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7 Tips for Improving News Coverage of Private School Choice

University professors who study private school choice programs offer journalists advice for strengthening news coverage of this divisive topic.

Photo credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore


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This article was republished with permission from The Journalist’s Resource.  (Note: The author serves on the EWA board of directors.)  

About half of U.S. states offer private school choice programs, which help families pay for private school. It’s a highly politicized, complicated issue involving multiple types of tuition assistance, hundreds of thousands of children and billions of taxpayer dollars.

It’s also an issue journalists need to examine closely. News coverage grounded in academic research is particularly important as more states consider starting these programs and lawmakers in states that have them push to expand.

How can journalists strengthen their coverage? We put this question to seven university professors who study private school vouchers and other private school choice programs. Here’s their advice:

1. Explain how the various private school choice programs differ.

In the U.S., the three most common private school choice programs are tuition vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts, or ESAs. Journalists often refer to them all as “voucher” programs, but there are key differences.

“ESAs are radically different from school vouchers,” Patrick J. Wolf, a professor of education policy and the 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas, wrote to The Journalist’s Resource.

In our roundup of research on private school choice, we briefly explain these three programs:

  • Private school vouchers are public funds that generally cover all or a portion of private school tuition. Families typically do not receive this money, however. Program administrators pay private schools directly.
  • Tax-credit scholarships also cover all or part of a student’s tuition bill. This money also tends to be paid to private schools directly. A primary difference between these two programs: While government agencies take money from their own coffers to offer vouchers, they fund tax-credit scholarships indirectly. They give businesses and other taxpayers tax credits in exchange for donating money needed to provide scholarships.
  • Education savings accounts are accounts containing public funds that students can spend on a variety of education-related materials and services. Tutoring, online courses, standardized testing fees and homeschooling materials are generally included on states’ lists of allowable expenses. Families decide how they want to use those dollars and receive prepaid debit cards to access them. States offering ESAs usually call them “scholarships.”

2. Find out how families decide whether to participate in private school choice programs.

Vanderbilt University researcher Claire Smrekar urges journalists to ask families how they decide whether to participate in these programs and to ask school officials what kinds of information they provide.

Policymakers and school officials often assume incorrectly that parents and guardians have access to the same information, says Smrekar, an associate professor of public policy and education who’s also editor of the Peabody Journal of Education. But studies consistently show that lower-income families and parents with lower levels of formal education generally do not receive or seek out the same information that higher-income families and parents with college degrees do, she adds.

Parents and guardians who aren’t familiar with education jargon or certain terms might not fully understand what school officials convey about private school choice programs in person or in writing. The same is true for parents who don’t speak English or aren’t fluent.

The method of communication matters, too, Smrekar points out. School officials often use email and social media to share information. That’s a problem for families who don’t have internet service or use the same social media platforms.

This is not an indictment of or finding fault with parents,” she says. “It’s a problem with the assumption that all families have access to high levels of information.”

Josh Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, says journalists should pay attention to enrollment patterns. Students aren’t leaving their public schools in droves. A lot of the kids using public money to pay for a private K-12 education were already enrolled in private schools, he notes.

In Iowa, for example, state officials reported in July that 40% of students approved for education savings accounts were public school students planning to transfer to private schools and 60% were students already enrolled in private schools, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

In Florida, 84,505 students receiving private school vouchers were already enrolled in private school, Politico reports. And 22,294 children started kindergarten at private schools using tuition vouchers. Meanwhile, 16,096 kids — 13% of all voucher recipients — transferred from public to private schools.

3. Scrutinize private schools.

Researchers we interviewed stressed the need for more in-depth reporting on private schools in states that have introduced school choice programs and states where lawmakers are considering it.

Questions they say journalists should answer in their news coverage:

  • What assumptions are being made about the quality and number of private schools willing to participate in these programs?
  • What’s the history and track record of private schools that participate in these programs in your state or other states?
  • What’s the capacity of private schools in your community and state?
  • What are the types and locations of private schools that have the most room available for new students?
  • Are the highest quality private schools willing to participate? If so, are they also willing — and able — to expand to accommodate students using vouchers, tax-credit scholarships or education savings accounts?
  • What rules or other factors could deter the highest quality private schools from participating?
  • If a private school has limited seats available, which types of students are most likely to be admitted?
  • Do any private schools in your state or community bar certain types of students from enrolling — for example, pregnant students, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities or students who don’t speak English?
  • If a student’s voucher, tax-credit scholarship or education savings account doesn’t cover the full tuition amount, which schools will help students cover the remainder? How?

4. Note that using public money to pay for private education is not a recent development.

State and local governments have funded private K-12 schools and private colleges and universities for generations. Rural communities in New England started offering “town tuitioning” to school children after the Civil War, starting with Vermont in 1869 and Maine in 1873.

In these communities, local governments give families money to pay for private school because they don’t operate public schools that serve all grades. Kids who cannot go to public school in these towns have the option of enrolling in a public or private school in another location. As of February 2023, 45 Vermont communities offered this option, the Valley News in New Hampshire reports. This school year, these towns are paying $18,266 in tuition, on average, for each student in grades 7 to 12 and $16,756, on average, per child in the lower grades, according to the Vermont Agency of Education.

In 1989, Wisconsin enacted the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which provided private school tuition vouchers to lower-income children in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city. The program has been expanded multiple times over the years. Florida launched the first statewide voucher program in 1999, giving students in failing public schools the option of transferring to private schools.

During the 2022-23 academic year, an estimated 688,040 students across more than 20 states received a total of $4 billion through vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts, according to a 2023 report from EdChoice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for school choice. Almost half those students used tuition vouchers, worth $6,881, on average.

State governments have long provided funding for private colleges and universities as well. As a comparison, state governments gave private higher education institutions a total of $2.8 billion in fiscal year 2022 — $297 million to help them with operating costs and $2.5 billion to help students pay for tuition and other education-related expenses, according to a report the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association released last year.

5. Push back on claims made by advocates on both sides of the issue.

“More journalists should challenge the slogans and talking points of policy advocates on both sides of the school choice debate,” Wolf wrote to The Journalist’s Resource. “For example, if a [school] choice supporter declares ‘school choice is a lifeline for needy students,’ ask them: ‘What proportion of students who switch from public to private schools clearly benefit from the change?’ [and] ‘What proportion leave the private school within two years and just end up bouncing around from school to school with no stability?’

Wolf also suggested journalists push back on claims from school choice critics who declare, for example, that private school vouchers will destroy public schools.

“Ask them: ‘Why are public schools so fragile that they can only endure if students have no other option?’ [and] ‘Where has school choice destroyed the public-school sector? Give me an example,’” he added.

Huriya Kanwal Jabbar, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Southern California, advised journalists to press supporters of private school choice to explain their reasons why.

“The slogan we hear is that choice is good in and of itself,” Jabbar wrote to The Journalist’s Resource. “I’d be curious to see if leaders advancing this are also concerned about school quality or accountability or student outcomes — or if their main goal is simply to give families more choices, even if they end up selecting schools that are worse for their children’s academic outcomes. In other words, what are the main priorities driving these policies? It seems important to be transparent about the aims so that we can then assess the evidence associated with those goals/aims.”

Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy who directs Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, suggests journalists ask about potential learning loss. How would parents and guardians react if their children’s standardized test scores drop after enrolling in private school? How much of a decline is acceptable? Which should be policymakers’ priority: Getting the biggest positive impact they can for taxpayer dollars or giving families the ability to choose for themselves the type of education they want for their kids?

6. Familiarize yourself with the research on private school choice.

Academic journals are continually publishing new studies on private school choice. It’s critical for journalists covering the topic to stay up to date and incorporate new findings into their stories.

“The research has shifted — we’re seeing a different story from the research than we were 10 years ago,” Lubienski says.

While studies in the 1990s and early 2000s generally indicate U.S. students in these programs perform as well or better on standardized tests than their public school peers, more recent research finds private school choice students do about the same or worse. In Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and the District of Columbia, test scores fell after public school students transferred to private schools, according to papers published or released in 2016 and 2018.

Cowen says the challenges associated with scaling up these programs are reflected in the newer studies.

“There are not enough good private schools to take these children,” he says. “It’s that simple.”

The Journalist’s Resource has gathered and summarized several peer-reviewed papers on private school choice. They are among the most recent and offer valuable insights into how these programs affect student achievement in the U.S., Chile, Colombia, Denmark, India and other countries.

For help spotting problematic research, check out our tip sheet, “How to Gauge the Quality of a Research Study: 13 Questions Journalists Should Ask.”

Also, because education researchers sometimes report their findings in terms of standard deviations instead of more common units of measurement such as points or rates, you might find this short explainer helpful: “What’s Standard Deviation? 4 Things Journalists Need to Know.”

7. Report on long-term trends in test scores and other indicators of progress.

M. Danish Shakeel, who co-edited the book Educating Believers: Religion and School Choice, says it’s important that journalists look at how individual private school choice programs perform over time. Academic studies often provide a snapshot of a program over the span of several months or a few years.

In addition to standardized test scores, journalists should examine other indicators of student achievement such as civic engagement, college graduation rates and the development of non-cognitive skills, including problem solving and communication skills, says Shakeel, a professor at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom and director of the E.G. West Centre for Education Policy there.

It’s also important that journalists know that families have many reasons for seeking a private school education. Not all parents who care deeply about their children’s academic progress consider large spikes in test scores the main priority, Shakeel adds.

Some families prefer religious instruction or that their children learn in a faith-based environment, neither of which is available in American public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that religious schools cannot be excluded from government programs that help parents and guardians pay private school tuition.

Some families believe it’s just as important to instill morals and values in children as it is to teach them reading and math. Shakeel recommends journalists look at how students’ lives, as a whole, have changed since they began participating in private school choice programs.

“Start asking questions on outcomes that are not typically discussed,” he says. “[Academic] outcomes are important, but those things that are important to the family get missed in the news reports.”

Some questions to ask families:

  • What have their children’s interactions with teachers and classmates been like at their private school? If their kids transferred from a public school, how has their learning experience changed?
  • Have families’ attitudes about education or schools changed?
  • Do parents and guardians feel supported by teachers and staff at the private school?
  • How have their parenting styles changed since their children started private school?
  • Has the family or child become more religious, compassionate or civic-minded?
  • How has the child’s behavior at home and in the community changed?
  • How satisfied are parents and guardians with their children’s education?

About the Author

Denise-Marie Ordway

She joined The Journalist’s Resource in 2015 after working as a reporter for newspapers and radio stations in the U.S. and Central America, including the Orlando Sentinel and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her work also has appeared in publications such as USA TODAY, the New York TimesChicago Tribune and Washington Post. She has received a multitude of national, regional and state-level journalism awards and was named as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2013 for an investigative series she led that focused on hazing and other problems at Florida A&M University. Ordway was a 2014-15 Fellow of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. She also serves on the board of directors of the Education Writers Association. @DeniseOrdway