Veteran journalist Peg Tyre reviews the research on vouchers in Scientific American and finds little reason for the Trump administration to add federal support to a national voucher program. Despite any sound evidence, Trump and Betsy DeVos have made vouchers the centerpiece of federal policy.

“Because the Trump administration has championed vouchers as an innovative way to improve education in the U.S., Scientific American examined the scientific research on voucher programs to find out what the evidence says about Friedman’s idea. To be sure, educational outcomes are a devilishly difficult thing to measure with rigor. But by and large, studies have found that vouchers have mixed to negative academic outcomes and, when adopted widely, can exacerbate income inequity. On the positive side, there is some evidence that students who use vouchers are more likely to graduate high school and to perceive their schools as safe.” [Voucher schools have very high attrition rates, so the weakest students are gone before senior year in high school. See here.]

“Until now, only a handful of American cities and states have experimented with voucher programs. Around 500,000 of the country’s 56 million schoolchildren use voucher-type programs to attend private or parochial schools. The results have been spotty. In the 1990s studies of small voucher programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, found no demonstrable academic improvement among children using vouchers and high rates of churn—many students who used vouchers dropped out or transferred schools, making evaluation impossible. One study of 2,642 students in New York City who attended Catholic schools in the 1990s under a voucher plan saw an uptick in African-American students who graduated and enrolled in college but no such increases among Hispanic students.” [A higher proportion of the mothers of the African-American students in the study, critics found, had attended college, had a full-time job, and had a higher income, compared to the mothers of African students who did not use the voucher., p. 16.]

Tyre reviews the voucher research in various cities and states. Here is a recent study:

“In a 2016 study of Ohio’s Educational Choice (EdChoice) Scholarship program, which has used public money to supplement the tuition of 18,000 students at private and parochial schools, researchers used longitudinal data from 2003 through 2013 to examine academic outcomes of students who used vouchers and those who were eligible but did not transfer to a private school. (Because the Ohio voucher program requires children who use taxpayer money to take state tests, apples-to-apples scores were readily available.) They found that when children transferred out of their public schools through the program, their math scores—and to a lesser extent, their reading scores—dropped significantly and stayed depressed. “I was surprised by the negative—it’s a big negative,” says study co-author David Figlio of Northwestern University. He speculates that the negative outcome might have occurred because top private schools opted out of the voucher program because they did not wish to make students take state tests. As a result, voucher students were left with mostly subpar options. “A lot of the reason that parents are interested in sending kids to private schools is that there is too much testing in public,” he says.

“Better-performing students were the ones who used the voucher program, the study found. Interestingly, students who were left in Ohio public schools actually did better on standardized tests once the voucher program got under way, suggesting that public schools might have responded to the increased “competition” by teaching a curriculum aligned to the standards to be tested—or by doubling down on test preparation.”

After looking at the spectrum of voucher research, Tyre concludes:

“Voucher proponents say parents, even those using tax dollars to pay tuition, should be able to use whatever criteria for school choice they see fit. A provocative idea, but if past evidence can predict future outcomes, expanding voucher programs seems unlikely to help U.S. schoolchildren keep pace with a technologically advancing world.”