Sue Dynarski on the startlingly poor performance of private school vouchers

January 28, 2016

In “When winners are losers: Private school vouchers in Louisiana,” Susan Dynarski describes a newly released study of the impact of Louisiana’s private school voucher program, which provides students from low-income families and low-performing public schools with an opportunity to win a voucher to attend private school. Dynarski’s piece appears in Evidence Speaks, a weekly publication of the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families.

The lottery format—in which entrants are similar but randomly identified winners pursue one path while losers pursue another—acts like a randomized-controlled trial, the gold-standard in research, explains Dynarski. “Any differences that emerge after the lottery can therefore be attributed to the private-school attendance of the winners,” she writes.

Interestingly, Louisiana students who won the lottery and used their vouchers to attend private schools were less successful than those who lost. “The results were startling,” writes Dynarski. “The researchers, a team of economists from Berkeley, Duke, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that the scores of the lottery winners dropped precipitously in their first year of attending private school, compared to the performance of lottery losers.”

Though voucher winners fared more poorly than losers, the exact cause of their troubles is unknown, explains Dynarski. “It’s possible that the students entering private schools simply had a difficult transition year…” she writes. “It’s also possible, as the researchers speculate, that the private schools participating in the voucher program are of lower quality than other private schools in Louisiana.”

“At the very least,” writes Dynarski, “the results suggest that the participating private schools need to provide far more support for voucher students when they enter. If the voucher students continue to perform poorly, Louisiana needs to overhaul the criteria used for including schools in the voucher program—or shut down the program altogether."

Susan Dynarski is a professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, a professor of education at the University of Michigan's School of Education, and a professor of economics at the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. She is co-founder and co-director of the Ford School’s Education Policy Initiative, which engages in applied, policy-relevant research designed to improve educational achievement and outcomes.