Christopher Lubienski: Research shows that school vouchers harm students

Choice sounds good but it doesn’t help students.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and teachers from East High School, walk out of school to protest the HB15 voucher bill, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.

The recent revelation that a school voucher lobbyist in Utah wants to “destroy public education” may come as a surprise. But voucher programs don’t appear to demolish public schooling as some have feared, at least in the short term. School systems in other states have so far adapted to limited voucher plans.

Instead, the actual harm caused by vouchers is even more concerning. The research record clearly demonstrates that voucher programs such as Utah’s HB 215 are detrimental to students — negatively impacting learning at unprecedented levels.

The idea of vouchers has some appeal, which is one of the reasons politicians like them. These programs give families taxpayer-funded subsidies to send their children to a private school. Presumably, families will select a school that best fits their child’s academic needs, so kids will get a better, more appropriate education. At least in theory.

But it doesn’t work that way in practice. Every study of state-wide voucher programs, like the one proposed for Utah, has found no academic gains for those students, but in fact large relative losses in achievement. That is, the students are falling behind where they would have been if they had not used a voucher. Studies of such programs in Indiana, Ohio, and two in Louisiana have all found large, negative impacts on students using vouchers, and no benefits.

And the size of these losses is astonishing. For instance, Louisiana students using vouchers saw declines in their math achievement that were more than twice as large as the declines visited by Hurricane Katrina. In Ohio, the learning losses from vouchers were almost double those caused by the COVID 19 pandemic. Notably, some of these studies were conducted by pro-voucher organizations.

Why, you might ask, would policymakers knowingly want to inflict such harm on the students of Utah? Certainly, the idea of “choice” is attractive. We all like to choose when it comes to consumer goods and services like restaurants or clothes. Indeed, many parents like choosing a school for their child, especially when private choices are paid with a public subsidy. And many policymakers like choice because they believe it might reduce costs or administrative bloat in public education, or because they see it as a way to undercut public sector teachers unions.

But this is largely an issue of empirical evidence on the ill-effects of these policies versus ideological agendas about “one-size doesn’t fit all” or education “freedom,” when the evidence clearly shows that those abstractions come with real costs for children.

Moreover, lawmakers are seeking to impose this agenda in a way that prevents voters from weighing in on the issue. Unfortunately, this is a strategy where voucher proponents seek to avoid voters, knowing that voters tend to reject vouchers, often by overwhelming margins.

Policymakers have a responsibility to the taxpayers so that they are not spending public dollars on programs that are ineffective or, in this case, harmful. But more importantly, policymakers have a responsibility to the state’s children. While embracing a “parent rights” platform might be good politics, these policies will do substantial harm to the education of Utah students.

Christopher Lubienski

Christopher Lubienski, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Evaluation and Policy Analysis and a professor of education policy at Indiana University.