Regulations Are Keeping the Best Private Schools out of School Voucher Programs

This article appeared on Washington Examiner on September 22, 2018.
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As I've pointed out many times before, private school choice leads to better results for students and the societies in which they reside. The preponderance of the most rigorous scientific evidence suggests that school choice reduces crime and improves student achievementgraduation ratesracial integrationstudent safety, and civic outcomes. But while the existing evidence is encouraging, it can be thought of as a lower-bound of the true effect of private schooling in general. Here's why.

As found in my just-released study — coauthored with George Mason University economics graduate student Blake Hoarty — higher-quality private schools are less likely to participate in two of the most highly regulated voucher programs in the U.S., the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and the Ohio Educational Choice Scholarship Program.

And this isn't the only study to find that the best private schools decide not to participate in voucher programs. As shown in the table below, using tuition, enrollment, customer reviews, and effects on student test scores as measures of quality, all four of the studies examining this question suggest that higher quality schools are less likely to accept voucher funding in Louisiana, Milwaukee, Ohio, Washington, D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and even in Chile.

Because school choice evaluations can only tell us the effects of gaining access to the participating schools, which tend to be lower-quality, the existing evidence is likely a lower-bound of the true effects of private schooling in general.

Table: Quality of Schools Participating in Voucher Programs (Relative to Non-Participating Schools)

Study
Location
Quality Metrics
Result
Abdulkadiroglu, Pathak & Walters (2018)
Louisiana
Tuition & enrollment growth

Negative

DeAngelis & Hoarty (2018)
Milwaukee & Ohio
Tuition, enrollment, & customer reviews

Negative

Sánchez (2018)
Chile
Tuition, average math test scores, & student test score value-added

Negative

Sude, DeAngelis, & Wolf (2018)
Washington, D.C., Indiana, & Louisiana
Tuition, enrollment, & customer reviews

Negative

[Note: Negative indicates that the study finds that higher quality private schools are less likely to participate in voucher programs.]

But why are higher-quality schools less likely to participate in voucher programs?

Private school leaders must decide whether to participate in voucher programs each year based on expected costs and benefits of participation. The private school's main benefit of voucher program participation is, of course, additional voucher revenue. The private school's primary cost associated with program participation is additional bureaucratic red tape. Private schools that accept voucher funding must comply with burdensome government regulations including mandates that all students take state standardized tests, requirements that all teachers have bachelor's degrees, and requirements that all students are admitted at random.

These types of regulations are costly to private schools because: (1) participating schools must allocate additional resources towards compliance, (2) private school leaders lose autonomy, and (3) private schools may lose revenue if families don't like the way that regulations change the educational services their children receive.

Lower-quality private schools are more likely to accept the voucher offer, regardless of the strings attached, because they are the most desperate for cash. On the other hand, higher-quality private schools with educational models that are already working for their students are less likely to accept additional voucher regulations. In other words, voucher program regulations likely reduce the average quality of private schools that are available to students using vouchers. And limiting these program regulations could increase the chance that students using vouchers get into better private schools.

Of course, education regulators are trying to do the right thing. They just want to help kids get to the best schools possible. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that their policies tend to have the opposite effect.

Corey A. DeAngelis

Corey DeAngelis is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow at the University of Arkansas.