State voucher program produces disappointing results

State voucher program produces disappointing results

(La.) Students who attended their first-choice private school through Louisiana’s state voucher program had lower test scores after four years than those who either didn’t get their preferred school or didn’t receive a voucher, according to new research.

A working paper authored by senior researcher, Jonathan Mills and Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform, focused on the Louisiana Scholarship Program, or LSP.

The program, one of the largest school voucher programs in the U.S., offers publicly-funded vouchers to students to attend a participating private school.

Researchers found that scores of the students placed in their first-choice school started low in the 2012-13 school year, but increased the following two years, only to drop again in the 2015-16 school year.

“In contrast to our earlier research, which reported large negative impacts of LSP voucher usage after one year that improved over time, the results presented here indicate large negative effects of LSP voucher usage after four years, especially in math,” Mills and Wolf wrote.

Throughout the country, private school choice programs are often funded directly through state education dollars or by charitable contributions. But the most common form is through tax credits offered to businesses or individuals in exchange for contributions to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations.

While lawmakers in states including Tennessee are working to develop such programs, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is currently pushing for a $5 billion federal tax credit largely aimed at vouchers for private schools.

Past studies on the effects of participation in voucher programs have produced mixed results, with some coming out positive or neutral, while more recent surveys of voucher initiatives in Ohio, the District of Columbia and Indiana have shone more negative results.

The Louisiana Scholarship Program was piloted in New Orleans in 2008 before being expanded statewide in the 2012-13 school year.

The program is limited to students whose family income is at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty line. Student must also be attending or entering a public school that received a C grade or lower for the prior school year according to the state’s school accountability system. Children are also eligible is they are enrolled in the Recovery School District, which according to researchers includes most of the public schools in the city of New Orleans, several in Baton Rouge, and a single school in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Using state education department data, authors of the report tracked 780 students in grades 3-8 for four years. The results, they said, showed “large negative effects of LSP voucher usage after four years, especially in math.”

While the study showed results remained about the same when broken out by gender, researchers said that African American students were reported to have significantly less negative impacts of voucher usage relative to other students.

Mills and Wolf noted that they did not look to determine why test scores followed such a pattern, but said there were many factors that likely played a role.

“We cannot offer a definitive conclusion as to what might have caused both the observed negative effects as well as the apparent reversal in trend towards improvement reported in our prior work,” according to authors of the report, who noted that they had previously speculated that negative effects were driven in part by the challenges associated with the expansion of the voucher program statewide.

“Private schools, for example, had little time to prepare for the incoming students and had no previous experience in administering the Louisiana state assessments,” Mills and Wolf wrote. “We would expect, however, that negative effects associated with a lack of preparation among private schools would diminish over time as the program gained maturity.”

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