In Ohio, some students who use vouchers to attend private schools have been found to have severe drops in their achievement. But the broader picture is anything but bleak, as a study by the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, discovered that public schools improved from the competitive pressure of students using vouchers.
Author David Figlio, a professor of education, social policy, and economics at Northwestern University, said that overall, the program was positive since even more students were impacted by the "competitive effect" than the number of pupils who used the vouchers.
Research has found that programs which allow young people to attend private schools using public funds had little or no bearing, or small positive effects, on test results. But now, two Louisiana studies, one in Indiana, and the recent Ohio research shows that vouchers can reduce achievement among the pupils who use them.
School choice advocates are particularly interested in finding out why the reports are producing negative results. Matt Barnum, reporting for The 74 Million, offers some possible explanations. Professor Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas argues that standardized test scores are weak measures of school quality. Greene points out that studies connected to charter schools have shown gains in achievement without increases in educational accomplishment.
There is some research that says vouchers increase graduation rates; some that found that vouchers have no influence on college enrollment, graduation rates, or on students overall; and some that found a positive effect with African-American students.
Figlio says test scores are just one of many predictors of "things we care about."
Another hypothesis is that standardized tests are based on state standards, which can be a disadvantage for private schools that can use curricula that are not aligned directly to state criteria. The downside of this theory is that the result can be that teachers begin to "teach to the tests."
Other speculation includes that the overly complicated regulation on choosing students who receive vouchers may deter private schools from accepting voucher pupils; the improvement in traditional schools, especially on standardized test scores, keeps students enrolled where they are; and the under-regulation of private schools may cause a lack of transparency in their accountability.
WCBE Public Radio and the Associated Press report that Fordham Institute Vice President Chad Aldis says the review only studied math and reading scores and did not investigate the private schools the voucher kids attended. The study also only looked at students who remained in the highest-performing failing schools.
"So we don't know what happens to kids who attend the very worst public schools that are eligible for EdChoice, and then we also don't know what's different in the private schools that is generating lower test results."
The Ohio Department of Education said in a press release that competition was always good for schools.
The Associated Press states the research team reviewed information from the 2003-2004 to 2012-2013 school year test scores. They also compared pupils who used vouchers given by Ohio's $94.6 million EdChoice program with peers who stayed in "voucher-eligible" public schools.
According to the research, students who qualified for vouchers but stayed in their public schools attained "modest" increases in achievement possibly because of the "competition effect."
"For years, voucher critics have argued that students staying in public schools were hurt by voucher programs," said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the think tank. "It's heartening to see that healthy competition can improve achievement."
Catherine Candisky of The Columbus Dispatch reports that the study found that:
"Those students, on average, who move to private schools under the EdChoice program tend to perform considerably worse than observationally similar students who remained in public schools."