How School Vouchers Affect English Learners

Last week, a group of students met with Speaker Ryan to discuss what they view to be the overwhelmingly positive effects of school choice. School choice, particularly vouchers, has become a hot topic as of late and has been the focus of education reformers within the new presidential administration. In 2016, then-nominee Trump proposed repurposing $20 billion in federal education funding to create a nationwide voucher program intended to give low-income students better choices.

Vouchers are often touted as a means to providing low-income students with better choices in an effort to promote equity and school integration along lines of race and socioeconomic status. They do so by essentially providing families with a coupon (made of public education dollars) to use at a private school of their choice.

But existing voucher programs have not been without their fair share of criticism. Several advocates and researchers cite less-than-optimal results in places like Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana. Kevin Carey, director of New America’s Education Policy Program, says that the recent results from some individual state voucher programs are more negative than any other states’ results are positive.

The results are concerning for students generally. But when it comes to how these programs impact English learners (ELs) specifically, there is something of a question mark. The most cited voucher studies generally do not report programs’ effects on ELs separately. So could it be the case that voucher programs might actually be helping ELs?

Julio Fuentes of Florida’s Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options thinks they can. Fuentes says that, at the end of the day, Florida’s voucher program gives options to parents of ELs who are disappointed in the performance of their child’s public school. He points to Miami’s La Progresiva Presbyterian School as an example of a private school that offers dual language immersion classes in Spanish and English. Access to high-quality options like this in a voucher program will benefit ELs, Fuentes says.

While this argument seems appealing at first, it quickly falls apart when considering the potential roadblocks ELs face in participating in voucher programs. For one thing, private schools are private. They are not required to accept every student’s vouchers, which can lead to discriminatory practices. In this way, an EL with a voucher trying to get into a popular dual language immersion school may not be accepted. Similarly, private schools are not required to offer English as a Second Language (ESL) or other services for EL students. In fact, a Washington Post investigation found that two-thirds of private schools participating in the D.C. voucher program do not have ESL services.

Even though many EL students qualify for vouchers in the various states that offer them, studies find that a large percentage of them do not actually use their vouchers. One study found that the students who were awarded vouchers but did not use them were disproportionately students with disabilities, students of color, and ELs.

There are multiple potential reasons why ELs do not use their vouchers. One reason could be a lack of understanding on the parent’s part. Vouchers are a very difficult subject for even a policymaker to fully grasp, let alone a parent who might have to overcome a language barrier. Furthermore, it is difficult to determine which voucher-participating private schools offer ESL or dual language immersion services.

But likely the most influential reason why EL students do not often use their vouchers is the high cost of tuition on top of the voucher amount. Take, for example, the cost of tuition at La Progresiva. The total yearly cost of attendance for students in kindergarten is over $6,300. The maximum Florida voucher amount, however, is around $5,900. The $400 difference can be huge for EL students, most of whom come from low-income families. What’s worse is that La Progresiva’s cost of tuition is on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to private schools. Florida’s average private elementary school cost is nearly $6,800, with the average high school cost reaching almost $9,000.

It is not surprising, then, that white, middle-class, suburban students tend to disproportionately benefit from private school voucher programs. In Indiana, this group of students is the fastest growing subset participating in the state’s voucher program. Because Indiana does not require prior public school attendance for a student to participate in the voucher program, the majority of students who receive vouchers in Indiana have never attended public school. Several other states exhibit a similar trend.

As more privileged demographics make use of voucher programs, certain implications emerge for English learners. An EL may be unable to use a voucher for any of the reasons discussed here, while her peers are able to relocate to private schools. As a result, she will be stuck in a public school that is having its funding drained to fund the voucher program, which will increase segregation and decrease the funding for the services she needs to succeed.

But let’s assume that an EL can overcome these barriers and is able to enroll in a private school with the help of a voucher. How will he fare once he is in that private school? One study on Indiana’s voucher program reports that EL students in upper elementary and middle schools experienced no difference in outcomes when compared to ELs in public schools. That is, the impact of private schools was neutral. Based on this finding, it is difficult to make the case that private schools will be better for EL outcomes than public schools and that taxpayer dollars should be spent there.

While it’s hard to say for sure how a national voucher system would affect English learners, the evidence from existing state programs is not promising. From increased segregation to decreased public funding and a lack of appropriate resources in private schools, it seems as though the barriers that ELs face in meaningfully participating in a voucher system will be difficult to address in a widescale program. At the very least, more research is needed to review the outcomes of ELs who participate in voucher programs.


Tony Hanna was a Summer 2017 intern with the Education Policy program's Dual Language Learners National Work Group.