Michigan State University professor Josh Cowen is one of the leading voices in the country studying the impact of private-school vouchers on students and schools. Dr. Cowen recently published a guest column in the Dallas Morning News outlining some of his concerns, including the fact that other states have proven that the schools accepting vouchers tend to be low-quality private schools that rely almost entirely on those vouchers for their revenue. His article includes some important data points for the discussion of vouchers and Education Savings Accounts during the ongoing legislative session. The full piece is below.
Texas should avoid school voucher failures found in other states
By Josh Cowen
Among national experts, Texas has a strong tradition for building data and evidence to inform education policymaking. The Education Research Center at University of Texas at Dallas, for example, is a leader both within the state and across the country in building and maintaining data systems to help guide decision-making with the facts.
We’ve learned about teacher retention, pay and working conditions from Texas, for instance, and about the impact of charter schools, English Language instruction, college admissions policies, and the effects of displacing students from Hurricane Katrina on peers in Houston — just to name a few diverse examples.
But when it comes to school vouchers or voucher-like programs — the use of taxpayer dollars to support private school tuition, as Gov. Greg Abbott and others are considering— Texas can learn from what’s been done in other states.
There have been four independent evaluations of voucher programs similar to those now discussed in Texas: in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. All have shown some of the largest negative impacts on student learning ever seen among education researchers.
Take Louisiana, for example, just over the border. When school voucher programs were created and expanded after Hurricane Katrina, two separate research teams studied how students performed after switching from public to private schools. The results were shocking: student learning loss was almost double what the COVID-19 pandemic has done to test scores more recently, and those voucher results persisted over time.
Like many advocates across the country, Abbott has alluded to private school quality, remarking about a private school he found “astonishing” this summer, “it shows the quality of the type of education that they are receiving right now.”
That’s mostly just a perception. Despite rhetoric that tax support for private tuition allows parents to find the best academic fit for their kids, the reality is that most private schools are not academically elite institutions, and the ones actually available to parents using a voucher often don’t have room.
Looking at school applications in New Orleans for example, our research team found that most voucher parents rated high-quality private schools at the top of their list for their children to attend, but had to accept far less effective options when assigned to third or fourth choices with seats actually available.
In Wisconsin, home of the nation’s oldest voucher program, 40% of private schools accepting voucher-paid students have failed during the program’s history. All told, 12% of taxpayer dollars in Wisconsin have gone to schools that had to shut down.
Some advocates for using tax dollars to support private tuition — like billionaire and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — will also say the point is more about “education freedom”: allowing parents to take their tax dollars where they want. But Texas, like many states, already has a vibrant charter school sector supported by parents’ tax dollars, and many traditional districts allow open enrollment to students outside their residential borders. And unlike vouchers, these school choice options have a far better academic track record across the country.
And as for choosing private schools: In Arizona, which just passed a large expansion to its voucher program, 75% of applications came from students already in private school without taxpayers footing the bill — a number similar to the share of existing private students joining voucher programs elsewhere as well. Vouchers are really an idea to subsidize existing choices.
Whatever Texas decides to do, the experience in other states provides a clear warning sign: taxpayer support for private school tuition has been a huge step back, with very little to show for it in return.
Josh Cowen is a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News. Twitter: @joshcowenMSU