Earlier this month, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as President Trump’s Secretary of Education — by the narrowest of margins.
Her confirmation marked a win for parents looking for greater “school choice” — the ability to pluck a child from his or her public school and get a subsidy to place them in a private, charter, or home school instead.
One of the chief means by which parents make that switch is a system both DeVos and Trump have long supported: school vouchers.
Vouchers act as a kind of gift certificate. They are worth a specific dollar amount and can be used only to pay for schooling. But with these programs in the spotlight, a roiling debate has developed as to whether vouchers actually help kids or if, as critics suggest, the programs could lead to the downfall of public schools.
Does it work?
Current voucher programs are generally small in nature — there are about 400,000 US kids in voucher programs right now. Indiana, the largest voucher-accepting state, still only sees about 3% of its students rely on those programs.
Studies on voucher programs in states such as Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana have not found much evidence that they move the needle on student outcomes. With the exception of a couple outlier programs, which have found either great success or notable declines in outcomes, American voucher programs seem to have a negligible effect on how students fair.
“These are very well-done studies,” Mark Dynarski, an education researcher and voucher expert, tells Business Insider. “And what they’re showing is incontrovertible evidence that no, those kids did not learn more.”
In 2016, researchers from the University of Arkansas published a meta-analysis — essentially a study of multiple prior studies — evaluating 11 different programs around the world. Danish Shakeel, one of the study’s co-authors, says the team saw slight gains in students’ reading abilities, but primarily in programs outside the US.
“If you are focusing only within the US, the effects for reading were null,” Shakeel tells Business Insider.
Fears about the future
Much of the debate around vouchers concerns what might happen if DeVos expands vouchers in the US. Sceptics fear the programs could gut public schools by stealing away students and draining their funding.
Research suggests vouchers haven’t had much impact on schools — at least not yet. Because current voucher programs are small, it’s difficult to determine whether this means they don’t harm public schools or whether they just aren’t big enough to do damage. In Indiana, only 3% of students get vouchers, while about 10 to 15% of kids nationwide move in and out of a school over a typical year.
“Given the kinds of waves happening inside schools,” Dynarski says, “it’s hard to see how vouchers actually cause the school to stop what they’re doing and say, ‘We need a plan to respond.'”
Patrick Wolf, a University of Arkansas voucher researcher, adds that the 53 school-choice programs around the country right now “haven’t thrown any traditional public school system into a doomsday death spiral,” but have forced some low-performing schools to take a hard look in the mirror.
His research indicates voucher programs can lead principals to improve their schools’ education programs in order to stay competitive. This tends to violate the assumption that public schools are defenseless against student loss.
Church and state
One fear about vouchers that does seem valid, however, is that the programs can prop up religious schools.
A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research on February 13 found that the majority of Catholic schools that accept vouchers in Milwaukee rely on those taxpayer funds to stay afloat. The study included 14 years of data between 1999 and 2013 from 71 parishes across the city.
Dynarski says that situation could lead the Church to become an advocacy group for voucher programs, regardless of whether the programs help kids do better in school. “Now you would have the Catholic dioceses arguing on behalf of vouchers, because it’s now become intrinsic to their business operations,” he says. “And that just seems a little strange to me.”
Shakeel says that overall, the results of voucher programs are too modest to support arguments in favour of giving all district their own programs. As for whether to expand some voucher programs and how to do so, he says he’d like policy-makers to take a more empirical approach to decision-making.
“If the public is aware of the evidence,” he says, “we can make decisions based on evidence and not based on news that’s not backed by data.”