School choice is the centerpiece of President Trump’s vision for reshaping the Department of Education. In his recent budget proposal, Trump included $500 million in funding to support the expansion of school voucher programs, funding for the construction of new charters and the option for parents to use 529 college savings plans to pay for private K-12 education.
His approach is in line with proposals from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has long championed school choice as a way to help parents from underserved communities secure a better education for their children and as a means to spur competition that advocates say will improve schools across the board.
Even before the current administation's embrace of school choice, the idea of vouchers had been gaining popularity. The number of children using vouchers and publicly funded private-school scholarships has risen from 150,000 in 2004 to more than 400,000 in 2017, according to data from EdChoice.
But just how effective is school choice? Do vouchers really improve educational outcomes for the poor and minority students they're aimed at serving?
A pair of new studies offer mixed answers.
In Milwaukee, voucher students were 6 percent more likely to enroll in college, and stayed in college 22 percent longer, than their public school peers. But the city's voucher program had no effect on whether students actually earned a college degree.
More than 26,000 students participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which allows them to attend one of 126 participating private schools. The Urban Institute study tracked students from 2006 to 2017.
In D.C., the vouchers are distributed through a citywide lottery, making it an ideal case study since researchers can easily compare students who received vouchers against those who applied but did not receive one. It's also the nation's only federally funded school voucher program.
Unlike Milwaukee, D.C.'s voucher program had no substantive effect on whether students enrolled in college.
Despite the minimal gains, these programs are nonetheless valuable, says Matthew Chingos, director of the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Program and author of the Washington, D.C., report.
“In a lot of these programs, the private schools spend less. The average private school is not a fancy school where rich people send their children,” Chingos says. “When you see a small positive effect, but the government spends less, that’s usually seen as a good thing.”
Critics of school voucher programs say these reports are evidence that the programs fail to have a real impact on students in need.
"Vouchers are a very low-benefit strategy to improve opportunities for low-income youth," says Martin Carnoy, a Stanford University professor and a research associate at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute. "Indeed, they have distracted from implementing changes in public schools that would make much larger differences in these kids' lives."
Carnoy's own research suggests that vouchers have a negative impact on school systems. They widen achievement gaps, increase school segregation and have only shown small improvements in high school and college graduation rates, according to his research.