Yes, Vouchers DO Improve Student Learning

The Philadelphia Inquirer today reports on a “study”—from a group dedicated to protecting the educational status quo and led by a partisan staffer—that claims that school vouchers have “no clear, positive impact on student academic achievement.” But the study takes the fact that academic gains by voucher student have not been dramatic to use weasel words like “no clear…impact.”

The positive impact of vouchers is quite clear. In nearly every study comparing voucher students to public school students seeking a voucher, but missing out in a lottery for limited number of scholarships, all or a sub-category of vouchers students learned more. In no case did voucher students do worse.

What is amazing is that voucher students did better for a fraction of the cost to taxpayers. In every case, voucher amounts are substantially less than spending per student in public schools. A proposed voucher bill in Pennsylvania, for example, would provide scholarships of around $5,100 on average—about one-third of the $14,000 spent per student in public schools.

To repeat: voucher students do better with less money.

But the evidence on vouchers goes beyond test scores. Voucher programs improve graduation rates in places like Washington and Milwaukee, have higher parental satisfaction rates and reduce segregation. This is why parents in places with school choice want more of it.

Moreover, voucher programs improve public schools by injecting competition. Again, nearly every study shows that implementing voucher programs increases public school performance in states or cities. This evidence is mirrored by the success of school choice programs internationally.

If you wonder why public schools will improve from vouchers, there are two reasons. One is that students who want to leave do so, reducing class size and freeing up more money to spend on those who remain (remember: voucher students cost less). The second is that schools respond to compete for students. Well-intentioned education reformers point to other ways to improve student learning, but until lawmakers change the incentives, there is no reason for a monopoly to improve its performance.