Wednesday, January 31, 2007

School Choices VII: Implementation and Outcomes

One report issued by the General Accounting Office in August of 2001 reviewed Cleveland and Milwaukee's voucher programs. It found that "the contracted evaluations of voucher students' academic achievement in Cleveland and Milwaukee found little or no difference in voucher and public school students' performance..." but warned that "none of the findings can be considered definitive..." because of methodological differences in different studies. They did warn that funding for evaluations was dangerously low, noting: "For example, Wisconsin has not funded voucher student academic achievement evaluations since 1995, thereby losing data on program performance during the years when the program had grown the most."

This study built upon the work of previous research, such as that undertaken by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which found that Minnesota students who exercised their "choice" improved from the 30th to 34th percentile in reading tests but fell from 33rd to 30th in mathematical examinations. It also noted that enhanced student attainment in choice programs was affected more by experimental programs funded lavishly by federal tax dollars, which many schools did not receive. (Harlow G., "School Choice," Encyclopedia of American Education, Second Edition, Vol. 3, page 935.)

One of the conflicting budgetary issues that often complicate education is whether to spend more money on reducing class sizes or provide for school choice and vouchers. Alex Molnar's 1999 study sheds light on which issue should take precedence. He detailed the positive effects of smaller class sizes and then noted some serious difficulties in evaluating small-scale voucher programs:

The problem with research on small-scale voucher experiments, however, is not only the lack of clear performance effects. More fundamentally, the problem is that such small-scale programs—no matter how crystal clear their achievement consequences—can tell us little about larger-scale programs. Voucher evaluations are less informative than class-size research because "vouchers" do not represent a specific educational reform. If a voucher program generates positive effects, the research does not generally look inside the schools to ask what explains the success. It simply assumes that private is better.

A second reason that voucher research tells education policymakers little relates to the issue of scale. As research on private schools shows, some private schools appear to raise achievement through "peer effects"—by placing low-income students with other students from more privileged families who place a high priority on education. (Elite private schools also tend to spend large amounts of money per student and to have smaller classes.) But in a large-scale voucher program, peer effects could be quite different than in a small-scale program. This may help explain why new schools that enroll voucher students in Cleveland perform less well than public schools while established private schools perform better than public schools.

For these reasons, the only way to find out the impact of a large-scale voucher program is to implement one. However, there is no strong evidence that this would improve achievement. In addition, such a large-scale program would likely raise spending on students who already attend private schools and reduce educational spending on children currently in public school.'' (Download paper from Keystone Research Center with free registration required.)

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