Friday Freakout: What to Do When Editorial Boards Don’t Fact Check ‘Expert’ Claims

Amidst the celebration of National School Choice Week, Indiana’s Journal Gazette published an editorial calling for an independent, empirical study of Indiana’s school voucher program.

That is a fair ask and not actually the catalyst for today’s freakout. One very powerful word inspired my piece today: anywhere.

In its editorial, the Journal Gazette team relied on historian Diane Ravitch’s opinion as its sole source of evidence, quoting, “No voucher study anywhere has ever shown academic gains; not in Milwaukee, not in D.C., not in Cleveland.”

This is simply untrue and, sadly for this newspaper, quite easy to fact check.

There is no doubt that Indiana’s school voucher program has seen success. Not only is Indiana’s school voucher program the fastest growing school choice program in the country, but also it is supported by a strong majority of all Hoosiers, including Democrats and supporters of the state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, according to a new poll by the Friedman Foundation (now EdChoice).

If the program is bad for families, then why do thousands choose to use it?

The reality is Indiana’s school choice programs offer thousands of Hoosier families an opportunity to find an education for their children that might better match their needs—and at lower cost than educating those children in public schools.

The editorial goes on to cite as evidence the most recent “gold-standard” study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which analyzed Louisiana’s voucher program and found negative effects on student test scores. (Note: The Friedman Foundation has published a helpful blog post that explains what makes a study a gold-standard study.)

Researchers have not unraveled the causes of the negative impacts found in NBER’s study, but there is good reason to suspect that poor policy design is the root of the problem. Louisiana’s program places heavy burdens on participating private schools, and there is evidence that the low number of private schools participating in the program are, largely, troubled schools willing to put up with the regulatory burdens imposed by the law. Also, Louisiana’s program only allows parents to rank their top five school choice destinations. Ultimately, they don’t make the choice of where their children end up; the government still does. The Friedman Foundation published a more detailed response to the NBER study and has been critical of the Louisiana voucher program’s design in the past for these reasons.

That said, the Journal Gazette team and Ravitch stopped at the NBER study of Louisiana instead of looking at the full record of evidence from across the country.

Fortunately, the scholarly record provides a large body of evidence about the academic impacts of school choice programs. In total, there are 13 other gold-standard studies—conducted with the same methodology as the NBER study—that have examined other voucher programs, none of which Ravitch or the Journal Gazette gave credit. (Why they herald one study’s findings as gospel, but not the rest is a question for another day.)

All but one of those 13 reports found significant academic benefits for students. In particular, low-income students and students of color tend to benefit more from using a school voucher than their more affluent, white peers.

Thankfully, scholars have also examined other outcomes of school choice programs in addition to those studies of student test scores, which we would argue don’t paint a complete picture of “success.”

Harvard economist Raj Chetty identified policies that can improve social mobility for children. School choice was one of six policies he identified. Patrick Wolf, distinguished professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, has also reviewed 21 studies and found voucher students benefit more than their public school peers in developing civic values. That includes aspects such as political tolerance, volunteering, gaining political knowledge, and participating in the political process.

Researchers have also found that school choice programs lead to improved graduation rates and college participation.

Researchers at Harvard and the Brookings Institution (where Ravitch used to be a fellow) found “minority students [in New York City] who received a school voucher to attend private elementary schools in 1997 were, as of 2013, 10 percent more likely to enroll in college and 35 percent more likely than their peers in public school to obtain a bachelor’s degree.”

Now, stating such findings doesn’t mean that researchers or advocates believe private school students are always “better” than public school students. What they show is that the educational choice programs that are being so highly scrutinized do, in fact, make a positive difference for the kids who use them. And isn’t that the point of these policies?

One of the most comprehensive evaluation(s) of a school voucher program found offering Milwaukee students a voucher “increase[d] the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college, and persisting in college.”

If those aren’t “academic gains,” I’m not sure what is.

At the end of the day, it is true researchers have not conducted a random assignment study assessing Indiana voucher students’ test scores in the same way Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C.’s programs have been studied. Because the program cannot be oversubscribed and thus voucher students are not chosen through a lottery, researchers could not compare student results by random assignment. There are other rigorous, empirical methodologies researchers could employ, however. So in that sense, we understand the Journal Gazette editorial team’s call for independent study.

In fact, pro-educational choice organizations like ours would welcome, not “fear,” the results of new research. If results were positive, we would know our investment in the program is sound, at least in terms of student test scores if not other measures of success. If some results were to be negative, then we would have more insight into how legislators might improve the program design.

But until such research happens in Indiana, we should not fixate on one report while ignoring the full library of empirical evidence on school voucher programs. More important, we should not—can not—ignore the tens of thousands of families who elect to use and continue to use the Indiana school voucher program for the sake of their children’s futures.