State Views: Research shows vouchers do benefit students

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James V. Shuls & Martin F. Lueken
August 13, 2015

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. With that in mind, we respectfully disagree with the conclusions reached by Dean Julie Underwood and professor Julie Mead of the School of Education at UW-Madison, in a May 26 column on school choice and public education funding in Wisconsin.

The recently signed state budget greatly expands the statewide voucher program, which allows low-income students to attend private schools of their choosing. Prior to the budget passing, Underwood and Mead claimed “there is no research to show that any of these proposals would improve student learning.” Yet this is not so.

For example, the Wisconsin Legislature commissioned a comprehensive five-year study by researchers at the University of Arkansas. The research team matched and compared children at private schools in the choice program to similar students at Milwaukee Public Schools. The study concluded that children in Milwaukee who used vouchers were more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in four-year colleges and persist in college.

These findings are very similar to those of “gold-standard” studies done nationwide. Among 13 peer-reviewed studies on voucher programs that use research methods based on random assignment, all but one study concluded that vouchers benefit students (the other was unable to detect an impact). In addition, recent work by a Harvard economist demonstrates that giving low-income families better educational options can help improve social mobility for children.

Given how widely known these studies are in the academic community, it is more than strange that Underwood and Mead would say that “there is no evidence privatization [sic] results in better outcomes for kids.” It's also worth noting that private schools in the choice program obtain these results when the government funding for a voucher is 60 percent less than what public schools receive.

Underwood and Mead also complain that funding for public education is not increasing enough, given the “reality of rising costs” for public education and how public school spending will fall below the national average. Yet they ignore that Act 10 has allowed school districts to gain more control over their budgets. According to an analysis by the MacIver Institute, Act 10 has helped districts save $1.8 billion. Moreover, the academics did not cite any evidence that spending more will lead to a change in student outcomes. Perhaps that is because an overwhelming number of studies, including a longitudinal analysis by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, demonstrates little or no correlation between spending and student achievement.

When compared to economically developed nations, the U.S. ranks fifth in spending but lags in achievement—27th in math, 17th in reading and 20th in science. We are being left behind, and this status quo is the real “disservice to voters and the children of Wisconsin.” We should be thankful that the Legislature believes Wisconsin can do better.

James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri—St. Louis. Email him at [email protected].

Martin F. Lueken, Ph.D., is the education research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a nonprofit law firm and policy center in Milwaukee. He can be reached at [email protected] or 314-494-6692.


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