Academic journal article Economic Commentary (Cleveland)

Vouchers and the Cleveland Scholarship Program: Little Progress So Far

Academic journal article Economic Commentary (Cleveland)

Vouchers and the Cleveland Scholarship Program: Little Progress So Far

Article excerpt

Voucher programs are intended to raise the academic achievement of students, but, unfortunately, so far the evidence suggests that Cleveland's voucher students perform no better than their counterparts in public schools.

Vouchers for K-12 education continue to attract interest, offering the promise of greater parental choice, enhanced school efficiency, and improved educational outcomes lor students. The first formal voucher program was established in Milwaukee in 1990. and its practical success was followed by programs in Cleveland. Florida. Colorado, and Washington. D.C. With these programs has come sustained inquiry into vouchers and their anticipated effects. Here we review the evidence that has accumulated so far about voucher programs in general, and then we take a closer look at the Cleveland Scholarship Program (CSP) in particular, including its effects on student test scores.

Ohio plans on introducing a CSP-like program in 2006 at the lowest-performing schools across the state. Evidence on the efficacy of the CSP program is therefore critical, both for the direct development of policy in Ohio and for voucher initiatives in other states.

* Research to Date on Vouchers

Voucher programs are expected to raise students' academic achievement, and the most high-profile research on vouchers has looked at whether they do. The evidence shows, at best, moderate advantages for voucher participants.

For the Milwaukee Program. Rouse (1998) found small but positive effect-size differences for math but no effect for reading. However, the data were from the first five years of the program; religious schools were not participating, and the voucher students were concentrated in a few schools. For the Florida program, Figlio and Rouse (2005) found modest results from data on over 180,000 students. Voucher users in initially low-performing schools do post higher test scores, but much of this is attributable either to student characteristics (that is, the users were self-selected, high-ability students) or teaching to the high-stakes test (suggesting that the achievement gains may not have been genuine cognitive gains).

Randomized field trials for vouchers in three cities found small test score gains after three years (Howell and Peterson, 2002). These treatment effects were primarily for African Americans in one setting, with no evidence of cumulative gains for those who used the voucher for the longest periods. Finally, it is worth noting that new evidence from expanded public school choice points to the same conclusion, with few achievement gains from placement in a choice school (Cullen et al., 2005).

Other studies have investigated broader questions, such as: How do parents choose schools when vouchers are available to them? In what ways are private schools accessed by voucher students better than public schools? How do vouchers influence public finances?

In looking at school-choice decisions by parents, it is clear that many affluent families already have choices: attention therefore focuses on how voucher programs might open up choices for those families that are constrained. Thus far, all voucher programs have been targeted to low-income families or to districts with low-performing schools. Clearly, vouchers expand the choices of low-income families.

However, several mediating factors mean that voucher programs are less effective in promoting choice among low-income families than is implicit in a simple reading of the program eligibility rules. First, religion pervades family preferences of schools (Campbell et al., 2005). Certainly, parents value high test scores, but preferences are varied, and many families choose their neighborhood school.

Second, race has a strong influence on people's choice of school. The relationship is complicated by different patterns across Hispanic and African American children and by the fact that public schools show strong patterns of racial segregation. …

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