Experts debate the merits and design of statewide private school choice programs

February 8, 2018—In the past few years, four states have established or expanded initiatives that provide public financial support to students who choose to attend a private school. With U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at the helm of a federal initiative to spread private school choice even further, a new forum for Education Next brings together experts to assess the research on these programs—a tax-credit-funded scholarship in Florida and voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio—and the implications for whether and how states should design and oversee statewide choice programs.

Patrick J. Wolf, education policy professor at the University of Arkansas, reports on a meta-analysis of 16 experimental studies of private-school-choice programs, which found achievement gains in reading. Further, he notes, “the effects of private-school-choice programs on educational attainment—how far an individual goes in school—are both larger and more consistent than their achievement effects,” with programs narrowly targeted to low-income, urban students proving to be the most effective.

Douglas N. Harris, professor of economics at Tulane, argues that states should slow down slowdown in creating new private school choice programs due to the lack of evidence on their consequences. “Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have some type of voucher program. Just four statewide voucher programs have been formally evaluated, and only one has shown any signs of success,” he writes, emphasizing that in no other field would policymakers move forward with such a tenuous understanding of potential impact.

The trio of Mark Berends, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, R. Joseph Waddington, assistant professor at the College of Education, University of Kentucky, and Megan Austin, researcher at the American Institutes for Research, Chicago, examine the nation’s largest voucher initiative, the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program. In the most complete picture to date of how a voucher program operating at scale affects student achievement, the researchers report that the early academic losses for voucher students are recouped in later years. On their list of policy recommendations, they advise that “private schools felt rushed in their communication with families and enrollment of students. Giving schools, families, and students more time to prepare for change might ease adjustment all the way around.”

To receive an embargoed copy of “Taking Stock of Private School Choice” or to speak with the authors, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article will be available Tuesday, February 13 on and will appear in the Spring 2018 issue of Education Next, available in print on February 28, 2018.

About the Authors: Patrick J. Wolf is an education policy professor at the University of Arkansas. Douglas N. Harris is a professor of economics at Tulane. Mark Berends is a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. R. Joseph Waddington is an assistant professor at the College of Education, University of Kentucky. Megan Austin is a researcher at the American Institutes for Research, Chicago.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

Last updated February 13, 2018