Minnesota’s Immense Achievement Gaps: The Untapped Promise of Vouchers

Executive Summary

  • When it comes to elementary and secondary education in Minnesota and especially the Twin Cities, vouchers represent the single most promising approach for reducing immense achievement and attainment gaps between white and many minority students.
  • Solid research clearly suggests that many low-income and minority students would do better if afforded a chance to attend a private rather than public school.
  • A definition: Vouchers give parents the freedom to choose a private school for their children by using all or part of the public funding set aside for their boy or girl’s education.  Simple enough.

How Big are the Gaps?

  • The National Assessment of Education Progress—known colloquially as “NAEP” and the “Nation’s Report Card”—reported these results for eighth grade students reading either proficiently or at advanced levels in Minnesota in 2013:
    • White students             51 percent
    • Black students             17 percent
    • Hispanic students         21 percent
    • Asian students             37 percent
  • NAEP results for Minnesota eighth graders who were either proficient or advanced in math in 2013:
    • White students             71 percent
    • Black students             17 percent
    • Hispanic students         26 percent
    • Asian students             58 percent
  • The overall four-year high school graduation rate for students in Minneapolis Public Schools in 2013 was a far-from-adequate 53.9 percent.  It was 72.1 percent for white students and 68.0 percent for Asian students.  But it the words of MPS itself: “While notable gains were made for students of color in the school district, a consistently low graduation rate of less than 40 percent for African American, American Indian and Latino students continued to persist.”  (Emphasis supplied.)

What Does the Research Say?

  • Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for voucher participants using random assignment, the “gold standard” of social science.  Of these, eleven find that vouchers improve student outcomes—six in which all students benefit and five in which some benefit and some are not affected.  One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.
  • Twenty-three empirical studies (entailing all research methods) have examined vouchers’ impact on academic outcomes in public schools.  Of these, twenty two find they improve public schools and one finds no visible impact.  No empirical study has found that vouchers harm public schools.
  • Six empirical studies have examined vouchers’ fiscal impact on taxpayers. All six find they save money for taxpayers.  No study has found a negative fiscal impact.
  • Eight empirical studies have examined vouchers and racial segregation in schools.  Of these, seven find that they move students from more segregated to less segregated schools.  One finds no net effect on segregation.  No empirical study has found that vouchers increase racial segregation.
  • Seven empirical studies have examined vouchers’ impact on civic values and practices such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge.  Of these, five find that vouchers improve civic values and practices.  Two find no visible impact.  No empirical study has found that vouchers have a negative impact on civic values and practices.
  • A 2012 study jointly released by the Kennedy School at Harvard and the Brookings Institution found that college enrollments for low-income African American students who, years earlier had won vouchers to attend private elementary schools, were 24 percent higher than a socioeconomically identical group of students who had not won them.
  • States that have adopted vouchers of one kind or another: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia (via acts of Congress).

What Do the Politics Say?
Roundtable Voices

  • “In 2011 we passed education bills in both the House and Senate that included vouchers, but we ran into a buzz saw that was the governor.  The good news was there was an appetite for vouchers in the Legislature.  The bad news is that there was an appetite for them because one party, Republicans, was in control of both chambers.  I think it was a complete party line vote in both the House and Senate.”
  • “I just wonder if [the previous speaker] sees the irony of having the party which resists vouchers being the same party which most explicitly says it’s defending the rights of people who don’t have many choices?”
  • “The union bureaucratic complex is protecting its franchise.  That’s absolutely the reason we don’t have vouchers.”
  • “The political solution is to cultivate more Democrats who are pro-school choice among both existing elected officials and those coming up through the grassroots.”

What Do Matters of Faith and Morality Say?

  • More than most children, boys and girls growing up in fragmented families often need the kind of education that fills, not only their need to know algebra or Colonial history, but also the kind that nourishes and helps fill the holes in their hearts where their father or sometimes where their mother should be.

What Does Early Childhood Education Say?

  • Low-income parents in Minnesota can use state-backed “scholarships” in choosing where their pre-K boys and girls attend pre-school, including religious programs.  But are not “scholarships” in this instance the fundamental equivalent of “vouchers” for older kids?

What Does the Future Say?

  • We need to take far greater advantage of digital learning: lessons and courses of which can be “unbundled” in ways that will significantly change how schools are organized, how teachers teach and, not incidentally, how unions seek to organize and influence.

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