School Voucher Program Gets a Failing Grade in Louisiana

Many advocates of school choice rightly point out that students from wealthy families already have school choice because wealthy families have more options when selecting where to live and where to educate their children. Implementing school choice for all other students, advocates argue, levels the playing field and gives students from poorer families the opportunity to succeed.

A new working paper out this week raises some doubts about this argument. In a study of a Louisiana program providing children of low-income families vouchers to attend participating private schools, researchers found that attending one of those schools negatively affected students’ academic performances.

The program targets students from families with income below 250 percent of the poverty line because these students face the greatest barriers to scholastic success. Conveniently for researchers and anyone else interested in meaningful data on education reforms, the vouchers were handed out based on a random lottery. This allows us to look at how students eligible for the program performed when they received the vouchers and when they didn’t, with no other meaningful difference between the two groups.

The results of this natural experiment are not encouraging. According to the researchers, the students who attended private schools through the voucher system had math scores that were 0.41 standard deviations lower than their public school peers. Reading, science and social studies scores were also lower.

Younger students appeared to suffer a greater academic shortfall than older students. Overall, students who received vouchers were 50 percent more likely to receive failing marks. Those who thought they had “won” the lottery by getting to attend private schools found themselves with the worse deal.

This is particularly disappointing, because the students who received vouchers mostly came from low-performing school districts. This means that we can’t attribute the difference in performance simply to excellent public schools.

But the researchers did find that private schools that accepted vouchers were more likely to have declining enrollment relative to private schools not accepting vouchers. This suggests that underperforming private schools, which are therefore more likely to struggle retaining students, are those that are most likely to participate in the program. This would explain why the program failed in its goal to improve student achievement: only low quality private schools decided to participate.

Some observers have alternate explanations for the program’s apparent failure. Jason Russell at the Washington Examiner suggests that we should be skeptical of these results because they only examine the students’ first year in the program. It’s possible that the learning losses could be recouped in subsequent years. But given the way academic knowledge is cumulatively built upon, this is hardly the most likely outcome.

Is it possible that too many regulations discouraged the best private schools from participating in the program? Yes, though the regulations are also designed to keep poor schools out, so it’s far from certain that lowering barriers to entry would improve outcomes.

Race and class may play an important role. Schools with larger white populations were less likely to participate in the voucher program than school with large black students. It’s possible that regardless of the level of regulation, many of these schools might decline to receive vouchers to avoid racial and class integration.

Though charter schools also face their own fair share of critics, they may offer a more promising form of school choice. Unlike private schools in the Louisiana voucher program, charter schools are not able to opt out of accepting public school students. And a recent study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that many urban charter schools appear to provide substantial educational gains compared to comparable public schools.

We shouldn’t take the study on the Louisiana vouchers as the final word on this kind of program. But caution about school choice is warranted, and anyone seeking to include private schools in a school choice scheme should be particularly mindful of this potential roadblock.

Photo Credit: Isabelle Acatauassu Alves Almeida


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Doris F.
Doris F3 years ago


D.E.A. C.
D.E.A. C3 years ago

The problem is structural and not simple, so simple solutions don't work.

Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

Vouchers for schools are like food stamps- you can eat but not well.

Karl S.
Karl S3 years ago

Anne Moran,
Take the number that is considered to be "poverty" say $15,000. Then multiply that by 2.5. This gives you $37,500. That number is 250% of the poverty line and is the number one must be lower than to qualify.

Sharon S.
Sharon S3 years ago

Nothing new, similiar dilemna in most Western countries.

Billie Sue B.
Billie Sue B3 years ago

Graduate from a state college or join the elite from a Name Brand University. Don't kid yourself, the door to the 1% is closed and poor kids are labeled.

Anne Moran
Anne M3 years ago

See,, it did a real 'number on my brain',, that I couldn't even spell correctly - should be 'it boggles my MIND... [heh,heh,heh...]

Anne Moran
Anne M3 years ago

How low can you go ?? - 250% would put them in their graves - Sorry but this just boggles my kind !!

Anne Moran
Anne M3 years ago

''Targets families with income below 250% of the poverty line'' ??????????????????

What,, it's not bad enough that people live below the poverty line,, that they now have to be 250% below the poverty line ?? - What kind of nonsense is that ?? I have never heard of such a thing as 250% 'below' the poverty line.. That would make them be naked and out on the street... 250% ????????