Academic journal article Education Next


Academic journal article Education Next


Article excerpt

In the past few years, four states have established programs that provide public financial support to students who choose to attend a private school. These programs-a tax-credit-funded scholarship initiative in Florida and voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio-offer a glimpse of what expansive statewide choice might look like. What have we learned about the students and schools who choose to participate in these programs? What academic outcomes have students reaped? And what does research tell us about how states should design and oversee voucher programs-if indeed they should do so at all? In this forum, we hear from Patrick J. Wolf, education policy professor at the University of Arkansas, Douglas N. Harris, professor of economics at Tulane, and the trio of Mark Berends, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, R. Joseph Waddington, assistant professor at the College of Education, University of Kentucky, and Megan Austin, researcher at the American Institutes for Research, Chicago.

SCHOOL VOUCHER PROGRAMS, which allow eligible families to send their children to private schools with the help of public funds, have sparked controversy since the first such initiative was launched in Milwaukee in 1991. Today, 28 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) operate 54 private-school-choice programs, which include not only government-issued vouchers but also tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts (ESAs), and town-tuitioning programs for rural families. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the spread of such programs across the country, the debate surrounding their merits continues. Fortunately, many studies on the outcomes of private-school-choice initiatives have enabled us to begin evaluating their effectiveness. While the jury is still out on the effects of these programs on student test scores, there is significant evidence that they positively influence how far students continue in their schooling.

Who Participates?

Private-school-choice programs disproportionately attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Choice participants are considerably more likely to be low-income, lower-achieving, and African American, and much less likely to be white, as compared to the average public-school student in their area. Moreover, 12 percent of the 446,000 participants in private-school-choice programs in 2016-17 were in initiatives limited to students with disabilities, which is slightly higher than the 11 percent average rate of student disability in public schools nationally.

These participation trends are not surprising, since most voucher programs are targeted to low-income urban students or students with disabilities. Even in the Indiana Choice

Scholarship Program, however, which is open to low- and middle-income families statewide, the percentage of low-income students enrolled is slightly higher than their percentage of the overall K-12 population.

The private schools that participate in choice programs also are distinctive. Yujie Sude, Corey DeAngelis, and I examined the patterns of private-school participation in choice programs in D.C., Florida, and Louisiana. Private schools were more likely to participate if the gap between their tuition level and the usually lower voucher amount was smaller, if they already had experience serving disadvantaged students, and if they were Catholic schools. Stringent regulations appear to dissuade some schools from opting in: more than two thirds of private schools participate in the relatively low-regulation Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, while only one third participate in the relatively high-regulation Louisiana Scholarship Program. Brian Kisida, Evan Rhinesmith, and I surveyed private-school leaders who declined to participate in their state's choice program and found that most of them feared that regulations would increase in the future. They also viewed certain regulations as restricting their independence and organizational identity, especially mandates involving curriculum and requirements to administer the state accountability test to their choice students. …

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