Report on School Choice Avoids Facts, Protects Status Quo

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  • 09/21/2022

Teachers unions and other defenders of the education status quo are terrified of school choice. As a result, they frequently present misleading reports as truthful. A new report by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability (CTBA) in Illinois is a good example. Attempting to discredit the voucher program in Indiana and school choice as a whole, the report is incomplete, full of logical flaws, half-truths, and omission of key facts.

With six union members on its board, CTBA is hardly an unbiased observer. In fact, the president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and government affairs director of the Illinois Education Association all sit on CTBA’s board.

Such obvious bias in favor of the education status quo makes the following claim in the study utterly laughable:

“This paper will not utilize in its analysis studies conducted by organizations with a clear bias, be it pro-voucher or anti-voucher. It instead draws on objective, peer-reviewed analyses. The goal is to answer two key questions about the Indiana Choice Legislation as objectively as possible.”

What that translates to is this: CTBA ignored every piece of evidence that did not line up with its self-serving thesis that education choice is dangerous. CTBA completely ignored data and studies from researchers at Harvard, Princeton, the University of Chicago, the Brookings Institution, and other eminently reputable sources.

CTBA didn’t even use the most recent available data when citing a longitudinal study coauthored by Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas. CTBA uses 2008–09 findings, published in 2010, instead of the most recent, 2012 report. Wolf says his research found “school choice in Milwaukee has had a modest but clearly positive effect on student outcomes.”

Numerous peer-reviewed, gold-standard studies show school choice has had statistically significant positive outcomes for all children or certain subgroups, especially low-income and minority students.

“Private School Vouchers and Student Achievement: An Evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program” was conducted by Cecilia Elena Rouse in 1997. Rouse says of the study, “I find that students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program had faster math score gains than, but similar reading score gains to, the comparison groups.”

A 2002 study, revised in 2006, by William G. Howell and Paul E. Peterson, “The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools,” found after two years black voucher students had combined reading and math scores 6.5 percentage points higher than the control group.

In 2008, in his study titled “School Choice as a Latent Variable: Estimating ‘Complier Average Casual Effect’ of Vouchers in Charlotte,” Joshua M. Cowen found after one year, voucher students had higher math and reading scores than the control group.

Tosha Salyers of Hoosiers for Quality Education says CTBA failed to include Indiana student achievement data in its analysis.

“A quick check of student achievement data on the Indiana Department of Education website shows that student achievement is up by every measure in our state,” Salyers said. “Since school voucher legislation was passed in 2011, we have seen an increase in ISTEP+ pass rates, graduation rates, IREAD-3 pass rates, end-of-course assessment pass rates, Advanced Placement participation, and Advanced Placement assessment pass rates. Additionally, data from the Indiana Department of Education indicate the number of A-rated schools has increased from 856 in 2011 to 1,124 in 2014, while the number of F-rated schools has decreased from 144 in 2011 to 84 in 2014.”

Contrast that with the CTBA report, which claims, “Indeed, based on the available evidence, rather than improve student performance and the overall public education system in Indiana, the Indiana Choice Legislation may actually impede student achievement specifically and harm the education system generally. At a time when public resources are scarce, it is not advisable for state decision makers to divert public education funding to programs that cannot be expected to help children learn or improve the education system.”

The studies cited above and numerous others show positive outcomes for students participating in voucher programs. The CTBA report ignores all of this evidence, instead claiming, “Subsidizing individual decisions that do not generate a public good or service—even legitimate ones well within the rights of, in this case, the parents making them—is an inappropriate use of public money.”

The reality is school choice programs are less expensive than traditional public schools, and student achievement is generally at least as good as in traditional public schools.

The cost savings of school choice help every taxpayer in the state, and choice gives parents a voice in an educational system that rarely listens to them otherwise. Vouchers, charters, and other choice programs across the country consistently demonstrate this success. That’s why thousands of families are on waiting lists to enter these programs and thousands upon thousands more are calling for greater choice.

The CTBA report doesn’t get absolutely everything wrong, but as the research makes clear, it is far from truthful. CTBA has a right to oppose choice in schools, but it shouldn’t get to choose its own facts.

Heather Kays ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and is managing editor of School Reform News.