What School Choice Advocates Should Learn from the New Study of Ohio’s Vouchers

A recent study led by Northwestern economist David Figlio on Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program is a case of good news and bad news.

To be sure, it provides an occasion to celebrate the positive findings. But the less favorable results should cause us to pause and consider ways to strengthen school voucher policy.

This program, often called the EdChoice voucher, was enacted 11 years ago and is among the nation’s largest private school choice programs. Today, it provides publicly funded school vouchers to more than 21,000 students who would have otherwise attended “low-performing” public schools. Student eligibility for this program hinges upon school ratings, and an unfortunate reality in Ohio is that most of its lowest-rated public schools are in predominantly low-income neighborhoods. Therefore, EdChoice voucher students are primarily children from low-income households. The vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for pupils in grades K–8 and up to $5,900 per high-school student; these amounts are typically less than half the per-pupil funding received by comparable public schools.

Despite the troves of voucher research from other jurisdictions, very little study of Ohio’s EdChoice program has been conducted to date. The Fordham Institute and a number of other organizations, including the Friedman Foundation, co-released an early analysis of the program in 2008. Using school-level data from the first year of implementation, the report indicates that public schools improved through voucher competition.

Nearly 10 years later, we now have a more complete picture of the EdChoice program’s competitive effect on public schools and on voucher participants. Figlio’s study used student-level data from 2002–03 to 2012–13 and rigorous quasi-experimental methods to investigate the program’s impact on state test results.

When it comes to the competitive effects of the EdChoice program, voucher advocates have reason to cheer. Akin to the earlier analysis of EdChoice and several other studies on school choice-driven competition, this analysis reveals that the initiative improved public schools’ academic performance. As measured by state math and reading exams, thousands of public school students enjoyed a modest academic benefit as a result of the program.

The empirical evidence once again validates the theories of Milton Friedman: Competition can spur schools to attend more closely to students’ academic needs. We should insist on policies that encourage and incentivize healthy competition between schools simply because evidence shows it works.

That said, the report offers warning signs that advocates would also be wise to consider.

The study of EdChoice participants was not lottery-based which would have allowed an analysis premised on random assignment because the program is not oversubscribed. However, the study does closely match participants to public school pupils based on their demographics and prior achievement, and we know both groups take state exams. When tracking test scores over time, Figlio finds EdChoice voucher students lose academic ground relative to their matched group of peers. These results are similar to recent findings from Louisiana and Indiana.

The participant analysis is quasi-experimental, which as Figlio remarks, “is not without its problems.” Yet given the EdChoice setting, he contends that the analysis is “as close as we can get to approximating random assignment.” The matching method used by Figlio also results in a limited number of voucher participants whose test scores could be analyzed; the study focuses on children who would have attended relatively high-performing program-eligible public schools. Voucher pupils who would’ve enrolled in the worst public schools may have achieved different results, but there was no credible way of measuring those results.

Other possible explanations include the lack of alignment between private schools’ curricula and state exams and a lack of emphasis on state assessments in private schools. (Unlike some states, Ohio does not tie consequences to voucher-participating private schools’ test results.) Meanwhile, some may suggest that regulation associated with voucher participation could deter many high-quality private schools from participating and might be to blame. While possible, this explanation seems less plausible in Ohio as private schools in the Buckeye State face tighter-than-usual regulation whether they accept vouchers or not. The state added few regulations on private schools after the adoption of EdChoice. Lastly, the results could also reflect real struggles of voucher-accepting private schools. Given the relatively low voucher amount, private schools may be under-resourced considering the background of their incoming voucher students.

Though the reasons for the negative results remain an open question, they should prompt discussion on ways to strengthen school voucher policy. We at Fordham suggest two steps. Neither would increase the regulatory burden on voucher-receiving private schools, but they could help ensure that families better understand their options and assure policymakers and the wider public that tax dollars are wisely spent.

First, the state should apply the state’s value-added measure (already used to gauge the yearly growth of traditional and charter public schools) to voucher pupils and report those results by private school. Though Ohio reports student proficiency rates for voucher-receiving private schools, we know that those results can be misleading indicators of school quality, especially when schools educate voucher pupils who arrive behind academically. They only indicate where each school starts a race but say nothing about how a school performs during it. A value-added measure would give parents and the public a better sense of how EdChoice program students are progressing academically in their private schools.

Second, policymakers should ensure the academic results of voucher-receiving private schools are readily available and easy to understand. To its credit, Ohio now has an increasingly robust marketplace providing families with numerous school options. But as choice expands, parents must have the ability to weigh their alternatives, including the inspection of academic results. A well-functioning marketplace hinges on access to reliable information, and families need comparable indicators of school quality including academic performance.

We don’t pretend to think that this analysis is the last word on Ohio’s EdChoice program. We’d like to know, for instance, more about the effects of the program on post-secondary outcomes—similar to what has been done in the charter sector. (We’re aware, of course, that math and reading scores aren’t the only indicators of student success.) But rigorous evaluation, like that conducted by Dr. Figlio, does illuminate the strengths of this initiative while also helping us grasp the challenges ahead. As we chart a course for private school choice, let’s listen to the evidence and advocate for commonsense policies that strengthen choice for families and students.