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The Final Word on Vouchers

For the past year, I wrote extensively on voucher programs. It appears, as though, “facts and evidence” — as former President John Adams would say — is replaced by wishes and manipulation. This is a sad place to be, especially in a debate so essential to our future as education. But, my due diligence as a citizen — nay, a Texan — will not keep me from arguing for our future’s civil right to an “an efficient system of public free schools.” Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution

The ongoing issue with studies on school vouchers, educational savings accounts, traditional public education, etc., is this is a state issue. This means that states have different ways of administering education, including voucher programs. A state like Louisiana has a lottery system and when advocates for voucher programs studied what happened in Louisiana, the results were not trumpeted like those that came before it.

Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag Pathak, and Christopher Walters conducted research similar to the often cited 2016 study by M. Danish Shakeel, Kaitlin Anderson, and Patrick Wolf. This piece of research was published in the voucher-friendly American Economic Journal and found negative results in math, reading, science, and social studies in the lottery system of Louisiana’s Scholarship Program (LSP). To quote the research, “the negative impacts of LSP vouchers…are therefore comparable in magnitude to some of the largest effects documented in recent studies of education programs.” Abdulkadiroglu, et al. found a causal effect between a state’s voucher program and bad private schools.

Let us also consider the work by Will Robertson and Virginia Riel, where they examined the “school choice” system in North Carolina. The authors concluded “students with parents who graduated from college are overrepresented in charter schools relative to traditional public schools; underrepresented are students whose parents did not graduate from high school.” Robertson and Riel also found racial disparities, citing “white students who attend charter schools in North Carolina disproportionately attend segregated schools compared to students in traditional public schools. Specifically, white charter school students in North Carolina attend schools that are eighty percent white on average.”

Transitioning to a private school should also be considered. Megan Austin, R. Joseph Waddington, and Mark Berends studied the pathways and achievements in Indiana’s income-based voucher system. According to the authors, “moving from public to private schools with a voucher results in decreasing test scores, at least in math and especially for students who transition in earlier grades. Students who always attended private schools have higher math achievement at baseline experience no changes in their achievement before and after receiving a voucher. The achievement losses for public to private movers may be cause for concern for policymakers advocating for voucher programs. However, how students come to receive a voucher is as important to consider as the impact of receiving a voucher per se.”

What about the financial costs of a voucher system? The National Education Policy Center found “the indirect cost of vouchers would increase system spending…between 11% and 33% above” what is currently spent. Doing some back of napkin math, that would add anywhere between $6,800 to $8,200 on top of the biennial per student funding of $6,160. Furthermore, in order to be cost effective to the tax payer, “schools funded by vouchers would need to be about 20% more effective (in raising student achievement) than traditional public schools to be equally cost-effective. Recent school voucher research from Indiana University found “almost all impacts in early studies tended to be modest, at best, but were also based on rather small programs… As programs grew in size, the results turned negative, often to a remarkably large degree virtually unrivaled in education research.”

In the final analysis, let us be very clear. Voucher programs do not work and are an additional burden to taxpayers. Why are voucher program advocates obsessed with doing a program that does not produce slam dunk results? In a voucher system, the school chooses the student. That is the very definition of “school choice.” As empowering as that appears to families, the power truly rests with the school. How helpful is it to have a system where the school rejects the student? Do voucher program advocates want education to be a privilege and not the civil right that it is? Those are questions that never get answered.

Governor Abbott delivering the State of the State Address (Photo credit: Governor’s Office).What cannot be forgotten is the politics of this issue. Gov. Abbott declared “education freedom” an emergency item and the legislature, for the first time in over a decade, will actively take on the issue. The rare coalition of rural Republicans and nearly all of the Democrats have consistently halted voucher programs in the legislature’s lower chamber by wide margins, but we will see if the House changed.

Drew Landry is a Professor of Government at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas

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