Two University of Kentucky researchers are working with faculty at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Washington-Bothell to uncover how school voucher programs — and more broadly, school choice — impact long-term student outcomes, such as high school graduation rates and college enrollment.
The team has received a $540,356 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The University of Notre Dame’s Mark Berends serves as principal investigator on the grant, with UK College of Education Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation Assistant Professor Joseph Waddington and UK’s Martin School of Public Policy and Administration Professor and Director Ron Zimmer serving as co-investigators. An additional co-investigator, Joseph Ferrare, is a former UK College of Education faculty member who is now an assistant professor at the University of Washington-Bothell. The grant provides $219,298, via a subcontract from Notre Dame, to support the work of the research team at UK.
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 Choice Scholarship Program is the nation’s most expansive, providing vouchers to more than 36,000 low and modest-income families.
Notre Dame’s Center for Research on Educational Opportunity, part of the school’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, entered into a historic partnership with the Indiana Department of Education in 2012 to conduct independent, empirical research projects that inform K-12 academic and policy discussions in Indiana and across the nation.
“Indiana is a perfect setting for investigating school choice issues,” Waddington said. “There’s a robust charter school policy and it has the largest statewide school voucher program. And, behind all of that, is outstanding administrative data on students and schools, allowing researchers to follow individuals over time and look at the impacts of these different types of programs. We have the same data for public school, charter school, and private school students so we can make apples to apples comparisons, as all Indiana students are assessed on the same types of outcomes.”
In 2018, Waddington and Berends published research in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, a top public-policy journal, examining the performance of more than 3,000 low-income third- through eighth-grade students in Indiana who used a voucher to transfer from a public school to a private school. The research garnered national news coverage from National Public Radio, The Washington Post, Education Week, National Review, Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star and other outlets.
The team is now looking beyond test scores and diving into topics that have not been examined as thoroughly, comparatively.
“Indiana represents an exciting opportunity to do really important research as it collects long-term data on a host of outcomes not typically examined in evaluating schools,” Zimmer said. “This data will allow us to make comparisons across public, charter, and private schools on outcomes with important lifetime consequences. For instance, we will compare high school graduation rates among low-income students and middle-income students in charter, public, and private schools.”
The researchers will also delve into the college going rates among students at different types of public and private schools.
“Although a host of studies have examined the impact of charter schools and voucher programs at the elementary and middle school levels, few have looked at the longer-term outcomes for students in high school and beyond,” said Berends.