Josh Cowen, a professor at Michigan State University, has been a voucher researcher for two decades. The more he studied vouchers, the more he realized that they harm children. In this post, he looks at the students who use a voucher, but change their minds and return to public schools.
Author: Josh Cowen
We don’t talk enough about children who give up their school vouchers.
One of the many problems with the “Education Freedom” marketing campaign for school privatization—and it’s a problem with the market approach to education more generally—is that schools are anything but products to sample.
Betsy DeVos likes to say that schools shouldn’t be “one size fits all.” She’s conceding more than she knows with that analogy because unlike clothing, or a car you can test drive down at the Ford dealer, there’s a real cost to trying a school on and having it fail to fit.
Study after study has shown how harmful school mobility is for kids, both those who actually move between schools and those whose classrooms are full of peers coming in and out.
As Russell Rumberger, an expert in this area has succinctly summarized:
“The research literature suggests that changing schools can harm normal child and adolescent development by disrupting relationships with peers and teachers as well as altering a student’s educational program.”
And in the general population of public school children, we know who’s likely to be more mobile. They’re students of color, students from families with lower levels of income, students with special academic needs, and students with housing insecurity.
No one’s saying student mobility isn’t an issue for public schools, but public educators don’t see student churn as a feature instead of a bug. For example, a key element of the federal McKinney-Vento Act designed to help homeless kids is a set of best practices to help kids stay in one single public school even if they can’t remain in one stable home environment.
States with large-scale voucher programs are beginning to report out statistics for how many users come from public or private schools each year. And by the way these statistics put a lie to the claim from activists that vouchers are needed for families to choose, because we know from states like Arizona, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin that more than 75% of voucher kids were already in private school without taxpayer support.
But now we need more statistics reported on the mirror image: how many new students give up their vouchers each year. Recent numbers from Florida indicate roughly 60% of new voucher users give the voucher up after just a couple of years.
Think about that number as the voucher equivalent of a public school mobility or drop-out rate—both statistics used by critics to help indict public educational quality.
When I was working on an official evaluation of Milwaukee’s voucher program more than a decade ago, I led two reports on exactly these sorts of children. We found that around 15% of kids gave up their vouchers every year. Meaning that, as in Florida, more than half the kids we were studying left private schools over a short period of time!
Who were those kids? They were more likely to be Black, lower scoring on the state exam, and more likely to be enrolled in schools that had lots of other voucher-using kids (i.e. newer schools that popped up to take tax dollars once the program was created, rather than more established private institutions).
What happened when they left? Well actually that was a bit of good news. In still the only study to track kids over time after giving up their vouchers, we found that they enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools and then improved substantially after arriving. The shame of it was they had to lose some academic growth in the voucher program before their parents realized it was a poor fit and fixed the problem.
Sometimes though, kids may even want to stay in their private school but the school itself shuts down and they have to move anyway. Voucher activists pushing an entrepreneurial approach to education don’t talk enough about the consequences of failure. For example, in Milwaukee, 41% of private schools that ever took tax dollars eventually shut down.
Imagine what critics of public schools would be saying right now if public schools had a 41 percent failure rate!
We’re not talking about a local Burger King that shuts down and a family has to drive a few extra blocks to get that Whopper they crave from the next closest franchise. Or has to go to Taco Bell or Arby’s instead. We’re talking about potentially major academic and social setbacks for kids.
Finally, there’s one more reason voucher leavers matter—and it’s a bit technical so bear with me. Social scientists prioritize randomized control designs to estimate impacts of policy interventions. And when randomization isn’t possible, we try to find approaches that come close.
The problem that student exits from voucher programs causes for researchers is they create additional hurdles to estimating accurate impacts of those programs. All of the randomized studies of voucher programs have showed similar exit rates to our study in Wisconsin.
And in at least one study of Louisiana vouchers, the authors had to acknowledge that those exits—precisely the students who as in Wisconsin were not doing well in the program—probably caused any positive estimates of the program to be overstated. There are techniques researchers can use to adjust for that error, but no one agrees on exactly the right approach, so it continues to be a problem.
So to summarize: we need to know a lot more about kids who give up their vouchers. Most importantly because the evidence we do have tells us that school mobility is on balance a setback for kids, and we know kids exiting voucher programs are already more likely to be at some form of risk than those who stay.
But we also need to know because as a practical matter, voucher exits can cause analytical hurdles to studies estimating voucher impacts on learning or on educational attainment.
And what that means is that in the future, if voucher supporters trumpet a new study—credible or otherwise—that purports to show positive impacts over time, the very first question we need to ask is: how many kids left the program because it wasn’t working for them?
Based on the data already available, the answer will be another indictment for voucher programs.