April 22, 2016
The Nevada Supreme Court will soon make a decision of historic importance to the state’s public school children. The Court will decide whether to uphold a lower court’s blockage of Nevada’s school voucher program (Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs) on the grounds that the program is unconstitutional.
To assist the Court in its decision, the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) and the National Education Association (NEA) recently filed an amicus curiae – or “friend of the court” – brief thoroughly reviewing the research on voucher programs similar to ESAs.
The research shows:
- Vouchers do not improve educational outcomes for participants.
- Competition from vouchers does not improve public schools.
- Several design features are important for minimizing harm from voucher programs.
- ESAs include none of these features and threaten to harm Nevada public schools and the state’s students.
1. VOUCHER PROGRAMS DO NOT IMPROVE EDUCATIONAL OUTCOMES FOR PARTICIPANTS: Despite many independent studies of voucher programs across the country, there is no clear evidence that vouchers boost student achievement. For example, a 2015 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found “a large proportion of the most rigorous studies suggest that being awarded a voucher has an effect that is statistically indistinguishable from zero.”
2. COMPETITION FROM VOUCHERS DOES NOT IMPROVE PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Voucher proponents argue that if public schools have to compete for students and funding, they will respond like free market businesses and improve their “product.” Yet, studies of districts throughout the country show no significant test score gains in school districts with voucher programs. In fact, a 2007 RAND Corporation study of eight states with voucher programs found a “near complete absence of positive competitive effects” on public schools.
Voucher proponents also argue that, since “funding follows the student,” public schools are on a level playing field in competing with private schools. But voucher funding is based on average per-pupil costs. Public schools must serve all students, including those whose needs cost more than the average. Private schools participating in voucher programs like ESAs may reject students who need costly special services; charge tuition much higher than voucher value; and charge fees for transportation, books, meals etc. This gives private schools a distinct competitive advantage over public schools.
3. SEVERAL DESIGN FEATURES ARE IMPORTANT FOR MINIMIZING HARM FROM VOUCHER PROGRAMS: Researchers have been unable to find evidence of voucher programs improving student outcomes, but scholars agree that certain program features are crucial to minimizing the harmful effects on schools and students. The RAND Corporation and the NBER recommend that programs:
- Target vouchers to at-risk students: All voucher programs currently operating in the U.S. prioritize low-income and special needs students. The goal of targeting these student populations is to ensure that vouchers do not worsen the already significant opportunity gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Nevada’s ESA program does not target at-risk students.
- Require open admissions: Giving vouchers to at-risk students doesn’t guarantee that participating private schools will accept those students. When private schools are free to choose only the most advantaged students, sometimes called “cream-skimming,” the result is an even more unequal education system, where children with the greatest need of supports are excluded from the “choice” program. Nevada’s ESA program does not require open admission, nor does it prohibit excluding students on the basis of at-risk status, religion, academic ability or sexual orientation.
- Provide Incentives for Private Schools to Admit Special Needs Students: The higher costs associated with educating special needs students can deter schools from accepting these children. This results in a disproportionate number of special needs students remaining in public schools, with the additional costs of educating those students also falling on public schools. Nevada’s ESA program offers no financial subsidies or other incentives to encourage private schools to admit special needs students.
- Require Participating Private Schools to Set Tuition at Exactly Voucher Value: Most private schools charge significantly more tuition than the dollar value of a voucher. This, plus the additional costs of transportation, uniforms, etc. can effectively exclude low-income families from using school vouchers, making the educational opportunity gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students even greater. Nevada’s ESA program sets no limit on participating private school tuition. Furthermore, pending regulations would allow families whose children already attend private school and have never attended public school to receive the $5,100 voucher, regardless of family wealth.
- Ensure ALL Parents Receive Clear and Timely Information About Voucher Options: Researchers warn that an information gap, where more affluent, engaged parents are better informed about voucher programs and deadlines, will result in unequal participation. Outreach to lower income families and those with limited English can make for more equitable participation and minimize the harmful effects of “cream-skimming.” Nevada’s ESA program has no provision for outreach to low income or ELL students. Although over half of Nevada public school students are low income, an analysis by Educate Nevada Now found that only 28, or 7%, of early ESA applicants live in low income areas, compared with 3,342, or 80%, who live in areas with household incomes above the state median.
CONCLUSION: ESAs WILL HARM NEVADA PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND THE STATE’S STUDENTS
Although researchers find no evidence that vouchers improve participant student outcomes or public school quality, some proponents still argue that implementation is worthwhile, saying vouchers do no harm. But the ESA program, even more than other voucher programs currently operating in the U.S., IS likely to do harm.
The ESA program includes none of the design features scholars recommend to minimize harm to public schools and their highest need students. No other voucher program currently operating in the United States is so completely lacking in these safeguards. Therefore, to find a predictor of the impact of ESAs, researchers must look to Chile. For over 20 years, Chile has implemented a program that mirrors the ESA program in almost every aspect. Studies show that while private school enrollment increased dramatically, student achievement overall declined, with the steepest decline in public schools and the greatest impact on the most vulnerable students. This is exactly the outcome researchers predict when they caution against programs that draw the most advantaged, high-achieving students away from public schools. Nevada’s ESA program includes no provisions for preventing this harm to public schools and the students they serve.
Molly A. Hunter
Education Justice, Director
973-624-1815, x 19
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications