Las Vegas Sun

April 23, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Rosy theory about school vouchers doesn’t align with the real world

To those who contend that school vouchers are government handouts for wealthy people who send their kids to private schools, voucher proponents offer a noble-sounding counterargument.

No, no, they say, vouchers give low-income parents the means to send their children to private schools and put them on a path to a better life. Intrinsic in this argument is that children receive a better education in private school than in the public K-12 system.

Wrong, says a new study by researchers at the University of Virginia.

Examining a group of 1,097 children from birth through age 15 in nine states, the researchers showed that students from disadvantaged families didn’t benefit from going to private school when compared with their peers in public schools.

The researchers did find that overall, students in private schools outperformed their counterparts. But when socioeconomic data was thrown in — including household income and the level of parental education — students had reached the same level at age 15 in both private and public schools. That applied to math achievement, literacy, working memory, grade-point averages, the percentage taking advanced courses, and even non-academic factors such as fighting and smoking.

What set children apart, the researchers found, was whether they were raised by well-educated parents who could provide them educational resources, support and intellectual stimulation. Students from such households performed at the highest levels.

It didn’t matter where students lived, either, as the outcome was the same for students in both urban and rural areas.

“The apparent ‘advantages’ of private school education … were almost entirely due to the socioeconomic advantages that selected families into these types of schools and were not attributed to private school education itself,” wrote the researchers, Robert C. Pianta, the dean of and a professor at Virginia’s Curry School of Education, and Arya Ansari, a postdoctoral research associate at the university.

So much for the idea that vouchers are a magic bullet to eliminate the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students. And the study by Pianta and Ansari isn’t the only one to raise serious questions about the advantages of private schools, or downright debunk them.

With the 2019 legislative session less than five months from getting underway, Nevada lawmakers should bookmark the Virginia study.

Vouchers — or education savings accounts, as they’re known here — were approved by lawmakers in 2015 but were derailed when the Nevada Supreme Court rejected the original funding mechanism for them. Lawmakers fought off efforts to fund ESAs in 2017, but conservative lawmakers are almost certain to raise the issue again next year.

In hopes of getting broad-based political support, ESA proponents will spin them as being beneficial for low-income families.

Hogwash. Not only is there a body of evidence showing vouchers don’t help, but they often don’t provide enough money for low-income parents to afford private school tuition. And even for families who can scrape together the tuition, transportation issues can make private school a non-starter.

Then there’s the wider-reaching impact of vouchers: They sap public schools of money and talented students, meaning the kids who are left behind receive fewer educational resources and are deprived of the benefits of learning alongside high-achieving peers.

A boon for low-income families?