News: CJ Exclusives

Voucher supporters fire back at Duke Law School’s criticisms

Duke Law School clinic report was corrected after first publication but voucher backers say concept was flawed

(CJ File Photo By Kari Travis)
(CJ File Photo By Kari Travis)

Backers of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income students continue to challenge a report from Duke University claiming the program doesn’t help scholarship recipients learn.

A recent white paper from Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a nonprofit that backs opportunity scholarships, charter schools and other forms of parental choice, was designed to “set the record straight — on North Carolina’s program and on national research.”

The paper responded to a March report from the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke Law School claiming that North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program had not improved academic performance. Opponents of school choice hailed the report as proof that voucher programs and charter schools are insufficient and lack accountability.

But the Duke report had its critics, saying Duke’s methodology was flawed and made “apples-to-apples” comparisons among voucher recipients and public school students despite conceding that such comparisons cannot be made.

“There was never enough data to make any sort of sound comparison to public schools or any sound assembly of how voucher students are doing,” Terry Stoops, the director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, explained.

Duke Law School eventually released a corrected version of the report and removed some direct comparisons between scholarship students and public school students, but the study still claims that the Opportunity Scholarship Program lacks accountability and that studies of other similar voucher programs in other states unanimously condemn school choice programs.

“They would have had to retract the entire thing in order to make it satisfactory,” Stoops argued. “This was clearly Duke University acting in a partisan manner.”

In contrast, the PEFNC paper lists numerous studies of other school-choice programs that have yielded positive results, including the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, but the paper also points out that the necessary data to adequately evaluate the North Carolina program is missing.

“We still do not know how Opportunity Scholarship students perform relative to public school students from similar backgrounds,” PEFNC’s report reads. “We do not know how scholarship students compare to other scholarship students at various private schools, given the different tests students take.”

The PEFNC report say the public deserves to know if the taxpayer dollars that are directed toward these programs actually result in successful student outcomes. It points to an independent evaluation conducted by a research team at N.C. State University that is now underway.* It will evaluate the early academic impact of the Opportunity Scholarship Program by comparing the test performance of scholarship students and public school students, using the Iowa Basic Skills Test. The findings will be released sometime in the fall.

Brian Jodice, the vice president of communications and outreach at PEFNC, emphasized the importance of the upcoming evaluation.

“Right now there’s not enough data to provide a valid analysis, but more information will be available in the fall,” Jodice said. “We are always looking for ways to improve accountability.”

While standardized testing is seen by some as the primary means of ensuring accountability of schools, not everyone is sold on the method.

“If you give parents choice, that is a sufficient accountability mechanism,” Stoops said. “Tests are a source of information for parents to make a decision, but the ultimate means of accountability is vested in the parents in a choice-based system.”


*Editor’s note: This story was corrected after initial publication to clarify the group in charge of the evaluation.