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California and the West

Voucher Study Finds Gain for Black Students

Education: Research shows rise in test scores for African American children who switched to private schools, but finds no improvement among other ethnic groups.

August 28, 2000|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A study of three school voucher programs has found that test scores improved among African American children who used vouchers to switch to private schools. But there was no similar improvement among children from other ethnic groups.

The study, unveiled today, is certain to fuel the growing debate over vouchers in the presidential campaign and in California, where a voucher initiative will appear on the November ballot.

The study, led by Paul Peterson, a Harvard professor of government and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, examined privately funded experimental voucher programs in New York, Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio.

Each program offered vouchers to attend private schools to several hundred children. Participants were awarded the vouchers by lottery, and a control group was formed from those not chosen.

Between 1997 and 1999, the researchers found, the African American children who received the vouchers moved up an average of 6.3 points in percentile rankings in test scores in math and reading relative to a control group that remained in public schools.

The researchers called the gains statistically significant and said they equal a third of the average nationwide gap in test scores between blacks and whites.

By contrast, white and Latino children who participated in the voucher programs showed no statistically significant change in test scores.

Researchers called the results encouraging--and mystifying. "We never expected to find differential effects by ethnic groups," Peterson said.

One possible explanation is that the black students attended worse public schools, and therefore benefited most from private schools, he said.

The study is one of several in recent years attempting to measure the effect of vouchers on student performance. Researchers modeled their approach after medical investigations, attempting to set their study apart from previous ones, which they viewed as insufficiently rigorous.

Supporters of California's Proposition 38 initiative, which would make vouchers available throughout the state, were quick to claim the study for their cause. "We have, at least in this study, improvement in clearly the most needy group in the country," said Brian Bennett, policy consultant with voucher campaign.

However, critics of vouchers said the study was tainted because it was done in cooperation with the pro-voucher organizations that support the three programs. "It would be nice to have a clean study, but this is not it," said Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman for the National Education Assn., which is critical of vouchers.

Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley education policy professor and a Proposition 38 critic, said the results may have little relevance to the California debate because programs in the study targeted poor students. The California initiative, by contrast, seeks to make $4,000 annual vouchers available to all families--even those who already can afford private schools, he said.

Moreover, he said, the study's finding that "whites didn't improve is very newsworthy. Since the early 1990s people assumed that working-class and poor kids of all races did better in Catholic schools."

Peterson said more study is needed, but added that improvement in test scores among African Americans is important given persistent gaps in tests scores between blacks and other groups. He said it shows "we should move ahead with voucher initiatives one step at a time."

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