It seems that President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos are looking to tuition tax credits, a form of school vouchers, to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to expand school choice. (This blog has covered Trump and DeVos’s interest in tuition tax credits here, here, and here.)
Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University, published a report on Tuesday for the Economic Policy Institute that questions the expansion of school tuition vouchers. The driving motivation for promoters of vouchers, writes Carnoy, is ideological and is not based on any evidence that vouchers improve educational outcomes overall: “The lack of evidence that vouchers significantly improve student achievement (test scores), coupled with the evidence of a modest, at best, impact on educational attainment (graduation rates), suggests that an ideological preference for education markets over equity and public accountability is what is driving the push to expand voucher programs.”
Carnoy explains that voucher programs have met neither of two promises of their proponents— that recipients of vouchers will do better in private schools and that vouchers will drive public schools to improve when competition is introduced: “Voucher proponents argue that offering students the opportunity, through public financing, to attend private rather than public schools produces significant gains at two levels: that individual students gain from attending a more effective (private) school, and that students remaining in public schools gain because increasing private school competition for public school students pushes public schools to improve.” Summarizing a number of research evaluations of a range of voucher programs—in Washington, D.C.; Dayton, Ohio; Indiana; Louisiana; Milwaukee; Florida; and internationally in Chile and India, Carnoy concludes:
“Studies of voucher programs in several U.S. cities, the states of Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, and in Chile and India, find limited improvements at best in student achievement and school district performance from even large-scale programs. In the few cases in which test scores increased, other factors, namely increased public accountability, not private school competition, seem to be more likely drivers. And high rates of attrition from private schools among voucher users in several studies raise concerns. The second largest and longest-standing U.S. voucher program, in Milwaukee, offers no solid evidence of student gains in either private or public schools. In the only area in which there is evidence of small improvements in voucher schools—in high school graduation and college enrollment rates—there are no data to show whether the gains are the result of schools shedding lower-performing students or engaging in positive practices.”
Carnoy believes that voucher programs introduce serious risks to our system of public education, most notably a well documented rise in segregation as families choose schools serving families similar to themselves. Another risk is what Carnoy calls the “free rider’ aspect of teacher costs in voucher and charter schools which are likely to pay so little and offer so few benefits. Carnoy believes an expansion of privatized voucher and charter schools will drive down the entry of qualified people into the teaching profession: “The ‘free rider’ aspect of teacher costs in private schools, whether voucher or charter, means that the supply of young people entering the teaching profession is maintained by the salary structure and tenure system in public education. Without this structure, many fewer individuals would take the training needed to become certified to enter teaching. Since teaching salaries are low compared with other professions, the prospect of tenure and a decent pension provides the option of security as compensation for low pay… Thus, the public education employment and salary system ‘subsidizes’ lower teacher costs in private and charter schools.” A small number of free-riding charter and voucher schools can hire the well trained teachers at a lower cost without necessarily undermining the profession, but if the number of privatized schools were to increase, society would suffer the consequences.
Support for vouchers, tax credits, and the expansion of unregulated charter schools is ideological and not based on the documented performance of any known program. Carnoy cites Henry Levin at Teachers College, Columbia University who judges the debate about school privatization to be a clash in belief systems, “between those who attach greater importance to individual choice, and therefore education markets, and those who place greater importance on equity, commonality, and public accountability, and therefore support public education.”
Carnoy suggests that if our society were really interested in expanding educational opportunity and improving school achievement, we should model the policies introduced in the public schools of Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas in the 1980s and 1990s—things like better teacher pre-service programs, expansion of high quality early childhood education, more after-school and summer programs, better student health and nutrition programs. He adds that despite that high school graduation rates reflect many factors, “it would be relatively easy to increase both graduation and four-year college attendance by investing modestly more in the number of college counselors in public high schools and in training them better.”