I work in a charter school, and unlike a teacher in a traditional district school, the students I see every day are not sent to our school based on their street address. Some live down the street and some drive 30 minutes both directions. We have students that come from both private and public school backgrounds. Regardless of where they come from, our parents make the choice to send their students to our school because they believe we will provide them with a high quality education.
School choice is about giving parents the opportunity to select the best education for their children from a variety of options. But choice itself isn’t enough. To truly be worth of public investment, school choice programs should also improve academic outcomes for the target population. When the evidence suggests that a particular approach doesn’t improve academic outcomes we need to think very carefully before adopting it.
With this goal in mind, Tennesseans need to critically examine the merits of another school choice approach, school vouchers. Funded by the government, vouchers provide a fixed amount of money to families that can be applied towards tuition at a private school. Voucher programs typically target low income students and their families with the promise of an alternative to their traditional neighborhood school. Currently nine states and the District of Columbia offer some type of voucher program, some of which have existed for over two decades.
A push for vouchers in Tennessee failed last year, but all evidence suggests that pro-voucher organizations are gearing up for another effort to enact a voucher program here in Tennessee. The Walton Foundation recently donated $6 million to the Alliance for School Choice which operates in Tennessee and strongly advocates for voucher programs. School Choice NOW, a pro voucher group, continues to make its way around the state, stopping at locations such as Hendersonville and Hamilton County to promote its plan. All this suggests that a voucher program is all but certain to be proposed when the Tennessee General Assembly returns to work on January 14th.
But what does the evidence say about the impact of vouchers on student outcomes? To date we’ve seen little to no positive demonstrated impact on student achievement from these programs. In 2010, the Center on Education Policy reviewed 10 years of voucher research and action and found that vouchers had no strong effect on student achievement. The most positive results come from Milwaukee County’s voucher program, but the effects were small and limited to only a few grades.
Voucher programs also struggle to achieve their mission of providing low-income students with a way out of failing schools. For example a critical study of the Milwaukee program found that it overwhelmingly helped those already receiving education through private means. Two thirds of Milwaukee students using the voucher program in the city already attended private schools. Instead of increasing mobility for low-income students, the program primarily served to perpetuate status quo.
Voucher programs have also caused to students inadvertently attending failing schools, thereby maintaining the very problem they are meant to solve. It’s often difficult to determine the quality of the schools serving voucher students because private schools are not required to make public the same amount of student data as public schools. An example of this occurring can be found right next door in Louisiana where approximately 2250 students were recently found to be attending failing schools through the state’s voucher program.
I’m a proponent of school choice as long as it is effective at improving student achievement. I’ve seen the impact these policies can have on students when they are effective through my work in a charter school. But I question school choice policies that have not demonstrated positive impacts on student outcomes. When a program hasn’t been demonstrated to achieve it’s goals of raising student achievement or giving low-income students a way out of failing schools, I personally believe we can should spend our resources elsewhere. But don’t just take my word for it. I encourage everyone with a vested interest in public education in Tennessee to take the time to read up on vouchers and let your legislators know where you stand!
By Jon Alfuth