Study: Research on Voucher Programs Shows Extensive Benefits

Published April 21, 2011

A new study by the Foundation for Educational Choice reiterates earlier findings that vouchers or “opportunity scholarships” are a “win-win” for students and taxpayers.

Foundation Senior Fellow Greg Forster’s new report examines 19 studies of school voucher programs across the United States. The report, said Forster, “collects the results of all available empirical studies using the best available scientific methods.” For each study, the report looked at whether voucher programs had a positive, negative, or no noticeable impact on surrounding public schools. Forster also focused on research showing whether vouchers affect the students who use them.

Eighteen of the studies found vouchers improve public schools, while just one study showed no impact.

The meta-study, titled “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers,” updates a paper Forster published in 2009 through the Indianapolis-based public policy group. Forster’s original study examined the effect vouchers have on public schools and their students, while the updated study included data showing the effects on academic performance of voucher recipients.

Social Science ‘Gold Standard’
According to Forster, 10 of the studies focused on the effect of vouchers on participants using random assignment—a method long recognized as the “gold standard” of social science. Nine of these found vouchers improve outcomes for some or all students participating.

The one odd study looked at schools in Washington, DC, where the voucher system was specifically designed to prevent public schools from competition.

“Even the exception proves the rule that it is competition from vouchers that causes schools to improve where you have voucher programs present,” noted Forster.

No study showed vouchers had a negative impact on either the students who use them or the public schools affected by voucher programs, Forster said.

Study May Have Ripple Effect
Jay P. Greene, chairman of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, says Forster’s findings affirm the empirical evidence for voucher programs and may help open the door for other forms of school choice.

“The strong endorsement of charter schools by the Obama administration and others may partially be in response to the growing strength of the case for school choice. Vouchers and tax credits have made the world safe for charters,” he said.

“Since choice has generally been shown to be beneficial, I’m inclined to think more choice is beneficial, whether it is charters, vouchers, or tax credit scholarships,” Greene explained. Although charter schools offer limited choice, Greene said, in some cases charters may be a more sensible political option.

‘Limited Growth Potential’
Shortly after Forster’s study was released, however, Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews responded with skepticism at his “Class Struggle” blog.

“I think such programs have limited growth potential because there are never going to be nearly enough empty spaces in private schools to help all the students who need them,” Mathews wrote.

Forster fired back at Mathews in a blog post of his own and in an interview with School Reform News.

“The existing voucher programs are too limited to provide the kind of education market that would really develop better schools on the kind of radically better level that we need,” Forster said.

“Phasing in [a voucher] program gradually makes it less attractive for educational entrepreneurs to move in,” he added. “If you just implemented a universal voucher overnight, I suspect you’d see an explosion of entrepreneurial activity and progress would be rapid.”

Increasing the scope of voucher programs would spur innovation, he said.

“There is a lot of work that will need to be done by educational entrepreneurs once we get school choice to provide a basis of support,” Forster said. “A century of moribund education isn’t going to be undone in a day. Inventing the 21st century-school is a big job. That said, entrepreneurs are famous for getting big jobs done quickly as long as they have the support they need.”

‘On Like Donkey Kong’
Forster says he is confident enough in his data, and in the political importance of education reform, that he does expect real, though less dramatic change. He has even made a wager with Matthews on the expansion of voucher programs over the next year. The loser will buy the winner dinner in Washington, DC or Milwaukee. Forster says he needs seven enactments in 2011 to win.

“It’s on like Donkey Kong,” Forster said with a laugh.

Ashley Trim ([email protected]) writes from Los Angeles, California.

Internet Info:
Greg Forster, Ph.D. “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers” (Foundation for Educational Choice, 2011)