Christopher Lubienski, a professor of educational organization and leadership, has done extensive research on various aspects of school choice, including vouchers and charter schools.
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On Nov. 6, through a ballot referendum, Utah voters said "no" to statewide legislation providing vouchers for any public school students wishing to attend private school. Christopher Lubienski, a professor of educational organization and leadership, has done extensive research on various aspects of school choice, including vouchers and charter schools. He followed the referendum campaign and participated in a forum at Brigham Young University Law School two weeks before the vote. Lubienski was interviewed by News Bureau education editor Craig Chamberlain.
This referendum had been described as a showdown on school vouchers. What do you believe was actually at stake? Why do you think it has gotten attention?
Since the Supreme Court ruled favorably on the constitutionality of vouchers in 2002, many people expected to see states rush to embrace this option, though that hasn't happened. This case was significant both because it was a universal plan, open to any public school student in the state, regardless of income, and because voters were weighing in on the issue for the first time since the Supreme Court ruling. One reason this vote attracted so much attention was the large amount of money involved in the campaign, much of it from outside groups. Most of the pro-voucher funds came from one dot-com magnate and his family, while much of the opposition was funded by national teachers unions and those in other states. However, once the dust settles, voters typically reject the idea that vouchers will improve public education, or that this is an appropriate use of public funds. This has always and repeatedly been the case. And most people in Utah are relatively happy with their local public schools.
What can be said, with any objectivity, about the research supporting vouchers? About the research questioning them?
Official evaluations of these programs, such as in Wisconsin and Ohio, showed essentially no relative gains in student achievement. A few studies by an advocacy group based at Harvard University are often used to show that vouchers raise achievement. These studies, however, credit any perceived gains to vouchers alone, while ignoring other factors known to influence achievement, such as more affluent classmates in private schools. Even in the research most supportive of vouchers, most groups have not been shown to benefit. So the results are mixed, at best. And these are small studies, sometimes involving just two or three schools.
The case for vouchers is built, in part, on the belief that private schools are better. What research supports this? And what has your own research shown?
Students in private schools score higher, on average, on standardized tests, which supports the perception that private schools are better. But we also know that private schools serve more affluent families, with students who have many characteristics associated with school success. Some researchers in the 1980s and '90s tried to account for differences in student populations, and found that private schools boosted student achievement relative to public schools. But that research was hotly disputed at the time, and it's getting somewhat dated.
Our own research (with Sarah Theule Lubienski) uses current, nationally representative data. So far, we have found that - once we account for the fact that private schools serve more advantaged students - public school students are performing at a level equal to, if not higher than, comparable students in private schools. That touched off quite a heated debate. Since then, a small but growing number of large-scale studies have produced similar findings.
In the aftermath of this defeat for vouchers, where do you believe this issue is headed?
If vouchers are to move forward in any comprehensive manner, it will most likely be through the legislatures and the courts. The few voucher programs we now have were created by lawmakers, who tend to be more ideological on this issue than the average voter. On the litigation side, advocacy groups will likely challenge state constitutions that are more explicit in prohibiting the use of public money in religious schools. And we might see more of a move by parents to sue to have their child removed from a failing public school and placed in a private school at taxpayer expense. The fact that voters have consistently rejected universal voucher programs suggests that vouchers targeted toward specific populations are more attractive politically. And, it should also be noted, the public sees inadequate funding as the bigger problem facing schools.