Louisiana School Voucher Program Under Dispute

Louisiana’s school voucher program is not working in the manner it should have, a study shows.

Patrick Wolf, the lead author of the study by the university’s School Choice Demonstration Project and Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, said, “Most striking, we find strong and consistent evidence that students using a [voucher] performed significantly worse in math after using their scholarship to attend private schools.”

The research reiterates the findings from a working paper published two months ago by a different team of researchers that found students who used a voucher to attend a private school experienced lowered math, reading, science, and social studies scores, their failing score increasing by 24 to 50 percent.

WOODBOURNE, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: Teacher Denise Severing congratulates a child during a math lesson at the federally-funded Head Start school on September 20, 2012 in Woodbourne, New York. The school provides early education, nutrition and health services to 311 children from birth through age 5 from low-income families in Sullivan County, one of the poorest counties in the state of New York. The county Head Start Program was expanded with a $1 million grant from President Obama's 2009 stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Head Start, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the longest-running early education program for children of low-income families in the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The studies are released in the wake of states across the country mulling similar programs. Since 2008 and 2009, the number of students using vouchers increased by 130 percent, according to these figures.

The report’s authors wrote, “One of the central debates about school reform is whether or not school choice improves student outcomes. School choice reforms, which comprise a broad category of policies aimed at improving public education through the introduction of market forces that may stimulate customer choice and competition between schools, have grown particularly popular since the 1990s.”

Louisiana’s 6,700 students make use of the voucher system. It provides about $5,300 per student, which they can use to pay for tuition at a private school. Students from families with low incomes, below 250 percent of the federal poverty line — $60,625 for a family of four — and whose public school has been labeled by the state as low-performing qualify for the voucher. Around 1,500 public schools in Louisiana are low-performing.

The vouchers are awarded through a lottery system. Participating private schools must accept them as full tuition payment, even if the sticker price is higher than a voucher’s amount.

The new research found that students who were performing at roughly the 50th percentile in their public schools fell 24 percentile points in math and 8 percentile points in reading below their public school counterparts after one year in private school, US News reported. During their second year in private school, the downward trend continued in math but rebounded some in reading.

Louisiana School Voucher Program Under Dispute
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 27: People leave after the fifth grade awards banquet and graduation at Sylvanie Williams College Prep Elementary - a charter public school, on May 27, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Krystal Hardy was the new principal there this year and is mentoring the teachers and trying to get test scores up since many students started the year performing below their grade levels. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

The academic achievement of students in public school who did not receive a voucher and stayed in public school actually improved between the first and second year, especially in math. Researchers surmised that the disparity was likely due to market-based pressures, although they couldn’t be certain.

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Wolf said, “But our results suggest that public schools facing competitive pressures from the program may have maintained their previous level of performance or improved over time.”

Supporters of school vouchers have long argued such programs can improve the U.S. education system as a whole by inducing schools to compete for students in a type of education marketplace. Opponents of private school voucher programs, on the other hand, are quick to counter that they harm public education by diverting funds from public to private schools. Existing research has found modestly positive or insignificant competitive effects of school voucher programs on student achievement in public schools.

A look at how voucher-funded transfers affected racial enrollment concluded that the program improved the racial balance at public schools, CBS News reported. It said most of those transferring out of the schools were black.

The report said, “When we combine the largely integrating effects of the program on students’ former public schools with its slightly segregating effects on their new private schools, the overall effect of the LSP is to improve the racial integration of Louisiana Schools.”

Wolf and his team plan to continue evaluating the Louisiana school voucher program in hopes of pinpointing possible explanations for the negative results and to assess whether such a trend continues.

[Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]