Josh Cowen is a veteran voucher researcher, having worked in the field for more than 20 years. He is a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. After two decades as a researcher, he concluded that vouchers are a disaster for the children who use them.

Today, he writes an inside guide to voucher research. All pro-voucher research is actually disguised advocacy for vouchers, especially if it funded or produced by the organizations listed here.

I hope you will share this post with your friends on social media, post blogs about it, and get it into the hands of journalists. The public deserves transparency.

Josh Cowen writes:


The entire base of evidence to support school vouchers comes from a small, interconnected and insular group of research-activists with direct ties to Betsy DeVos, Charles Koch, the Waltons and other privatization financers.

If you stopped reading this post right now, that’s the take-home message right there: the case for vouchers relies entirely on data and evidence contributed by what amounts to industry-funded research and advocacy on behalf of the cause.

But if you’re a journalist, an educator, or just a committed public school supporter (thank you!) and you want the links and the details, read on.

WHO’S WHO IN THE VOUCHER RESEARCH/ADVOCACY WORLD?

If you’re a professional journalist either in the education space or a broader policy/politics issue, you’ve probably heard of some of these people and certainly their institutions before. But you’re busy, you’ve got deadlines to meet and editors to approve your copy, and it’s not always easy to connect some of the important dots in this area.

But they need to be connected. The single most difficult task I’ve found in my writing on school vouchers has been to explain to journalists how the question of whether vouchers “work” for kids is not some obscure academic ivory-tower debate in which both sides have a nuanced, complicated and reasonably well-founded point.

There is credible research on one side—that vouchers are largely a negative force for student outcomes—and politically oriented reports on the other. That’s it.

So the next time you see a press release, or are given a quote, or talk off record to a voucher supporter saying that vouchers work, try this little exercise and see what you find for yourself:

STEP 1: DOES THE RESEARCH COME FROM ONE OF THE FOLLOWING ORGANIZATIONS?

• American Federation for Children: the 501(c)(4) advocacy organization co-founded by Betsy DeVos to lobby for vouchers. DeVos was so close to this group she had to recuse herself as Secretary of Education from contact with the group in her first year in government.

• Cato Institute: A Right-wing advocacy think tank co-founded by Charles Koch (although Koch later sued for lack of direct control of the group).

• EdChoice: Formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, named for conservative economist who first proposed vouchers. Enough said.

• ExcelInEd: The advocacy group founded by Jeb Bush to expand vouchers and other conservative education priorities from the model Bush developed while he was governor of Florida.

• Goldwater Institute: A self-described libertarian think tank in Arizona that is chiefly oriented toward litigation on behalf of a number of different conservative policy priorities—most recently school vouchers.

• Harvard University Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG): A research center at Harvard run by Professor Paul Peterson, also of the Hoover Institution, and the father of modern-day pro-voucher research.

• Heritage Foundation: the most influential Right-wingthink tank in the country, devoted in part to privatizing schools and exploiting culture wars. Also directly tied to voter suppression efforts, per deep reporting by The New Yorker.

• University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform: A university-based doctoral training department responsible for producing nearly all of the currently active voucher research-advocates working at the institutions above today. This department was founded by a $10 million gift from the Walton Family Foundation in the early 2000s.

STEP 2: IS THE AUTHOR, CO-AUTHOR OR SOURCE FOR BACKGROUND OR ATTRIBUTION ONE OF THE FOLLOWING PEOPLE?

The Original Voucher Research-Advocates

Jay P. Greene Currently Senior Fellow at Heritage, former founding head of the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, received his PhD under Paul E. Peterson.

Paul E. Peterson Currently Professor at both Harvard and the conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford University, and the primary intellectual force behind the original positive voucher studies of the late 1990s.

Their Students, Colleagues and Acolytes

Lindsay Burke Currently at the Heritage Foundation and a member of GOP Governor Glenn Youngkin’s transition team.

Corey DeAngelis Currently Research Director for DeVos’s American Federation for Children group. But so much more: a regular Fox News contributor and active campaigner with far-Right governors like Kari Lake in Arizona and Kim Reynolds in Iowa.

Greg Forster Currently at EdChoice and a co-blogger with Jay Greene.

Matthew Ladner Currently at ALEC, EdChoice, Goldwater, and the Charles Koch Institute.

Martin Lueken Currently a research director at EdChoiceand former PhD student of Jay Greene and Patrick Wolf at University of Arkansas.

Mike McShane Currently a research director at EdChoiceand former PhD student of Jay Greene and Patrick Wolf at University of Arkansas.

Neil McCluskey Currently “Director of Education Freedom” at the Cato Institute and a member of the editorial board for the Journal of School Choice—a publication edited by Robert Maranto of the University of Arkansas.

Patrick Wolf Currently interim-head of the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, former colleague of Jay Greene and a former PhD student of Paul Peterson.

Not all of these organizations or individuals occupy the same problematic position. For example, I happen to make a point of reading everything McShane publishes, for example, because I respect his writing and the way he talks about the world even though I fundamentally disagree with his conclusions.

And the University of Arkansas group also includes a robust and insightful group of researchers examining the needs of teachers in the Ozarks and other high-poverty areas. I’m a great admirer of Professor Gema Zamarro and her students, who are doing some very important work on the role that the COVID0-19 pandemic played in teacher workforce conditions.

For that matter, some of what we know about the devasting effects of vouchers in Louisiana actually comes from Patrick Wolf’s reports. I’ve written with him myself on studies like one showing how critical strong oversight is to voucher program performance. Wolf is in fact the only person on the list abovewith a long and commendable history of publishing negative voucher impacts in top academic journals. The point here is not to disparage the individuals but to judge the insular and self-citing base of research that supports vouchers.

The point here is to be critical consumers of this line of research. Think of it this way: no news editor would release a story on an explosive topic going on the say so of a single source. At minimum that editor would require two and usually more sources. The problem for voucher advocacy research is that it is usually the only source for positive voucher impacts available. And it’s been that way for a decade or more.

What’s the take home point? It’s this: not all voucher advocates publish exclusively pro-voucher studies, but all pro-voucher studies come almost exclusively from pro-voucher advocates.

STEP 3: WHO FUNDED THE WORK YOU’RE READING OR THE SOURCE YOU’RE CITING?

One or more of the following funders—the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Kern Family Foundation, the Koch Family Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—funded the original studies supporting school vouchers.

The Bradley and Koch Foundations—along with Heritage—are directly involved in Big Lie, election denialism, and voter-suppression funding, as reported by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker in painstaking detail last summer.

The next time you read a report, or talk to a source for attribution, ask first about their funding sources. If they decline to provide those sources, consider declining to report their results or their viewpoint. It is common for philanthropists to request non-disclosure of their donations—that is their right. But it is your right as a reporter, and certainly the right of your readers, to decline to print their material.

Transparency is just the name of the game for credible research. You can see my own research funding right here. You can see that I once upon a time also received grant funding from the Walton Foundation. And from Bloomberg, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. My only current active funding comes from the U.S. Department of Education Institute for Education Sciences—awarded to my research team while Betsy DeVos was education secretary!

Do I believe those organizations swayed my earlier research? Of course not. And the advocates above would say the same thing. But I don’t get to decide what to think and neither do they. That’s for the reader to judge, and that can’t happen without full transparency.

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

This all may seem like inside baseball. A bunch of current and former voucher researchers arguing about who’s who and what’s what. A bunch of annoying and self-centered PhDs.

But in some sense that’s the entire point.

Whether an educator, reporter, researcher, policymaker or just avid reader of Diane’s blog here, you would be hard-pressed—if not find it absolutely impossible—to find a single study of voucher participant effects (how vouchers impact outcomes) that did not come from one of the few organizations or few individuals listed above, or a handful of others with direct ties to Greene, Peterson, or Arkansas.

That’s a problem, because what that means is that hundreds of millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of school children are being affected every day by the advocacy of a small group of people. In many cases advocacy disguised as objective and credible research.

As a counter point, consider this humble list of studies showing far more nuance and at times outright negative results from voucher programs. To create that list, I made a simple rule: no studies from organizations listed in Step 1 above. Notice the variety of names and the diversity of venues and outlets. That’s what a credible research base looks like.

A LITMUS TEST: IS THE PRO-VOUCHER EVIDENCE I’M READING POLITICAL/IDEOLOGICAL?

If at this point you’re still not convinced that the entire structure of pro-voucher research amounts to industry-funded research—think the Sacklers funding research on oxycontin’s addictive properties, or ExxonMobil funding research on fossil fuel environmental effects—there is also this:

Many of the organizations and individuals noted above also contribute to other areas of politically engaged conservative education reform.

Consider that Greene alone has published in the last 12 months studies arguing against the provision of gender-affirming care, against “wokeness”, and against Diversity, Equity and Inclusionoffices in both K12 and higher education.

Greene even put right in print for you to see that these culture war issues are useful to Right wing activists pushing the privatization of schooling.

In other words, pro-voucher research exists right alongside—and is often published by—the same people and organizations pushing other far-Right education outcomes. You need to know that to have a full picture of what voucher research truly says.

Pro-voucher research is pro-voucher advocacy, and pro-voucher advocacy is part of the larger effort to undermine public education, undermine a more humane approach to tolerating difference and diversity in our schools, and in many cases undermine free embrace of democracy itself.