Report on Vouchers Struggles to Find Claimed Benefits

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Key New NEPC Review Takeaway: Measuring voucher success using educational attainment produces lackluster results at best.

A recent Urban Institute report brings together certain findings from studies of three school voucher programs. The report concludes that students using vouchers to attend private schools sometimes have higher rates of college enrollment and completion than their public school counterparts. Here’s how Urban Institute researchers summarized these studies in a piece they wrote for Education Next (published in March):

"[A] series of Urban Institute papers...found that participating in private school choice usually increased the rate at which students went to and graduated from college. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program offers the one exception, as students in this program were no more or less likely to go to college. They were, however, more likely to graduate high school, and parents reported higher levels of satisfaction."

But a new review points out that the Urban Institute is, at the very least, putting a problematic spin on the college-attainment research. T. Jameson Brewer, of the University of North Georgia, reviewed The Effects of Means-Tested Private School Choice Programs on College Enrollment and Graduation. He explains that, of the three voucher-programs studies—in Washington DC, Milwaukee, and Florida—only the latter study shows clear benefits. Yet that Florida study was previously shown to have clear comparability problems (comparisons of apples to oranges).

As noted in the above Education Next excerpt, no benefits whatsoever could be teased out of the Washington DC data. And the Milwaukee results were decidedly mixed and again could not sufficiently account for potentially pivotal differences between choosers and non-choosers. Only the Washington DC data were based on randomized assignment (a lottery) – and, as noted, that study showed no college attainment benefits.

Professor Brewer notes two other concerns with the report. First, the literature review places an unbalanced reliance on non-peer-reviewed sources. Second, the report attempts to “move the goalposts” away from the test-score outcomes that have been the center of voucher advocacy and debate for decades—coinciding with recent voucher studies finding null or negative effects on test scores.

These shortcomings, Brewer concludes, render the report of limited value for evaluating voucher policies.

Find the review, by T. Jameson Brewer, at:
http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/choice

Find The Effects of Means-Tested Private School Choice Programs on College Enrollment and Graduation, written by Matthew Chingos, Daniel Kuehn, Tomas Monarrez, Patrick J. Wolf, John F. Witte, and Brian Kisida, and published by the Urban Institute, at:
https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/100665/the_effects_of_means-tested_private_school_choice_programs_on_college_enrollment_and_graduation_2.pdf

NEPC Reviews (http://thinktankreview.org) provide the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC Reviews are made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice: http://www.greatlakescenter.org

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: https://nepc.colorado.edu

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William J. Mathis

T. Jameson Brewer
University of North Georgia
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