MSU professor peddles ‘catastrophic’ myth against school vouchers

How a criticism of voucher programs actually provides a strong defense

A Michigan State University education professor is citing a recent study to blast school voucher programs. But the actual study undercuts the professor’s own claims. 

Josh Cowen, professor of education policy at Michigan State University, recently tweeted that school voucher programs have produced “catastrophic” academic results. Cowen points to a Fordham Institute study and accuses voucher advocates of “trying to hide” negative data.

The study itself paints a different picture, suggesting school choice programs produce some positive outcomes.

The Fordham study demonstrates improved achievement among voucher-eligible students who chose not to use the voucher. These results are attributable to the competitive effects of the voucher program. That is, school choice programs incentivize all schools to improve academic outcomes or risk losing students and the funding they bring. These findings help allay concerns that expanding school choice may harm students who remain in their assigned public school.

These competitive effects are well documented. Public schools experienced increased productivity — or student achievement per dollar spent — in regions where school choice was introduced, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study. The reforms studied included vouchers in Milwaukee, charter schools in Michigan and charter schools in Arizona.

Each of the school choice reforms led to increased public school productivity due to greater competition among schools in the region. And the greater the competition, the greater the gains. Schools were more productive because they performed better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress while maintaining level spending. This means each dollar spent went further to improve public school performance, an important metric for taxpayers.

Improved public school performance is not the only positive outcome of school choice programs. A child’s mental health is of primary importance to parents, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. States with charter school laws and voucher programs report fewer teen suicides, according to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth that collected data from 49 states from 1976 to 2016. This study also suggests a decrease in mental health issues later in life for students who attended private schools.

School choice programs give parents the freedom to choose a school that best aligns with their values and child’s unique learning needs. The one-size-fits-all approach delivered by conventional public schools too often fails to provide the individualized attention and support that a child needs for future success.

This freedom to choose is especially important in school districts that historically fail the state’s most disadvantaged students.

Detroit has consistently scored the lowest among urban districts in fourth and eighth grade reading and math since 2009. And only one out of 20 students scored at a proficient level on the eighth grade NAEP reading test in 2022.

School choice programs — vouchers, education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships and charter schools — give more parents, not just those with means, the chance to find a better school for their children.

And for parents who choose to keep their kids in conventional public schools: School choice helps them, too. Their option to pursue other education choices incentivizes public schools to improve their performance and retain their current students. The increased productivity that results from greater competition benefits schools, students and taxpayers.

Inaccurate claims by critics of school choice threaten to reduce learning options for students in need. Ample evidence supports the positive effects of reforms like school choice on student achievement and other outcomes. Downplaying these serves to maintain a status quo that fails to serve students.

Molly Macek is director of the Education Policy Institute at the Mackinac Center. Email her at

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.