As studies find vouchers don't improve academics, proponents argue test scores don't tell whole story

The early architects of  school choice maintained that getting kids out of struggling public schools into private ones would raise academic performance as measured by test scores. Several recent studies have concluded differently, including a new report by the Institute of Education Sciences. The IES study found students using taxpayer-funded vouchers in Washington, D.C, to attend private schools performed below their public school counterparts.

As a result of these findings, proponents have tried to shift the voucher conversation. Lackluster academics are being played down, while parental satisfaction and student safety are being played up.

A study released last week by the federal Department of Education found that students lucky enough to get a scholarship actually did worse on a standardized math test than students who applied for the program but didn't get in.

But maybe finding the school with the best test scores isn't every parent's top priority.

It must not be, because the same study also found that parents of students in and not in the program were equally satisfied with their schools, despite the math gap. Maybe it's because parents of voucher students thought their children's new schools were safer, or it was a stronger community, or it was building their child's character, or had some other virtue that their standard public school lacked.

The whole point of school choice is that every student is different. The idea is that, rather than a one-size-fits-all educational system, parents should be empowered to pick the school that works best for their child. And that's the point: Every parent has different priorities. Some will want to pick the school with the best average math scores, yes. But others will want the school with the best reading scores, or the best STEM program, or the best performing arts program, or the best sports, or the best remedial education program, or the school closest to home, or the safest school, or any combination of all of the above.

There's nothing wrong with citing the feelings of parents and the well-being of students as proof of a school's value. Except the voucher movement disregards those same measures when declaring public schools are failing. All that matters then are test scores.

The pro voucher movement has long insisted the challenges public schools face in poor communities are no excuse for low scores on state exams, and that the students would be better served academically in private schools. When the voucher debate began in Georgia 18 years ago, early supporters focused on academics. "The whole purpose is to give every child an opportunity to be educated," said state Sen. Michael J. Egan at 1999 forum on education reform. "If the private school is doing a better job of educating the child, why should the private school be forced to conform to the rules of the public school?"

Now that the evidence increasingly reveals no academic payoff from vouchers, proponents are saying, "Test scores don't tell the whole story of a school."

Public school teachers agree and here's an essay by one explaining why:

A student in my class came in crying today. She was upset that she wasn't able to go to sleep early like I asked them to for state testing today. I asked her what was wrong and she told me she was too scared to sleep because there were shots being fired all around her house last night.

Another student broke her glasses a week ago. She's suffering from headaches and guilt because her mother can't afford to replace them. A third student is homeless, bouncing around between different family members houses because no one wants to take responsibility for him and his brother.

I could go on and on with a dozen more stories. They say our school is failing. They say that my colleagues and I are ineffective teachers. That's what the numbers show. That's what a standardized test -- one that measures not just my fifth graders, but also the most affluent ones in the best schools in our state -- says.

Our numbers don't stack up. Our students aren't learning. Our teaching is somehow lacking. We aren't effective. That's what the newspapers and the state say.

Let me tell you what I am effective at. I'm effective at creating a safe space. A haven for my students. Somewhere they can come and just breathe. Where they can cry on my shoulder and know I will truly listen. A place where I brainstorm with them for solutions. A place where I cry with them and for them when it just can't be fixed.

I am effective at making phone calls. At finding community partners to replace my students clothes and belongings after a house fire. I'm effective at finding a way to stretch my own family's budget to fix a young girls glasses.

I'm effective at letting each and every one of my students know that they matter. That at least one person in their life won't give up on them. That their score on a test doesn't show their true worth. I also think I'm pretty effective at teaching reading.

Even if the numbers don't show it. Even if the state doesn't believe it. My students have faced things many of us can't imagine. I don't need test scores to tell me I'm making a difference. I don't need the state to tell me I'm effective. I'm doing exactly what I need to do and I am exactly where I need to be.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.