Study Raises Stakes in School Voucher Case

Just one day before the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a landmark case on publicly funded school voucher programs, Harvard researchers unveiled a study that says privately funded voucher programs have had a significant impact on raising test scores for African-American students.

The research will likely add ammunition to pro-voucher forces because the study's researchers have cast their findings as "the best evidence" to date of positive voucher impacts. But those who oppose vouchers may also find cannon fodder in the results, noting that the privately-funded voucher programs did little to raise achievement for other ethnic groups beyond black students and failed to raise achievement for students of all backgrounds in Washington, D.C. — a finding that has the researchers scratching their heads for possible explanations.

The study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research in conjunction with the Harvard University Program on Education Policy, evaluated privately-funded voucher programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio.

In each city, private organizations reward a select number of students with "scholarships" of up to $2,000 to pay for tuition at private schools. The researchers have followed two groups of students in each city, one group of scholarship students and one control group of public school students, to compare their performance and experience in school.

The findings from the New York City School Choice Scholarships Foundation were the most striking.

A three-year evaluation found that the test scores of African-American students in the program were substantially higher than test scores for comparable students in public schools. The rise in their scores on standardized achievement tests — more than nine points over the three-year period — was enough to erase the so-called achievement gap that persists nationwide between black and white students.

"We have not seen that size of an effect this precisely estimated in a careful, randomized experiment ever before," said Paul Peterson, a professor of government at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and one of the lead researchers from the study. "It is amazing that the private schools are able to get these effects even though they have less money.'"

Peterson said the improved student performance could be attributed to several factors in the private schools, primarily a more controlled environment where students report that there is less cheating, less fighting, less property destruction and generally less chaos. The students in the study also reported that private schools offered smaller classes, more communication inside and out of school, more homework and higher expectations.

"The climate of the school is the biggest factor," Peterson said. "That's the biggest difference between the public and the private school."

Climate Unchanged for D.C. Kids

Researchers did not find that surprising, but what has stymied them is why the climate did not make as much of a difference for Washington students who used privately-funded vouchers to attend private schools.

Researchers suspect that one possible explanation is the large number of Washington students who attend charter schools in the city.

"One-fifth to one-quarter of the students in D.C. who might have gone into a private school opted instead to go into a charter school, creating a much more complex picture," Peterson said.

Another possible explanation is that the private schools attended by Washington students are not as strong as those in New York City or Dayton. The majority of the voucher students in all three schools attended religious schools, mostly Catholic.

Those who oppose vouchers aren't buying those explanations and argue that the failure to lift test scores and grades for Washington students in particular and non-black students from all participating cities points to an overall indictment of voucher programs.

The People for the American Way foundation, along with the nation's two largest teacher unions, have argued that the educational gains from voucher programs are not sufficient to justify siphoning money away from poor-performing public schools.