Study Finds Vouchers Fail to Raise Student Achievement

By Kevin Hart

Milwaukee’s school vouchers program has lasted 20 years and has channeled hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds to private schools. Now, an ongoing study on the academic performance of voucher students is casting serious doubt on whether the program is effective.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, established in 1990, currently serves more than 20,000 students who receive public funds to pay for private school tuition. The University of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project has been commissioned to perform a five-year study comparing voucher students to demographically similar public school students. Two years into the study, the results are not looking promising for vouchers.

Through the 2007-2008 school year, two years into the study, researchers found that there was no difference in academic achievement among the elementary, middle, and high school students who were tested. Students receiving vouchers failed to outperform their public school counterparts.

Ironically, the research was funded by several groups with a history of supporting school choice, such as the Kern Family Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. The study also found that, to date:

  • Religious schools have been the primary beneficiaries of the vouchers program: Of the 124 participating private schools, 82 percent are affiliated with one of 10 distinct religions.
  • Teachers at schools receiving voucher funds may be less qualified: More public school teachers had teaching certifications and master’s degrees than teachers at the private schools participating in the vouchers program.
  • Boys and girls are not benefiting equally: Girls in the vouchers program were considerably less likely to experience growth in reading than boys.

The University of Arkansas research is not the first study that failed to show achievement gains among Milwaukee students receiving vouchers. As the study authors point out, a previous study by University of Wisconsin researcher John Witte compared voucher students to public school students from 1990-1995 and found “no clear evidence” that vouchers improved student achievement.

The results are unsurprising for those who follow research on voucher programs. Research on a controversial vouchers program in Washington, D.C. yielded similar results.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, students from schools labeled “in need of improvement” – the very students vouchers are supposed to help – have not experienced any gains in reading or math after using vouchers to attend Washington, D.C. private schools.