Passing a school voucher or an “education savings account” has been one of the top priorities for Governor Greg Abbott and other top Texas Republicans. The idea is fairly unpopular in Texas, especially with rural Republicans. They fear that the flood of taxpayer money to mostly urban and suburban religious private schools will ultimately impact the funding of rural public schools, which are often the lifeblood of the community.
In selling school vouchers, Abbott and supporters have relied on a handful of studies showing positive effects from other states. There are indeed several studies that indicate a voucher system may moderately benefit students. However, looking at the subject as a whole gives a bigger picture than the scant few examples used by Abbott and allies.
Joshua Cowen, Professor of Education Policy in the College of Education at Michigan State University, is one of the nation’s top experts on school vouchers. He has written multiple articles for the Brookings Institute on the subject. In a September 2022 one, he laid out three reasons why there is this conflict between positive results and negative ones in studies across various systems.
1. Without looking at the full picture, we can’t see that the negatives far outweigh the positive. In statistical analyses of the different outcomes and measurements, the negative effects tend to be far more pronounced and the positive ones more moderate. It doesn’t help that the ones showing positive effects usually involve smaller sample sizes since they tend to be city-based rather than state. When the sample size is small, abnormalities tend to be more pronounced. Another factor is that since the schools studied in, say, Milwaukee, were Catholic high schools that fed into Catholic university, positive trends in college performance might have more to do with being part of the religious community rather than the educational benefits of vouchers.
2. The data is very, very scattered. There are almost no studies that look at the same grade cohorts in one area compared to another. Cowen calls the “apples to outcomes,” and it makes measuring how states and cities do against each other difficult. A unified measure with standardized groups is required to truly answer the question of how vouchers impact students. Again, though, the prevalence of profound negative outcomes shining through the data, muddled though it be, is indicative of more statistical significance.
3. Lastly, not all private schools are graded equal. A recurring complaint among opponents of vouchers is that private schools have insufficient controls for quality. Such schools simply don’t have to adhere to the same standards when it comes to graduation. A private school worried about how it may look in measurements can simply lower the requirements to graduate and improve its standing. This is why using standardized tests, flawed as they are, is necessary to study the subject.
Texas Republicans have a small group of positive outcomes from other states who have passed vouchers that they can claim show the idea is good. What they do not have is a scientific consensus on the subject because there really isn’t one yet. Certainly, nothing has been done to study what would happen in a state as large and diverse as Texas.
If Republicans want to pass vouchers out of an honest desire to see student’s improve, it will require the creation of a measurement protocol that compares performance as perfectly as possible to public schools. Such a meter would need to account for economic backgrounds, the performance of the local public schools, and have strict controls on private schools to keep them from fudging numbers. Without that, it’s a policy built purely on gut feelings, not science.