Voucher Responses from Paul Peterson and Leo Casey

July 11, 2007

Paul Peterson and Leo Casey kindly accepted my invitation to respond to my recent posts about the Washington D.C. and Florida voucher programs. Paul is one of the nation’s leading experts on vouchers (and a voucher supporter), and he offered this analysis of what the voucher research has shown so far.

I just reviewed all the literature on public and private schools, much of it excellent work published in economics and sociological journals of the first rank, though unfortunately not promoted in the media, so only a few people know about the findings.The findings are remarkable consistent across a wide range of studies.

What I found is sort of interesting: Private schools have much more beneficial effects on educational attainment (High school
graduation and college going) than on achievement, as measured by test score performance. When it comes to test scores, private schooling is more beneficial for students in middle and high school than in elementary school. It is also much more beneficial for minorities than whites.

That is to say, minorities benefit in elementary school but not as much as they benefit in middle and high school, and they benefit the most when one looks at high school graduation rates and college going rates.

I cannot endorse or challenge Paul’s claims here, as I have not read all of the studies to which he refers. But based on what I have read, I do question the idea that the results are “remarkably consistent.” My memory of the research the last time I looked at it (over a year ago) was that there were studies finding a voucher benefit and others finding no benefit (though I did not find anything showing that voucher students did worse). In any event, I am going to get the latest studies from Paul and take a look at them.

Paul’s comments also introduce a level of nuance into the research findings that is new to me. While the argument about minorities benefiting more has been out there for awhile, the idea that the effects were greater in middle and high school is new to me, as is the idea that vouchers have a greater impact on graduation rates than on test scores.

Leo Casey read my same reference to the research on vouchers, and came to the exact opposite conclusion as Paul Peterson. According to Leo,

There is a contested research, on both sides of the issue, on the effectiveness of the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, certainly two of the two largest scale experiments. On Milwaukee, for example, Witte and Rouse v. Peterson and Greene; on Cleveland, Metcalf v. Peterson. I have my own take on the value of the contending research, but I also think [the Social Studies teacher in me] it is best to let people know the contending sides of the research, so the reader can make up his or her own mind independently. A good compilation of the different research, whether or not one agrees with the particular take, is here.

One could argue that one should go further, and point out that Witte, Rouse and Metcalf were all academics chosen to do official evaluations because they did not start with an ideological commitment, one way or the other, on the question, while Peterson and Greene enter the field as advocates for vouchers, much as I would enter the field as an advocate against vouchers. A fair point to make, but one which does not change my predisposition to give the reader access to all of the research.

As I mention above, Leo’s point about the researchers not agreeing is more consistent with what I thought I was the case.

Putting to one side the historical research, and turning to the DC program first year results, Paul also makes the point, which I wholeheartedly endorse, that one year is not enough time to assess a voucher program.

Now, the DC study is for one year. It actually shows small positive impacts of the kind that one would expect at the elementary school level after one year. But those impacts barely missed being statistically significant, so they are counted as nil. I would not draw strong conclusions (as I got nil effects after one year in several of my voucher studies as well).

Finally, Paul argues that Sara Mead’s (and my) complaint about the McKay program not testing special ed kids is unwarranted, because most special ed kids in public schools are exempt from the state tests.

Sara is a careful researcher, but her complaint is that testing is not being done for special education students. But they are also largely excluded from testing in the public schools.

On this one, I think Paul is wrong, but I am going to follow up with him to understand his thinking. At Maya Angelou, for example, all of our special ed kids take the DC-CAS (some with accommodations, but they take it). And a recent report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities makes clear that since NCLB the number of kids taking the state test has increased dramatically, so the Maya experience is typical. There are state by state variations, but the vast majority of special ed kids now take the tests.


2 Responses to “Voucher Responses from Paul Peterson and Leo Casey”

  1. Larry Mishel Says:

    Readers might be interested in the voucher discussion at TPMCafe:

    Personally, the debate about whether vouchers have an effect or not is instructive in and of itself. Given the critiques of public schools made by many voucher advocates (bureaucracy, burdened by those lousy teacher unions, etc) one would think that it would easy to show very large gains for voucher students. Given that no one, including Peterson, argues that there is a large, transformative effect either on the students or through competition, means that the original critiques were wrong. So, vouchers should not be considered a strategy for making any sizable change in the lives of students in public schools.
    Larry Mishel, EPI

  2. James Says:

    Larry: I agree with you in one respect. It seems fairly clear by now that the strong rhetoric of the voucher movement–vouchers as “educational emancipation” for poor and black children–cannot be sustained by the evidence. My review of the studies convinces me of that.

    But the fact that the impacts are small does not by itself convince me that the program should not be pursued. One of the emerging lessons of high school reform seems to be that even some of the best interventions will have smallish impacts. This is one of the take aways from the MDRC careful review of Talent Development, First Things First, and Career Academies. http://www.mdrc.org/publications/428/overview.html

    Good programs, well-thought out, positive effects (in general, not in every respect), relatively small effects. What to do?

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