By Robert Holland
Even though most studies using the highest quality of research show that underprivileged children benefit academically when able to use vouchers to attend private schools, the political and educationist Left use any scrap of data—even inventing it when they must—in an effort to obliterate this means of advancing individual choice in education.
It is sad to see leadership at the University of Virginia’s (UVA) highly rated Curry School of Education, with an assist from UVA’s public relations office, joining the anti-vouchers cabal by misrepresenting the results of the education school’s own research project.
The Curry study, titled “Does Attendance in Private Schools Predict Student Outcomes at Age 15?,” drew from National Institute of Child Health and Human Development data to compare “academic, social, psychological, and attainment outcomes” of 15-year-olds who had attended private schools to 15-year-olds who had not. The opus appears in the current issue of the journal Educational Researcher, which charges a $36 fee for one-day’s access and downloading privilege.
The comparison showed a big advantage for teens who had gone to private school. However, after instituting a series of controls for socioeconomic factors, the researchers found a comparison in which two groups of 15-year-olds were virtually indistinguishable. In a nutshell, the adjusted statistics showed that students from low-income homes did not realize more lofty outcomes between kindergarten and the ninth grade than did students who attended public schools.
Yet without having studied any aid programs, including vouchers, that students may have used, the Curry School proceeded to hype vouchers as the villain. Dean Robert Pianta, the study’s co-author, made this assertion in UVA’s official news release: “Despite the arguments in favor of the use of vouchers or other mechanisms to support enrollment in private schools, ostensibly as a way to help vulnerable children and families access a quality education, this study finds no evidence that private schools, exclusive of family background or income, are more effective for promoting student success.”
For good measure, the news release took a shot at U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos by flatly asserting that the UVA opus “contradicts the rationale” of DeVos for supporting easier access to private schooling via vouchers or other school choice plans.
Never mind that the Curry Study did not independently analyze the effect of vouchers on student performance. Perhaps it is standard procedure at UVA, as at so many elite universities, to politicize studies and news releases in such a way as to slam Trump administration objectives, increased school choice in this instance.
In a blogged analysis of the UVA study, Michael Q. McShane, national research director for EdChoice (a choice advocacy organization founded by the late Dr. Milton Friedman), explained that something researchers call “selection bias” was central to the flawed assumptions drawn from the UVA study.
McShane wrote that school choice researchers can avoid selection bias and reach valid conclusions by answering this question: “Are the students who receive vouchers different from those who don’t in ways that might affect the outcomes that we’re trying to measure?” For example, he said, more highly motivated students might be likelier to seek vouchers and also likelier to do well in school. It might be hard, therefore, to conclude for certain whether their success was due to the voucher or to their motivation.
That is why a technique called random assignment is deemed the gold standard for research. Randomization was absent from the UVA study that was used to slam vouchers. McShane explained how it works: “Everyone who wants a voucher gets their name thrown in a hopper and random chance is the only thing that differs between those who get a voucher and those who don’t. That’s how we know that any differences between the two groups can be attributed to the program.”
EdChoice has compiled and published results of gold-standard voucher studies done by a variety of researchers in recent years. Out of 18 studies using random assignment, 13 showed positive outcomes for either the full sample or a significant subset of voucher students. Only three of the 18 studies found negative outcomes.
Oddly enough, the concluding portion of the UVA study, while arguing against the potential of private choice to help poor children, did acknowledge the existence of “some evidence from the experimental literature that voucher programs may produce a slight benefit for the achievement of poor children to the extent they enroll steadily.”
“Slight” could be another word for “major” if all the studies showing voucher programs bolstering such positives as graduation rates, parental satisfaction, and civic values were taken into account. However, defenders of the public education establishment no more want to acknowledge that truth than do UVA publicists want to put it in a news release.
Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.