What’s Wrong With “School Choice” Vouchers?

March 30, 2017

School choice is back in the news, thanks to Trump’s choice of school choice advocate — some would say zealot — and more, recently his budget plan. The hot-button part is federally-funded support for parents to send their children to private schools.

Most people understand this to mean vouchers, though we might see other proposals as well. This is one of the things I learned from a webcasted speech and panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress.

Those who know CAP know the event aimed to expose the problems with vouchers. And it did — well enough, I think, to move anyone on the fence off to the opposition side.

Senator Patty Murray, the most senior Democrat on the HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee led off by summarizing a lengthy letter she’d just sent to colleagues. The panelists filled in with supporting research and those other proposals we might see.

Big takeaways here. A followup soon on another way Trump might try to fund private school choice, plus some further threats targeted specifically high-poverty schools and their students.

Accountability and Transparency

The Every Child Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, gives states more flexibility in how they assess students’ mastery of three basic skill and knowledge areas — reading/language arts, math and science.

They’ve got flexibility they didn’t have to set standards for assessing schools, though they must include those test scores and, for high schools, graduation rates. They’ve also got more flexibility in what to do about schools that consistently don’t measure up.

But test at least those basic skills they must, at the same grade-level intervals and to virtually all the students in those grades.

And both they and school districts must still publicly report, among other things, the tests results broken out, e.g., by race-ethnicity, with a disability, whether disadvantaged by living in poverty or near-poverty.

They must also now report other relevant data, e.g., broken-out suspension and expulsion rates, percent and number of teachers who lack experience and/or the customary formal credentials.

ESSA is the latest version of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. So it applies only to state education agencies and to schools districts they distribute their share of federal funds to.

Private schools don’t get any So they can test students whenever and however choose — or not at all. They can inform parents or not. Even if they do, parents have no reliable way to know whether their children are learning more or less than they would in a regular public or charter school.

Quality Education

The freedom private schools have from learning standards extends to staffing choices. They don’t have to hire only teachers who have state teaching credentials.

State requirements differ, but they include a four-year college degree, including courses in education (or a major for elementary school) and a major or minor in a subject they’ll teach.

And only about half of the 20 voucher programs that the General Accountability Office surveyed had any sort of accreditation from a state or other established quality assurance organization.

What this means is that students may graduate, but discover they can’t get into college without completing a GED. Or, as in a case Murray’s letter cites, can’t transfer to the next grade level in a public school.

Equal Education Guarantees

All regular public and publicly-funded charter schools must comply with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act — a federal law that requires them to ensure that every disabled child has a free and individually-appropriate education.

It’s, as Murray’s letter says, basically a civil rights law, since it expands and spells out in detail how schools must ensure the equal educational opportunity guarantee in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Private schools don’t have to comply with IDEA, except those in the District of Columbia that enroll students with vouchers because they’re federally-funded — another unwanted intervention in local policymaking and mostly a channel of support to religious schools.

They would nationwide if federally-funded, as Trump’s budget envisions and his Secretary of Education dearly wants, notwithstanding her earlier view that IDEA requirements would “be best left to states.”

But what we know about private schools that enroll students with state-funded vouchers should, at the very least, make us suspicious. Private schools have, for example, rejected children with vouchers because of disabilities — or deterred parents from enrolling them.

Not long ago, only a minuscule fraction of children with disabilities were enrolled through vouchers in Wisconsin’s private voucher schools. And the schools warned they’d not provide the level of services IDEA requires.

In Florida, parents of children with scholarships exclusively for those with disabilities must sign away all their IDEA rights.

Federally-funded vouchers would in theory, if not in practice at the very least give children with disabilities an education more appropriate for them than some state programs. But that wouldn’t resolve the equality issues.

Title IX expressly exempts religious schools from complying with its prohibition against sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs so far as that would run up against their tenets.

This means, among other things, that they can have sex-segregated curricula based on based on their beliefs about gender roles, different conduct codes and fewer or no athletic opportunities geared to women students’ interests and abilities. They can also, of course, rampantly discriminate against LGBT students.

Other Inequities

Vouchers won’t make private schools affordable for lower-income parents unless they’re virtually budget-busters.

State-funded voucher programs were worth, on average, $2,000–$5,000 last year. Private school tuition alone averaged about twice the higher range of this average. And then come books, uniforms and probably other costs.

So vouchers don’t truly mean choice for parents who can’t substantially supplement them. On the contrary, studies of voucher programs in four states found that most of the money went to parents who already had enough to have their kids in private schools.

Finally, they’re worthless for kids in many rural communities, where even the nearest public school is often far away—and a private school even further.

But the public schools provide transportation. They’ll have less money to spend for that, as well as other things if the federal government funds vouchers. The add-on in Trump’s budget doesn’t change this. Without it, there’d be more money for public schools.