Big Money, Small ROI

Bill Lee plans to invest TN tax dollars in a scheme with declining returns

Gov. Bill Lee’s signature policy initiative, school vouchers, is barreling toward final approval. The plan has a year one price tag of over $140 million and a second year projected cost approaching $300 million.

Tweet explaining the cost of vouchers

This seems fiscally problematic.

Especially given the reality that vouchers have rarely shown academic improvement and in some cases, have actually caused academic declines.

In fact, in Tennessee’s own school voucher pilot program, the results suggest vouchers are far from improving academic outcomes.

Students enrolled that were tested scored lower than their public school peers in the same county and below the statewide average.

Back in 2017, I noted:

Kevin Carey writes in the New York Times:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

Bill Lee has spent his time and energy as governor finding a way to funnel public dollars to private schools and it is clearly not in service of improving outcomes for kids.


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