with vouchers as a vehicle for school reform. These include Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and the District of Columbia. Louisiana, under Gov. Bobby Jindal, has been implementing an ambitious voucher program that a state judge recently ruled unconstitutionally violates the state’s education funding formula.

Nevertheless, it looks like vouchers are back on the menu of school choice reforms favored by politicians and some policymakers. In a panel discussion last week co-sponsored by Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and the League of Women Voters of Nashville, Peabody professor Claire Smrekar situated vouchers as one among a range of choices including magnet schools, charter schools, open-enrollment policies and home or private schooling. Claire emphasizes that voucher program designers need to have a clear sense of what problems they want to address and what goals they want to achieve. Readers can watch video of the event at http://news.vanderbilt.edu.

Also on the panel, associate professor Ron Zimmer, who served on Gov. Bill Haslam’s Opportunity Scholarships Task Force, sought to describe the limited research on voucher effects. He noted that voucher programs make for strange bedfellows by bringing together advocates for efficiency and market competition with those looking to foster equal opportunity and social cohesion. The impact of vouchers on student achievement (both for participants and non-participants), cost effectiveness, access and equity may depend on who has a larger say in program design.

Zimmer also stated that while some voucher programs have been shown to have some positive effects, there is not a consensus among researchers that vouchers always have meaningful impacts. Vouchers often do not live up to the hype of their advocates.

This is not to say that vouchers are without promise. Haslam’s task force cited several recent studies:

  • An analysis by P.J. Wolf of the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington showed that voucher participants had significantly better chances of graduating from high school.
  • M.M. Chingos studied a voucher experiment conducted in New York in the 1990s and found that it increased college enrollment among participating African-Americans by 24 percent.
  • In Milwaukee, J.F. Witte observed growth in reading achievement beyond that of a comparable sample in the Milwaukee public schools.
  • Also in Milwaukee, J.M. Cowen found a greater likelihood of high school graduation and enrollment in a four-year college.

While evidence like the above is suggestive, it is hardly conclusive. Much remains to be studied about vouchers, including the possible repercussions for public schools following the loss of students who accept vouchers. If vouchers are more applicable to urban settings, how do we address the fact that the achievement problem is both urban and rural? As voucher programs grow, is there a point where they begin to have negative unintended consequences? How do Tennesseans feel about the use of public dollars for private schooling? If Tennessee embarks on using vouchers, we will need to proceed carefully and assess their impact at each step of the way.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.

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