Taking Stock of Private School Choice: Lessons Learned from Indiana

Mark Berends, University of Notre Dame
R. Joseph Waddington, University of Kentucky
Megan Austin, AIR

Full article available in EducationNext, Spring 2018/Vol. 18, No. 2

The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, launched in 2011, offers a rich opportunity to study how a large-scale tuition-voucher program works and to analyze the results it has produced in its first few years. As we consider the merits of private-school choice and what it would take to make it succeed, this initiative deserves particular attention: it is the nation’s largest voucher program, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all voucher students nationwide.

The authors conduced a four-year evaluation of the Indiana program, producing one of a few recent studies that finds statistically significant negative effects on student achievement of using a voucher to switch from a public to a private school in the first years after a choice program’s launch. But the research also shows that voucher students begin to recoup their academic losses in their third and fourth years of attending a private school. Students transitioning to a private school may need time to acclimate to what are usually more-rigorous academic standards and higher expectations for homework and schoolwork. The findings also speak only to the achievement gains of students using vouchers to switch to a private school in grades 5–8. Starting students in private schools in earlier grade levels, and thus giving them more time to adjust, might produce better outcomes.

Given that many state and federal policymakers support the expansion of private-school choice, Indiana’s experience can offer lessons for the design of future voucher programs.