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The truth about that NYT school voucher hit piece

By  |  February 24, 2017, 05:09pm  |  @AReasoningFaith

By now many of you have seen or at least heard about the hit piece on school vouchers published in the New York Times yesterday. The headline Dismal Voucher Results Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins pretty much tells you all you need to know – that writer Kevin Carey’s intent is to malign Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over her support of voucher programs.

Carey’s story paints an ugly picture – that three recent studies show that not only are voucher programs not helpful, they’re actually harmful to student achievement. In fact, researchers are quoted as calling the results “the worst in the history of the field”. OUCH!

After leading with such a harsh uppercut, Carey waits until the 8th paragraph of the story – after all but the most discerning readers have moved on – to supply any details. That in itself is a huge red flag.

First Carey quotes a 2015 Indiana study – for which he fails to provide any links, titles, names, or other identifying information – that he purports showed “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement” in math, and “saw no improvement in reading.”

The study in question comes from the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, which reported that “Because white children as a percentage of voucher recipients in the  2014-2015 school year exceed the next largest racial group by more than 44 percent points, Indiana’s voucher program will likely lead to increased racial stratification within Indiana’s K-12 public schools.” That’s an interesting proposition, but there is a HUGE statistical fact that gets in the way …

The white population in Indiana exceeds that of the next largest racial group by 75 percentage points (84% to 9%). So while they attempt to show white students gain some kind of preferential treatment in a voucher program, the CTBA is actually admitting that on a per capita basis, minority students are more likely to receive vouchers than white students. One has to wonder if CTBA actually employs any statisticians, since such a glaring error wasn’t caught. Or perhaps it wasn’t an error; perhaps the CTBA knew the numbers they were throwing out actually disproved the point but purposely tried to mislead the public. Only they can know that for certain.

Further, this study isn’t actually a research study at all; rather, it’s basically a research paper compiling data, results, and opinion from other sources.

And to top it all off … this same “study” was debunked by the Cato Institute shortly after its release.

The second study referenced by Carey was released on Wednesday by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, “a research organization dedicated to understanding the post-Katrina school reforms in New Orleans … housed in the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University”.

In contrast to most other voucher research, the ERA study shows a negative effect of voucher participation on student achievement. “None of these prior studies have found statistically significant negative effects on achievement … The initial results of this experimental voucher evaluation differ substantially from those prior studies.”

According to this study, “students using an LSP [voucher] scholarship performed significantly worse in math after using their scholarship to attend private schools.” The study goes on to note that the drop in achievement was most notable in the first year of the program, but results rebounded in the second year to the point of approaching the margin of error.

Explanations for this difference were included among the study’s results, among them the misalignment (edu-speak for difference in the order in which topics are covered, among other things) of private school math curriculum with the state’s standardized math tests. This would explain the second-year rebound, though of course continuing research is necessary to validate that explanation. Given that the results of this study were far different than most, and that a significant improvement was realized in Year Two, it is no stretch to conclude that Louisiana voucher students will not be negatively impacted in the long term.

As a side note, this study also showed two other interesting results. First, math scores in public schools actually improved – likely (this is according to the researchers, believe it or not) due to the market pressures resulting from public schools losing thousands of students to the voucher program. Second, the program actually improved integration in the state’s schools – contrary to what the Obama Department of Justice claimed when it tried and failed to stop the program in 2013.

The final study mentioned is the most interesting because it was conducted by a voucher-friendly group and found results in Ohio that were not so friendly. However – as its researchers note in the literature – it is the least valid by design because it “did not include the very lowest-performing schools in the state”. Also, because of the way vouchers are made available in Ohio, the sample was not as random as its Louisiana counterpart. As in the Louisiana study, voucher students’ math achievement declined, while voucher-eligible students who remained in public schools improved in math. But again, this study is less valid than the others.

In conclusion, what we are left with are three studies which showed both positive and negative results for voucher programs. When considered along with the many studies which have shown distinct positive results, these three studies do not – as the New York Times suggests – provide an indictment against Betsy DeVos and other voucher proponents.

Rather, what we see is a leftist media outlet giving only one side of the story – the side that fits their anti-school choice narrative. At least the researchers – on both sides of the issue – admitted more research was needed; Kevin Carey and The New York Times were too biased to even go that far.