School vouchers are on the table in Texas. But do they help students succeed?

·11 min read
Eric Gay / AP

Supporters of a proposed program that would allow Texas families to use public money to pay for private school tuition say that it would offer another option to students who are zoned into struggling public schools.

But research into school vouchers and voucher-like programs in other states suggests their benefits are far from clear. Studies looking at the effects of voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana have shown moderate to large declines in academic achievement among students who accepted vouchers, particularly in math. In many cases, those academic declines last for years.

Texas bill would give families money for private school tuition

The Texas bill, introduced earlier this month by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would give families who pull their children out of public schools up to $8,000 in public money to use toward private school tuition. The bill, which is Senate Bill 8, would also protect districts with fewer than 20,000 students from cuts to state revenue associated with enrollment declines. But bigger districts, including the Fort Worth, Keller and Northwest school districts, wouldn’t be shielded from those cuts.

Creighton’s bill would also bar districts from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation with students, and require that they notify parents of any changes in their child’s emotional, behavioral or physical health.

In a statement, Creighton, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the bill “has the potential to serve more students than any other school choice program in the nation,” empowering parents to make the best decisions regarding their children’s education. Giving parents the power to choose the best school for their children would foster innovation and competition in education, ultimately benefiting the entire state, Creighton argued.

“This package of legislation addresses the many pressing concerns of parents, educators, employers and students throughout the state,” Creighton said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to advance this legislation, and welcome input from every corner of the state as we chart a path forward for Texas education.”

A companion bill, Senate Bill 9, would give across-the-board pay raises to teachers in the state, although the amount is unspecified. It would also create and fund the Texas Teacher Residency Partnership Program, which would create field-based residency experiences for teaching candidates, similar to those that medical professionals go through before they’re licensed. A bill in the Texas House, authored by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, includes a similar proposal.

Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick back school voucher-like plan

Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have made voucher-like programs a priority for the current legislative session. In Abbott’s State of the State address in February, he called for education savings accounts to be made available to every family in Texas, saying it could be a way for families to push back against “woke agendas” and “indoctrination” in their local school districts.

Abbott has said frequently that public schools wouldn’t see their funding reduced due to a voucher-like plan. But in audio secretly recorded and published online last month, a high-ranking official with the Texas Education Agency can be heard acknowledging that districts could expect to see funding cuts if such a policy passed.

In the audio, TEA Deputy Commissioner Steve Lecholop speaks by phone with an unidentified mother who transferred her child from the Joshua Independent School District to a parochial school. When the mother expresses reservations about how a universal voucher program would affect other students, Lecholop downplays the negative impacts, but acknowledges that voucher programs lead to public school enrollment declines, forcing districts to make tough staffing decisions.

“So school districts, what they have to do is… if they lose students, be smart about how they allocate their resources,” he says. “Maybe that’s one less fourth-grade teacher.”

Indiana voucher program led to academic declines

In 2018, researchers from the University of Kentucky and Notre Dame University looked at the initial rollout of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, the largest school voucher program in the country. In that study, researchers found that students who accepted vouchers lost ground in math, and that those losses persisted for years afterward. In English, the program showed no clear effects.

“Although school vouchers aim to provide greater educational opportunities for students, the goal of improving the academic performance of low-income students who use a voucher to move to a private school has not yet been realized in Indiana,” researchers wrote.

When Indiana introduced its program in 2011, vouchers were only available to students who came from low-income families and had been enrolled in public schools the previous year. A large percentage of the students who accepted vouchers at the beginning of the program struggled academically in public schools, said Joe Waddington, a professor in the University of Kentucky’s College of Education. Waddington was one of two researchers who conducted the study.

When those students moved into private schools, where expectations were higher and the curriculum was more rigorous than anything they’d seen before, many struggled to keep up, he said. In conversations with teachers, principals, parents and students at 12 private schools across Indiana, researchers learned that the first year was particularly challenging for voucher students, in part because of the volume of homework they were expected to complete each day.

Researchers also learned that it mattered which private school students transferred into, Waddington said. In conversations with students and parents, they found that students who transferred to a private school that was in an urban setting and had students from a range of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds generally had an easier time adapting to their new schools, he said. Those students felt welcomed immediately, and teachers at those schools already knew how to work with students from a range of backgrounds. But those who transferred into private schools in suburban settings where students were more uniformly white and affluent had a harder time adjusting to the change, he said.

Declines among school voucher students were worst in math

Researchers noticed the effects were more pronounced in math than in reading. Waddington said that could be because of the sequential nature of math instruction: Each mathematical skill students learn in class builds on all of the skills that came before it. So if a student comes into a class without the same prerequisite knowledge as their classmates, it can be difficult for them to catch up.

A previous version of the same study showed that those declines began to reverse themselves if students remained in private schools for four years. But in the 2018 paper, researchers found that even after four years, students who accepted vouchers posted consistently lower scores in math than those who stayed in public schools. In English, students who accepted a voucher didn’t do meaningfully better or worse than their public school peers, according to the study. Waddington said those long-term results are highly variable because of the large number of students who left the voucher program and transferred back into public schools before the four-year mark.

Those findings mirror a similar study released in 2019 by researchers at the University of Arkansas who looked at Louisiana’s school voucher program, which was piloted in 2008 and expanded statewide in 2012.

As with the Indiana study, the Arkansas researchers found that performance declined among Louisiana students who accepted vouchers, particularly in math. In a previous version of the same study, researchers found that those students’ performance tended to rebound after four years. But in the 2019 study, researchers found “large negative impacts” that continued beyond the four-year mark, particularly in math.

Arizona vouchers go mainly to private school students

Texas’ education savings account proposal bears some similarities to a program implemented in Arizona last year. Arizona has subsidized private school tuition in the form of education savings accounts for certain students, including those enrolled in low-rated schools, students with disabilities and children in foster care, for more than a decade. But last year, the state began offering those scholarships to any student who applied.

In a policy paper released in November, researchers at the Grand Canyon Institute, a self-described centrist think tank based in Phoenix, wrote that Arizona’s newly expanded program largely benefited wealthier families. Researchers found that 45% of those who applied for scholarships under the new universal education savings account program were among the wealthiest quarter of students in the state. They also determined that 80% of the students who applied under the new program weren’t enrolled in public schools, meaning they were either just entering school, were homeschooled or were enrolled in private schools. That means the state would end up subsidizing tuition for large numbers of students who were already enrolled in private schools.

In its current form, Creighton’s bill appears to address some of those concerns: Only students who were enrolled in public schools the previous year or are enrolling in pre-K or kindergarten for the first time would be eligible for that money, meaning it couldn’t go to homeschool families or children who are already enrolled in private schools.

Dave Wells, research director for the institute, said that requirements would deter the “wide-open use” of the policy that Arizona has seen since it rolled out its new education savings account plan. Theoretically, parents whose kids are already in private schools could move them to public schools for a year, then apply for state money to put them back in private schools, he said, but that would cause a level of disruption to the child’s education that he thinks most parents would want to avoid.

But Wells said there are still problems with the policy that the enrollment requirement wouldn’t solve. Private schools generally aren’t accountable for their use of taxpayer money in the same way that public schools are, he said. Unlike traditional school districts and public charter schools, private schools generally aren’t subject to oversight regarding what they teach and how well they teach it, he said. They’re also allowed to discriminate based on the sexual orientation of a student’s parents, he said.

Voucher opponents worry about future expansion

Bob Popinski, senior director of policy for the education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas, said he isn’t convinced that the voucher program wouldn’t eventually be opened up to students who were home-schooled or already enrolled in private schools. He pointed to Florida, where lawmakers are in the process of clearing away income-based restrictions designed to ensure that school vouchers don’t go to students from the wealthiest families in the state. Under Florida’s proposed expansion, low-income families would still receive priority for school vouchers.

Popinski said there are better ways of ensuring that students who are zoned into struggling schools have another option. He argued that the state should instead make sure local school districts have the funding and ability to create innovative programs like magnet schools, schools of choice and career and technical education programs. Although he has concerns about funding and transparency in charter schools, Popinski said those campuses are also a part of the state’s public school system, and can give families an alternative when their local school district isn’t a good fit.

Popinski said those programs are better options because they give students alternatives to the schools their families are zoned into, while still allowing for public oversight into how those schools are run.

Voucher backers have momentum after COVID school shutdowns

As state legislatures across the country take up measures expanding school voucher programs, supporters say they have the momentum. During a panel discussion on education savings accounts held Thursday by the Texas Tribune, Randan Steinhauser, national school choice director for Young Americans for Liberty, said her organization has been advocating for private school choice for years, but their message only began to gain traction after the pandemic.

When COVID-19 reached Texas and schools shut down their buildings and switched to online learning, parents became involved in their children’s education in a way they never had been before, Steinhauser said. Many were surprised at what their children were learning, or, in some cases, not learning at school, she said.

Steinhauser pointed to a range of issues that have cropped up schools since shutdowns ended, including conflicts over school mask mandates, an increasing number of fights and other disruptions at schools and a decline in student mental health. In light of all those issues, parents want greater power to make decisions about their children’s education, she said, including whether it happens in a public school, a private school or some other option.

Senate Bill 8 is assigned to the Senate Education Committee. A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.