Study: Private schools don’t boost scores for voucher-users

Students in struggling public schools did better than those who in EdChoice program

Where Dayton kids go to school

Breakdown of the 23,011 K-12 students who reside within the Dayton district:

14,059 — DPS students

6,613 — Charter school students

2,294 — Those who use vouchers to private schools

45 — Autism/scholarship program

Source: Ohio Department of Education average daily membership report

Ohio students who attended private schools thanks to vouchers performed worse on state tests than comparable students who remained in struggling public schools, according to a report from the Fordham Institute, which said it was surprised by the results.

The report said Ohio’s 10-year-old EdChoice voucher program has caused slight improvement in the struggling public schools’ test performance due to increased competition. But report author David Figlio, a Northwestern University economist and education professor, wrote that the negative impact on the test scores of students who used the vouchers was much sharper.

“The magnitudes of this negative estimated effect are relatively large — around three times the positive effect (on public schools due to competition),” Figlio wrote. “These differences cannot be explained by the disruptions associated with changing schools.”

The traditional EdChoice program provides state-funded scholarships allowing about 20,000 students from low-performing public schools to attend private schools. The scholarship amount of $4,650 for grades K-8 is enough to cover full tuition at many private schools, while the $6,000 for grades 9-12 is roughly two-thirds of Catholic high school tuition.

Where they go

More than 2,400 students in Montgomery County attend private schools via voucher, almost all of them coming from Dayton Public Schools, according to Ohio Department of Education data. Students at 22 of 28 DPS schools qualify for vouchers based on their schools’ academic performance, along with students at Blairwood Elementary in Jefferson Twp. and Madison Park in Trotwood-Madison.

About 80 percent of local voucher students end up attending local Catholic elementary schools and high schools.

Chad Aldis, Fordham’s vice president for Ohio Policy and Advocacy, suggested that voucher students may have scored lower because the private schools are less focused on state tests. Archdiocese of Cincinnati spokesman Dan Andriacco said that’s a plausible argument, adding, “Our curriculum was not developed with the state tests in mind.”

New Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Rhonda Corr said Fordham’s findings don’t surprise her. She made an argument that DPS officials have cited in the past, that part of the district’s test score problem is tied to a lack of continuity, as students move in and out of the district.

“I think public schools have a lot to offer, and we’re very proud to be public,” Corr said. “When kids enroll with us and they stay and commit, they’re successful. … We have some areas to improve (but) we are very confident moving forward that we will improve Dayton schools and improve student achievement.”

Carroll High School, a Catholic school on the Dayton/Riverside border, drew 110 voucher students from Dayton Public Schools last year, according to the state. Carroll Principal Matt Sableski said most of those students are successful at Carroll.

Sableski also made an argument about continuity. He said in his experience, students who attended Catholic grade schools on vouchers before coming to Carroll have generally been more successful than students who transfer straight from a struggling public school.

“And there are other benefits people see in Catholic schools and why to take the voucher that are harder to measure — things like study skills, values education, discipline,” Sableski said.

In order to get an “apples-to-apples” comparison, the study focused on a certain band of public schools right near the eligibility bar for school vouchers, according to Aldis. That means it did not measure how voucher students from the very worst-performing public schools scored on tests. It also did not include students from the new and lesser-used EdChoice expansion program.

Not ‘final word’

But Aldis, a strong supporter of school choice, said this is the third recent study showing poor test results for voucher students at private schools, on the heels of Indiana and Louisiana reports. He called for better public information on private-school performance, as parents seek the best options for their children.

“The disappointing participant results, albeit with a limited number of students, raises questions that deserve further exploration,” Aldis said. “This isn’t the final word on the EdChoice program.”

Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Brittany Halpin chose to focus on the study’s positive findings, that EdChoice competition has created small improvements in public school performance.

“Competition is good for our schools and incentivizes everyone to work harder to meet the needs of all students,” Halpin said.

Corr said she believes in public education and believes in school choice. She said by teaching the whole child, providing excellent customer service and retaining high-quality teachers, Dayton Public Schools can be a great choice for parents.

“We are working in a system that provides a great deal of choice,” Corr said. “I think competition can be healthy, but I do not agree with funneling funds away from public schools.”

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