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The New York Times didn’t need President Donald Trump to speak in favor of parental choice in education in his address to Congress this week to doubt its value—though that helped. Trump has said plenty in spurts of 140-characters-or-less to provoke the Times’s editors to scrutinize (putting it mildly) the President’s agenda.
On school choice, the Gray Lady’s editorial page decided “free-market mechanisms that work well in business can be damaging when applied to the lives of schoolchildren.” Here’s where parents and state policymakers should have a closer look at the evidence.
The Times uses a recent study of Ohio’s K-12 private school vouchers as evidence school choice failed students. The publicly-funded private school scholarships in this study are available to children assigned to failing public schools—a situation that could also be damaging to students if left unchecked. Thomas B. Fordham Institute researchers found that voucher students performed worse academically than their peers in public schools.
Well-respected social scientists conducted Fordham’s study. They did their due diligence by stating that the project could not use the gold-standard research design for this project, a technique called “random assignment,” because of data constraints (all researchers have had this problem at one time or another). Random assignment studies have the benefit of avoiding some weaknesses found in other approaches.
This doesn’t discredit the results, but it calls to mind that 16 random assignment studies of other private school choice programs dating back more than a decade find positive (14 studies) or neutral (2 studies) effects on student outcomes.
If so many other studies found positive results for students using private school scholarships, what’s going on in Ohio? The authors suggest Ohio’s law has regulations getting in the way. States have different provisions in their state code and in state constitutions, necessitating different program designs. In the study’s forward, Fordham writers say, “Ohio’s private schools already face heavier regulation than those in many states.” Such regulations could interfere with student progress. Evidence here is suggestive but not conclusive, though the authors go on to say, “Policy makers should tread lightly when adding to a school’s regulatory burdens.”
Yet there are more suggestive results on this point from Louisiana’s private school scholarships. The Times also cited negative research results from these school vouchers. As Lindsey Burke from the Heritage Foundation and I wrote in National Review Online, Louisiana’s voucher law also has regulations not common in other states. Policymakers regulate everything from private school eligibility and student enrollment rules to admissions and testing requirements.
A survey of Louisiana private schools—conducted by one of the same social scientists that found negative student achievement results—found that the schools not participating in the scholarship program said “fear of future regulations” was their main reason for holding out. Forty-five percent of participating schools said existing paperwork and reporting requirements were a major concern.
Arguably, then, there are requirements for Ohio and Louisiana’s private schools that researchers point out as distinguishing features that may interfere with student success. Such regulations help explain why private school scholarship results from these two states are different from the other studies showing success.
One more note for families: The news isn’t all bad in Ohio and Louisiana.
In Louisiana, researchers found “the results [for participants] improved between the first and second years.” Test scores are trending upward. Additionally, the authors reported that the program “[improved] the racial integration in Louisiana schools.” This is a valuable finding because critics of parental choice in education argue that such choices produce the opposite result.
In Ohio, the authors found that achievement results improved for students who remained in a public school (pause here—why aren’t so-called public school advocates celebrating this finding? Odd that they wouldn’t point this out).
One study’s research findings are illuminating, but multiple studies with similar results are a trend. The school choice trend in favor of student achievement is well-established in social science literature. The studies with contrary findings suggest similar reasons for their results, the start of a trend.
Parents will need to read more than a tweet—or New York Times column—to capture these details, but it’ll be worth the effort.
Jonathan Butcher serves as Education Director for the Goldwater Institute. He has researched and testified on education policy and school choice programs around the U.S. His work has appeared in journals such as Education Next and the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, and he has appeared on local and national TV outlets, including C-SPAN and Fox News. He has also been a guest on many radio programs, and his commentary has appeared nationally in places such as Education Week, RealClearPolicy, National Journal, and Townhall.com, along with newspapers around the country.