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Study: Private Voucher Students Outperform Peers


A Harvard University study released Monday finds that African-Americans who receive private educational vouchers perform better in elementary school than their public school counterparts.

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( - A Harvard University study released Monday finds that African-Americans who receive private educational vouchers perform better in elementary school than their public school counterparts.

The year-long study from Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance tracked 810 students who applied in a random lottery for scholarships from the Washington Scholarship Fund, a private voucher program in Washington, D.C., that provides up to $1700 for public school students to attend private schools.

Half of the group received a scholarship, while half remained in local public schools.

The study found that black students entering private schools in grades two to five outperformed public school students by six points in math and three points in reading. They were also three times more likely to give their school an "A" in a student evaluation.

Parents of private voucher recipients were more than three times more likely to be pleased by their child's education as parents of public school students, and reported significantly less concern with fighting, property destruction, and class size.

Overall, WSF president Patrick Purtill was "pleased to see the elementary school children using [WSF] scholarships are, after only six months, already showing signs of improvement."

While the Harvard study showed that younger students improved reading and math skills in private schools, junior high schools students switching from public to private schools had difficulty with the transition. Among students in grades six to eight, math scores improved only marginally while reading scores actually fell eight points.

Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance and the study's coauthor, told that the sudden change in expectations and environment was a challenge for older students.

"It's very likely that they have been in quite a different educational atmosphere," said Peterson. "They have more homework, there's less fighting in the classroom, there's less cheating. . . . Being held to a different set of expectations is a real challenge for them." While WSF is a private foundation that takes no position on publicly-funded education vouchers, the study seems likely to impact the debate on public vouchers.

Most significantly, the researchers found little support for the notion that vouchers encourage "creaming" - the removal of the best students from public schools into private schools that results in general decline of academic standards in public schools.

According to the study, an analysis of the differences between students who accepted the scholarships and students who declined indicated little statistical difference between the two groups.

Dave DeSchryver, director of research for the Center for Education Reform, said that the Harvard study is in line with other reports indicating that creaming does not occur.

"It's a function of demand," DeSchryver told "Those who aren't being served by the public schools are the ones who jump at vouchers. You don't see vouchers catching on in well-funded suburban school systems."

However, said DeSchryver, the Harvard study will probably not have too great an impact on the debate over vouchers.

"The evidence here is probably not large enough or aggregate enough to convince anyone. . . . This is a pretty heated topic, and a lot of people already have their minds made up."

A spokesperson for the National Education Association, which opposes public vouchers, agreed, telling that the study "doesn't cover an expansive enough amount of time to say anything definitive about the effectiveness of vouchers."

Students in the survey will continue to be tracked over the next several years, according to the study.



Justin Torres. Study: Private Voucher Students Outperform Peers. CNS (February, 28, 2000).

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