Congress Budget Deal Bans New Gold-Standard Studies of Federal Vouchers

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As part of a fiscal 2017 budget deal, Congress plans to forbid the use of randomized, controlled trials in new evaluations of the only federal school voucher program.

The move comes a week after an experimental-design study found negative results for students who accepted vouchers compared to students who applied but were not chosen for the program, but it has been in the works for more than a year. The change in future methods may have ripple effects not only for those debating school vouchers, but also for states and districts trying to work out how to identify successful programs under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“I think it’s fair to say it sends a signal about evidence that’s inconsistent with ESSA,” said Mark Dynarski, the lead author in the most recent evaluation of the voucher program. “ESSA is pretty clear about the role of evidence and experiments, and this does muddy the water.”

The 2017 omnibus spending bill to keep the governement running through the end of September includes language requiring the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences to evaluate the voucher program every year. But instead of using randomized, controlled trials, which have been used in prior evaluations of the program, it calls for the evaluations to use “an acceptable quasi-experimental research design … that does not use a control study group consisting of students who applied for but did not receive opportunity scholarships.” Congress directs IES to compare students who get vouchers to a comparision group of “students with similar backgrounds in the District of Columbia public schools and the District of Columbia public charter schools.”

. . .

And Dynarski agreed. “Some of these issues might influence findings in one direction, and some might go in the other direction,” he said. “Considering the topic in question, and in the context of having used strong scientific methods for the previous study and the current one, it’s at least unclear why now is the time to swap out strong methods and swap in weaker ones.”

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