Chris Lubienski, a professor in the department of education policy, organization and leadership in the College of Education at the University of Illinois, researches issues of school choice and student achievement.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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Indiana recently implemented a statewide school voucher program that provides funding so that families of all income levels can send their children to the schools of their choice. While critics claim that voucher programs foster segregation and drain much-needed funding from the public system, parents in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and other states with voucher programs laud the programs, saying they promote access to a superior education that isn't available in the public system. Chris Lubienski, a professor in the department of education policy, organization and leadership in the College of Education at the University of Illinois, who researches issues of school choice and student achievement, spoke recently with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest.
Do vouchers - and the competition they create for students - improve educational outcomes for students?
It's very controversial, but I think the general consensus is that the gains are minimal. Voucher advocates have done studies that find substantial gains and make claims that they will close the achievement gap after a certain number of years, but those studies tend not to be peer-reviewed. When academics look at the data, they may find modest gains at best - usually it's statistically insignificant.
But there are different reasons for doing voucher programs. One is to create competition, which has implications for how you rearrange the financing. The other reason is more of a moral argument that they create an escape route for disadvantaged families.
Whether students really receive a better education in the private schools hasn't been demonstrated, and we've done research that casts doubt on that. Recent reports on Milwaukee schools indicate that the publics may be outperforming the private schools.
Do voucher programs reduce diversity, as some critics claim?
Private schools are able to exclude students they don't want to teach, such as special education students with behavioral problems, and set up screening systems to filter out those students. That doesn't always happen, of course, but, on average, they serve proportionately fewer students.
There's some concern that voucher programs help private schools acquire the most motivated students and the more affluent families, and there is some evidence of that. The kids in Milwaukee, for example, who left the public system for private schools tended to be the more advantaged of the disadvantaged families. The mothers tended to be more educated and valued education more, even though their kids qualified for free and reduced-price lunches. The fact that they made the decision to investigate other school options suggested that they took a lot of initiative and cared about education, and the public schools were certainly losing out on those families.
Urban Catholic schools, especially in the northern part of the U.S., have been declining for a couple of decades, so they view these vouchers as very much of a lifeline. Rather than close schools down, church authorities can maintain them with more of a non-Catholic population, but nonetheless, they can keep them open.
Since there are probably costs besides tuition that vouchers don't cover, are many disadvantaged families actually able to take advantage of vouchers?
When vouchers were first offered in Milwaukee, Florida and Washington, D.C., families really didn't jump on the opportunity right away, largely because they were unaware of the program, but also because there are additional costs involved, such as uniforms and transportation. Oftentimes vouchers don't cover the entire cost of the tuition, so there tends to be this lag before the demand starts to increase.
The programs that I mentioned have increased dramatically over time as more people became aware of them. In Milwaukee, for example, there are almost 20,000 students in the program, and the state has had to continually increase the cap on participation, and now they're talking about just eliminating the cap.
There's also a county outside of Denver that's pushing to have a voucher program. The idea is still spreading, and many places are thinking of expanding their programs.
How many states or students are using voucher programs?
About 10 states have statewide programs now, including Indiana and Florida, and several of these are just for special needs students. About a dozen other states, including Illinois, have tuition tax credits, which some call "neo vouchers," which allow parents to deduct expenses associated with private schooling. I think that's where you're likely to see the most expansion because they create less of a controversy about the separation of church and state.
There also are about a dozen or so cities that have privately funded voucher programs.
Are public schools adversely affected financially when students are sent elsewhere?
It really depends on how the program is structured. In charter school programs, where schools are set up to create competition, money is definitely taken away from public school districts to fund the vouchers, and that's seen as a way of forcing the school districts to improve instruction.
Most voucher programs are about creating an extra option for families, and oftentimes they are funded with state money, so they don't necessarily draw funding away from the school districts immediately.
Many kids that are accepting vouchers are in private schools, not publics, already. Cleveland found that many of the students who accepted vouchers had never gone to public schools, meaning those vouchers are shifting the costs to taxpayers.
Many of the academics who've researched using lottery systems to award vouchers found that people who got a voucher were demographically comparable to people who didn't receive vouchers. However, the people who apply for vouchers tend to be more advantaged and more motivated than those who don't apply, and they value education more.
Right now I'm researching how policymakers make decisions on these types of programs, and I think there needs to be more attention to that. Certainly there's a movement to expand these types of programs, and policymakers are moving ahead with them without much attention to what the research shows about them.