Study spurs doubts about school-voucher programs

WASHINGTON — A study of one of the nation's few school voucher programs has found that students who receive tuition subsidies to attend private schools are not doing any better than students in public schools.

The findings drew a predictably mixed reaction in the Jewish community, which remains divided over school voucher initiatives, also known as "school choice."

Despite words of caution from the researchers themselves, the study is likely to further fuel the national debate over vouchers, which congressional Republicans have set at the top of their education agenda.

The study, commissioned by the state of Ohio, examined Cleveland's 2-year-old pilot program, which gives 3,000 students from low-income families up to $2,250 to attend private or parochial schools of their choice.

Researchers found "no significant differences" in achievement in reading, math, social studies or science skills between students using vouchers and a comparable sampling of students from Cleveland's public schools.

While cautioning against reading too much into a single study, Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress' legal department, said, "It shows that vouchers are not the magic bullet that people make them out to be."

Marshall Breger, a professor of law at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., said, "It tells us nothing because you can't have any serious comparative test" that "doesn't go on for a good number of years."

Some of the less tangible benefits that can be derived from school choice, such as more parental involvement and a more comfortable learning environment, "are lost in these kinds of studies," added Breger, who serves as vice chairman of the Jewish Policy Center, a think tank affiliated with the Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition.

Most Jewish organizations oppose vouchers because of the concern that vouchers violate the constitutional separation between church and state. Many also worry about their impact on public education.

But many Orthodox and politically conservative Jews argue that vouchers are needed to provide better access to Jewish day school education, which many believe can help fight the Jewish continuity crisis.

While the Ohio study, conducted by Indiana University's School of Education, found that the promise of Cleveland's voucher experiment has not been fulfilled, other research has drawn different conclusions.

A privately funded study conducted at Harvard University last year found moderate gains among students who receive vouchers and greater satisfaction among parents.

Two of the professors who wrote that report, Paul Peterson of Harvard and Jay Greene of the University of Texas at Austin, called the Indiana University study "seriously flawed."

They criticized it for including only a small sampling of students, using "suspect" second-grade test scores that they said skewed positive effects recorded in other grade levels, and comparing the voucher students to a sampling of students attending above-average public schools.

Similar studies of a voucher program in Milwaukee have also produced mixed findings.

Concerned that the Indiana University study may be used for political purposes, the lead researcher cautioned that the data thus far is limited.

"Both proponents and opponents of voucher school programs should avoid using these data to build either case because the information is preliminary," said Kim Metcalf, an Indiana University professor. The Ohio Supreme Court has already heard oral arguments in a constitutional challenge to Cleveland's voucher program.

As a preliminary move, the court stayed an appeals court decision banning the program, allowing it to remain in effect while the court deliberates.

A decision on the case could come at any time.