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Impacts of School Vouchers on Some Students Examined

New research from University of Kentucky College of Education Assistant Professor Joseph Waddington is shedding light on how the largest school voucher program in the nation is impacting students.

Voucher programs — and more broadly, school choice — aren’t a cure-all in the race to improve education outcomes, the findings suggest.

Waddington’s research, with co-author Mark Berends, of the University of Notre Dame, examines the performance of more than 3,000 third- through eighth-grade students in Indiana who used a voucher to transfer from a public school to a private school.

The study, currently under review at an academic journal, specifically focuses on low-income students in Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program during the 2011-12 through 2014-15 school years.

Using standardized test scores, Waddington and Berends found that, on average, the math performance of students in the voucher program declined during the first two years in private school, compared to their public-school peers.

By their fourth year in private school, voucher students caught up to their public-school counterparts in math.

“There’s a remarkable consistency with our findings and those of researchers who have recently released findings on the Louisiana and Ohio statewide voucher programs,” Waddington said. “Different programs, different private school participation, different research methods, yet similar trends in mathematics.”

However, the researchers caution in the study that fourth-year estimates are highly variable “due to the relatively small number of voucher students we observe across three and especially four years,” as a result of data limitations and a portion of voucher students who exited their private schools and returned to public schools.

In English/language arts, voucher students’ performance did not decline or improve when compared to public-school students.

“There’s so much variability in the performance of students across schools that research needs to move toward a better understanding of effective schools,” Waddington said. “We find substantial variation in the impacts across private schools. In some schools, voucher students excel, while in others, students struggle more than average. In our future work, we plan to examine this variation to better understand the schooling conditions under which choice programs are effective or not.”

School vouchers serve as state-funded scholarships given to parents to pay for some or all of their child’s private school tuition. Indiana’s program is the nation’s most expansive, providing vouchers to more than 34,000 low- and modest-income families, and has not been studied prior to Waddington’s and Berends’ work. The research garnered national news coverage this week in NPR, The Washington Post, Education Week, National Review, Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star and other outlets.

Waddington is an assistant professor in the UK College of Education’s Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation.

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