School voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland are now over twenty-five years old. Now Wisconsin and Ohio have expanded statewide what began as stand-alone, big-city programs, and last week, local newspapers in Milwaukee and Cleveland examined these programs. Today’s post will look at Patrick O’Donnell’s recent Plain Dealer report on vouchers in Cleveland and Ohio. Yesterday’s post covered last week’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s report on Wisconsin vouchers.
While Erin Richards’ piece on Wisconsin explores the fiscal problems for a state that has begun to divert state and local tax dollars to pay for the education of students at private schools, Patrick O’Donnell in Cleveland emphasizes the problem of figuring out whether students at religious schools accepting vouchers receive a superior—or even adequate—education: “The school voucher programs that some federal and state officials want to expand have had mixed test results in Ohio that make it unclear how much more students learn than if they had stayed in their local public schools. Ohio’s voucher programs, which give families grants to help pay tuition at private schools, have a low bar to clear to look successful. Neither the state’s main voucher program, EdChoice, nor a Cleveland-only program is competing with high-scoring suburban districts. Both were created to let families avoid schools the state considered to be failing, so they only have to best the lowest-rated schools. But the private schools receiving voucher dollars have had mixed results, even when compared to these ‘failing’ public schools.”
Here is a caution: As O’Donnell compares the schools, he is using Ohio’s school ratings, based primarily on standardized test scores. Any comprehensive school rating system would consider myriad other factors. And, of course, test scores, in the aggregate reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods. (See here and here.)
O’Donnell compares voucher students’ standardized test scores in third and eighth grade and reports that students who have carried vouchers to religious schools score higher in reading and lower in math, “scoring lower—sometimes by a hair, sometimes by a lot—on four of the six state math tests for the same grade. It’s a trend that has held for several years.”
O’Donnell also examines a technical academic paper by David Figlio of the Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research, a study in which Figlio controls for all sorts of factors that may affect scores apart from the quality of the education schools provide: “Figlio found that while voucher students were typically better off financially and stronger academically than students they left behind, they did worse after going to private schools than comparable students who stayed in public schools.” O’Donnell adds that Figlio’s study “was commissioned by the Fordham Institute, a leading advocate for school choice in Ohio and nationally.”
O’Donnell reports that 97 percent of Ohio school vouchers pay for tuition at religious schools, with Catholic schools dominating the recipients. Comparing the experience of students at public and the religious schools where students are carrying tuition vouchers is difficult according to O’Donnell’s report because religious schools are not required to accept all students even among students who may have qualified for a voucher Some schools, for example, accept the vouchers only if students pass admissions tests. Also O’Donnell notes, “socioeconomic challenges like poverty and income… have a strong relationship to test scores across Ohio and nationally.” He also lists other factors that contribute to school quality and are not measured by Ohio’s mandated tests—the number of English learners and special education students who are admitted to private schools, attendance and graduation rates.
While his primary analysis compares test scores in grades 3-8, in a companion article O’Donnell examines high schools, comparing public high schools in Cleveland and the religious high schools where students are carrying their tuition vouchers: “Ohio’s school voucher and testing system does not give a good comparison between public high schools and the private high schools that take the vouchers. The private (high) schools don’t want to take the same tests, and usually don’t. And since most voucher high schools have selective admissions with special tests and interviews that most public schools don’t have, test scores are often skewed.” While in general, high school test scores where comparable, are higher in the religious than the public high schools, O’Donnell notes: “Those gaps, though, don’t take into account how selectively a private school selects its students or how much a school truly helped a student learn. The state doesn’t even track that.” “(C)omparing scores of selective schools to neighborhood schools that accept anyone won’t tell you which school is doing a better job.”
However, Cleveland has established three selective, magnet public specialty high schools. O’Donnell reports that test scores at Cleveland’s selective magnet high schools compare with scores at the city’s most selective Catholic high school: “While private schools that cherry-pick their students often have better-looking test scores, so do public magnet schools with competitive admissions. In Cleveland, those schools even scored better than schools like St. Ignatius.” “Cleveland’s Early College High School, the School of Architecture and Design and the School of Science and Medicine all had at least 97.8 percent of their students score as proficient on the reading and math OGT (Ohio Graduation Test)…. While St. Ignatius, Benedictine and St. Joseph high schools all scored as well as those district schools in reading, all three private schools had worse math results—still strong but below those of the district magnets.”
O’Donnell’s reporting of higher math performance scores in the public high schools reflects a broad research study of private vs. public schools, reported by University of Illinois professors, Chris and Sarah Lubienski, in their book, The Public School Advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home… But after further investigation and more targeted analyses, the results held up. And they held up… even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, pp. xvii-xviii)