This article by Dominick Anthony Walsh in Houston Public Media is an excellent, even-handed description of the voucher debate in Texas. The issues and arguments could apply to any other state. He interviewed Josh Cowen, who spent close to 20 years as a voucher researcher but has since become a voucher critic. He also interviewed several voucher researchers who continue to support them.

Joshua Cowen is a Professor of Education Policy with Michigan State University. He’s spent years studying vouchers, and eventually announced that he opposes the policies.

“They were small programs — a couple thousand kids at the most,” he said. “Those studies did tend to show some small benefit to kids academically.”

As vouchers expanded, research results began to expose problems.

“Once you got to the real ballgame and created the fully scaled up voucher programs, the results were really catastrophic,” Cowen said.

Researchers found that voucher programs in some states led to worse test score results than natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and even the COVID-19 pandemic.

To sum it up: early voucher studies with small sample sizes showed mostly positive results, while the past decade or so of statewide results have largely shown poor outcomes, especially around test scores.

School choice research can be difficult to parse because there’s a lot of money and ideology involved.

Cowen worked on some of the early studies with Patrick Wolf, Distinguished Professor of Education Policy and the 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

The former collaborators disagree about how to interpret findings.

Wolf has found some positive results around high school graduation and college completion. He also pointed to the effects of competition in Florida, where he said public schools’ test scores improved after they were forced to compete for students. But he has also observed negative impacts on test scores, including in Louisiana.

It’s worth noting that Patrick Wolf’s department and chair are funded by the Walton Family Foundation, the biggest private funder of school choice programs. when he cites high school graduation rates, he fails to mention the very high attrition rates in voucher schools. If 100 students enter a voucher program but only remain to 55 graduate from high school and 45 go to college, is the graduation rate 45/55 or 45/100?

Governor Greg Abbott’s voucher proposal would cost the state hundreds of millions, perhaps billions. And most of the money will fund students already enrolled in private and religious schools, as it does in every other state that has a voucher/ESA program.

Towards the end of the month, Governor Greg Abbott clarified for the first time what he means by school choice.

He spoke in Corpus Christi at a “parent empowerment night” hosted by Annapolis Christian Academy, where the high school tuition is almost $11,000 per year.

“Schools are for education, not indoctrination,” he said, to a round of applause.

“Now is the time to expand ESAs to every child in the state of Texas,” he continued.

He put his stamp of approval on a specific form of vouchers — education savings accounts, where families who pull students out of public education receive money. One bill in the legislature would give families about $10,000 a year that they can spend or hold on to.

The policy would mean that the Annapolis Christian Academy parents Abbott was speaking to could use taxpayer dollars for their kids’ religious private school tuition.

Now, where do you think students are more likely to be indoctrinated? At the Annapolis Christian Academy or the local public school?