The Journal Gazette
Sunday, July 02, 2017 1:00 am


Evidence casts doubt on voucher education

Education researcher Christopher Lubienski isn't surprised by data showing that voucher students who transferred from Indiana public schools to private schools lost ground in math achievement, especially in the first two years. The new data also show the students made no progress in English/language arts.

“This fits in with a growing body of research, to which we've contributed, that shows that in many cases public schools actually outperform private schools ... despite what voucher advocates suggest,” he wrote in an email.

The achievement relapse in public-to-private transfers nationwide is what Lubienski, professor of education policy at Indiana University-Bloomington, describes in “The Public School Advantage,” a 2013 book he co-wrote with wife Sarah Theule Lubienski, who joins the IU School of Education faculty in August.

The latest study, by researchers Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky, looks at four years of data from Indiana's voucher program. While not yet peer-reviewed, its findings also challenge the assumption that private and parochial schools are superior to public.

“Students in private schools do often score higher. But that's not because private schools are better,” Lubienski wrote, “Those schools tend to serve more affluent students who would get higher scores no matter what type of school they attended. When we account for the fact that private schools already have more advantaged students, it turns out that public schools are actually more effective.”

Why wouldn't private schools, without the rules and bureaucracy, show more innovation?

“In theory, they should, at least according to voucher advocates, since private schools are freed from many bureaucratic regulations, and have competitive incentives to innovate. However, parents often don't want their kids to be guinea pigs for educational experimentation. Also, schools often recognize that innovation is risky in competitive environments, and instead stick with proven methods and symbols of prestige. Some of the most innovative approaches have come from professional educators in the public sector,” writes Christopher Lubienski.

In their book, the researchers suggest that private schools use their autonomy “to hang onto outdated methods and to avoid staying current on the professional practices embraced by public schools.”

The results are becoming apparent in study after study – from the Lubienskis' research, the Notre Dame review, an Institute of Education Sciences study of Washington, D.C.'s Opportunity Scholarship Program, a Northwestern University study of Ohio's voucher program and more.

As rigorous, peer-reviewed research shows public schools outperforming private, why do policymakers and the public continue to believe otherwise?

A large and well-funded lobby pushes vouchers and school choice in spite of the evidence, “or too often to obscure the evidence,” according to Christopher Lubienski.

“Should Indiana policymakers be accountable to the public for using their tax dollars on a program that's hurting children?” he asked, “Policymakers should pay attention to evidence, and not just advocacy groups!”

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