A team of researchers associated with the University of Arkansas studied the first two years of the Louisiana Scholarship Program. Their report was released in late February. For those hoping to see a validation of the transformative power of vouchers, the results were disappointing, to say the least.

“The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) is a statewide private school voucher program available to moderate- to low-income students in low-performing public schools. The LSP is limited to students with family income at or below 250% of the federal poverty line. Children in these families also have to either be entering kindergarten or be attending a public school that was graded C, D, or F for the prior school year. In the program’s rst year, 9,809 students were eligible applicants, with a majority of them located outside of Orleans parish. This group of students, the 2012-13 LSP applicant cohort, is the focus of our evaluation.

“The voucher size is the lesser of the amount the state and local government provides to the local school system in which the student resides or the tuition charged by the participating private school that the student attends. Average tuition at participating private schools ranges from $2,966 to $8,999, with a median of $4,925, compared to average per pupil spending of $8,500 in Louisiana’s public schools.

“To participate in the program, private schools must meet certain criteria related to enrollment; nancial practice; student mobility; and health, safety and welfare of students. Participating schools are prohibited from being selective in their enrollment of voucher students and must administer the state accountability test (LEAP and iLEAP) annually to voucher students in grades 3-8 and 10.

“Nearly 60% of applicants received scholarships for the 2012-13 school year. Of the students who received voucher awards, 86% used their voucher to enroll in a private school in the rst quarter of 2012- 13.

“Roughly 87% of the students in this cohort are black; with 8% white, and 3% Hispanic. Prior to applying for the LSP, students in the 2012-13 cohort performed below the state average in English Language Arts (ELA), math, science, and social studies by around 20 percentile points on the LEAP and iLEAP in 2011-12. Applicants to the program in 2012-13 were concentrated in the earlier grades, with a third entering Kindergarten through 3rd grade.”

As noted in the report, the students who received the voucher were already low-performing. Over two years, their test scores declined significantly. Even though some of the academic losses were reduced in the second year, the students nonetheless lost ground. The academic losses were significant.

Looking for other results, the researchers sought to measure non-cognitive skills like “grit,” self-esteem, “locus of control, and “political tolerance.”

The report says:

“The differences between the two groups are minuscule and not statistically significant. We find little evidence to suggest that, after two years, students receiving an LSP scholarship had noticeably different non-academic skills or political tolerance than students who did not receive a scholarship. Moreover, given the limitations in our measures, we stress that our results are largely inconclusive.”

The researchers conclude that the scholarship program improved integration because the public schools that students left became somewhat less segregated, while the private schools became somewhat less integrated. Thus, “When we combine the largely integrating effects of the program on students’ former public schools with its slightly segregating effects on their new private schools, the overall effect of the LSP is to improve the racial integration of Louisiana Schools.”

The researchers also examined what they believed were the competitive effects of vouchers on nearby public schools:

“We find no effects across both math and ELA overall, but find large positive effects on math and ELA test scores when we restrict the sample to those public schools with a private competitor in close proximity. In sum, our analysis of the competitive impacts of the LSP show that public school performance in Louisiana was either unaffected or modestly improved as a result of the program’s expansion.”

Overall, these are might slim pickings. The students who received a voucher experienced large academic losses, which might or might not rebound in years ahead. There was no change in their noncognitive skills, to the extent these can be measured. Highly segregated public schools became less segregated when black students left for private schools, but this was not the purpose of the program, and it is certainly a roundabout and inefficient way to increase racial integration. As for the supposed benefits to public schools, this seems awfully speculative. And again, the purpose of the program is to “save poor kids trapped in failing schools, not to raise test scores of students in public schools that low-performing students leave.

Bottom line: getting a voucher had negative effects on the test performance of those who received the vouchers.

Please review the bios of the authors:

Patrick Wolf, who has conducted numerous voucher evaluations, is part of the Department of Educational Reform at the University of Arkansas, where he is “Distinguished Professor of Education Policy and 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.” He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard where his mentor was Paul Peterson, the nation’s leading academic proponent of school choice. Jonathan Mills received his Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas in 2015. Anna Egalite received her Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas and postdoctoral work at Paul Peterson’s program at Harvard.

This is a team predisposed to find the bright side. But they are honest scholars and the bright side was hard to find.