For several years right wing think tanks in the US and Australia have been pushing school vouchers. There now appears to be growing support for such a scheme in both the Coalition and certain sections of the Labor Party. But while advocates make bold statements about the virtues of voucher schemes, the evidence suggests these would do little to improve overall academic outcomes and could even lower standards in disadvantaged schools.
Under a voucher scheme, government funding would be provided on a per student basis to the school of parents’ choice, whether public or private. The amount given to each student could be the same (flat-rate vouchers) or could vary (differentiated vouchers). Vouchers could also be confined to particular students (targeted vouchers).
Although there are differences of opinion, most advocates want a universal scheme to replace all federal and state funding mechanisms with either a flat-rate or a differentiated voucher.
The theory is that by promoting competition between schools and giving them greater autonomy, vouchers will improve teaching standards and academic outcomes. Vouchers may also provide parents with more choice, leading to greater parental satisfaction and involvement in education.
The theory is attractive, but the evidence indicates that in practice the education benefits do not materialise. The only clear benefit is greater parental choice, yet this may extend to middle and high income earners alone.
Jennifer Buckingham, from the right wing Centre for Independent Studies, claims these findings are astounding and that it is difficult “not to be persuaded” by the evidence on vouchers. It is fair to say that the most fervent advocates tend to look only at evidence that supports their position. Pro-voucher campaigns throughout the world have followed a predictable format: denigrate public schools, blame the apparent flaws on unions and bureaucrats, and then selectively use evidence to support the introduction of vouchers. Australia’s advocates have stuck to the script.
Buckingham and others rely heavily on a small collection of studies on targeted voucher schemes in the US that found minor improvements in academic outcomes for disadvantaged students who were given vouchers to attend private schools.
The problem with many of these studies is that they were prepared by devout voucher supporters using questionable research techniques.
For example, Buckingham cites work by “prolific education researcher” Jay Greene to support her case. Yet Greene’s study of a Milwaukee program was described by the lead author of the official research on the initiative as “a confused, tortured effort to try to find any evidence that students enrolled in private schools … do better than any students in the Milwaukee Public Schools”.
Similarly, the United States General Accounting Office excluded research by Greene and other pro-voucher supporters on a Cleveland program from its analysis of voucher effects because the studies failed to meet the Office’s research standards.
Even if these studies are accepted at face value, an objective evaluation of all the available evidence (rather than selected snippets that suit certain agendas) indicates the US voucher schemes have not produced significant improvements in academic outcomes.
These findings are backed by evidence from Chile, which has had a universal voucher scheme since the early 1980s. While there has been some variation in the research results, any fair reading of the evidence indicates that the scheme has not significantly increased average academic outcomes and may have contributed to greater educational inequality.
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