Vouchers don’t help disadvantaged students, regardless of what DeVos thinks

A new report finds little to praise in school vouchers.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. AP/Susan Walsh
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. AP/Susan Walsh

Education secretary Betsy DeVos has been a champion of school vouchers for decades, and has claimed students don’t benefit from better funding of public schools. But a new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that vouchers do not improve student achievement in any meaningful way.

A significant body of research on vouchers over the past 15 years has found that there is not enough evidence to support the claim that vouchers significantly improve student achievement, wrote Martin Carnoy, Vida Jacks Professor of Education and Economics at Stanford University. In some cases, vouchers exacerbate issues that hurt students’ quality of education, such as racial and economic school segregation and a flow of inexperienced young teachers into schools.

Research on voucher experiments in New York City, Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. showed that there were no significant improvements for students, especially for students Republicans argue will benefit from them the most: students of color.

The data doesn’t justify voucher expansion

The Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C., which is directly funded by Congress, showed no significant reading or math gains for students who used vouchers and scholarships compared to students who did not. Still, the Trump administration may move to expand the program, The Washington Post reported.


In Milwaukee, which has the country’s largest and oldest voucher program, only one in four students attend their public school. But black students, who are the main recipients of the vouchers, had lower eighth grade math scores than students in every city but Detroit. The scores were even worse for reading, where Milwaukee eighth graders scored lower than black eighth graders in all other 12 cities included in the study. Although Milwaukee students made large gains in the 2007–2008 school year, there were not significant gains in reading between 2007 and 2011.

Although proponents of vouchers say that competition forces public schools to improve, Carnoy came to the conclusion that it is more likely that accountability measures are driving improvements in struggling public schools.

Deconstructing the myth that vouchers will reduce costs

The argument that vouchers would be more cost effective than traditional public education is also deeply flawed, Carnoy writes, because the existence of major public school systems allows private voucher schools to run at a lower cost. Many private voucher schools, as well some charter schools, hire younger teachers, who are cheaper than more experienced teachers, with the promise that the position will give them the training and experience to make a higher salary later on in life. But without a public education and teacher salary system, Carnoy argues that these schools would not be able to justify lower salaries and save money.


Carnoy also writes that other approaches have far better track records of improving student learning and achievement than vouchers do. An improvement in student nutrition programs, better teacher prep programs, the introduction of after-school and summer programs, and higher standards in math, reading, and science provide better results for students than the small gains — if there are gains at all — that voucher programs offer.

This isn’t the first time that researchers have challenged the effectiveness of voucher programs, but their arguments have been bolstered by recent research. In The New York Times, Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at New America, a non-partisan research organization, wrote that research released over the past 18 months — three consecutive reports on vouchers’ effects in Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio — showed that vouchers hurt student learning. He also noted the hypocrisy in some voucher advocates’ attempt to defend vouchers by arguing that test scores were the wrong measure. For many years, voucher advocates have used poor test scores in public schools as evidence that vouchers were sorely needed.

More public school funding does help student achievement

DeVos has argued that public school students don’t benefit from additional funding.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference last Thursday, DeVos said:

Because the previous administration spent seven billion of your dollars on “School Improvement Grants,” thinking they could demonstrate that money alone would solve the problem. Yet their own report, issued as they walked out the door, showed that it had zero impact on student outcomes and performance. They tested their model, and it failed… miserably.

DeVos’ claims were misleading, because the report on school improvement grants found that the research did not indicate whether school improvement grants improved the nation’s lowest-performing schools and that the effects would have to be unusually large for the study to detect them, Brookings Institution’s Susanna Loeb explained in a report released two weeks ago. However, two studies that focused on California schools that received school improvement grants found a “meaningful positive effect on student” learning, Loeb wrote.


Moreover, studies have found that increased school funding does help students, especially disadvantaged students. A 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research paper found that increases in spending were associated with large improvements in measured school quality, and that effects were much more pronounced for students from low-income families. For school districts in low-income areas, school resources play a big role in student achievement, according to a 2016 Washington Center for Equitable Growth report that looked at the effects of school finance reforms designed to help needy school districts. School finance reforms raised achievement in the lowest-income school districts, which closed about one-fifth of the gap between higher income and lower income school districts, according to the report.