Education Greg Gianforte Montana Politics Steve Daines

A Brief Note on School Vouchers: They’re Terrible Public Policy

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I don’t know if I have ever really explained what I do for my summer job here. Each year, the nation’s high school policy debaters debate a single resolution about a broad area of federal policy and I spend the summer researching the topic to provide briefs to help high school students begin their process of understanding the topic. In the course of that research, I typically read 30-40 books, hundreds of law review and journal articles, and thousands of news and magazine pieces, scouring them all for the best evidence. The topic this year is one I am more familiar with than most years:

Resolved:   The United States federal government should substantially increase its funding and/or regulation of elementary and/or secondary education in the United States.

Given that topic, I’ve spent today researching voucher programs for schools and the evidence could not be more clear: they are terribly ineffective and Montanans would do well to continue to reject them.

Every year, the Republicans in the Legislature, ignoring limits of geography, the guidelines of our state constitution, and education research push for programs that will divert state tax money into private schools. Their last candidate for governor and our current, violent Congressman, Greg Gianforte, has spent millions promoting the school voucher agenda, presumably in part because he wants to use state money to pay for his school that discriminates against students with disabilities.

The evidence is remarkably clear. Vouchers lead to terrible results, results unlike any other attempted education reform. From the New York Times:

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.
This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

Even those who defend voucher programs concede the negative results but counter that kids who stay in the private schools for four years sometimes catch up. The catch, of course, is that most kids don’t stay that long.

Vouchers are bad policy, not just because they represent an effort to mandate public funding for religious instruction, are vehicles for segregation, and lead to discrimination against LGBTQ kids.

So while Senator Daines votes for a Secretary of Education who wants to aggressively expand vouchers, Republican legislators call for taking funding from public schools to pay for them, and the Republican Party platform in Montana calls for developing them, it’s important to ask a rather basic question: why should free market, anti-government ideology matter more than evidence and the education of our kids?

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it’s a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

2 Comments

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  • I think it is more than coincidental that advocacy for school vouchers began soon after Brown v. Board of Education. I have also noted that the most vocal support comes from parents who have the means to exercise school choice without public support.

    Having said that, I would be willing to seriously consider school vouchers, provided that the voucher program included three essential provisions: 1) Vouchers are only valid for use in accredited schools; 2) Vouchers are only valid in schools with an open/non-discrimination policy; 3) Vouchers are issued on a sliding scale means test, such that all parents who choose to enroll their children are able to pay for the tuition, while those who do not need help don’t get it.

    For some reason, I don’t think those caveats would be acceptable to advocates for school vouchers.

  • The research on the racist roots of the voucher movement is powerful. They were, of course, most often implemented in Southern cities under desegregation orders.

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