Schools Vouchers Making a Comeback

Despite resounding parent opposition to the idea of taking taxpayer money and using it to pay private-school tuitions, partisan lawmakers across the country — as well as in Congress – have returned this spring to one of their favorite pet topics: school vouchers.

So far, faced with unified opposition from parents and educators, they’re not having much luck. In Virginia, Florida and Montana, voucher schemes all have bit the dust in recent weeks.

But in Congress, despite four U.S. Department of Education studies showing that a federal voucher program has had zero impact on student achievement in the District of Columbia, a handful of lawmakers are still pressing for renewal of the costly “D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,” and threatening to withhold up to $60 million in federal aid to the poverty-stricken district.

It just doesn’t make sense, wrote the National Coalition for Public Education, of which NEA is a member, in recent testimony to a U.S. Senate committee. “Rather than continuing to spend millions of dollars on a program that has proven ineffective and that is geared towards only helping a small fraction of D.C. students, we believe that the money should be redirected to programs that help improve public education for all students in the District.”

The D.C. program, which was created by Congress in 2004 as a five-year “pilot”, was scheduled to expire in 2008. But Congress has provided additional funding each year – including $13.2 million in 2010-2011 – and now its proponents seek another $9.4 million this year. (Keep in mind, these are the same lawmakers who decry federal spending and, in the House of Representatives, recently slashed $61 billion from the federal budget, including $1 billion from Head Start and $700 million in grants to the country’s poorest schools.)

So why throw good money after bad? Each year, the Department of Education releases a mandatory academic evaluation – and each one has found that students who entered a voucher school from a “school in need of improvement,” demonstrated no increase in academic achievement, even though that is the singular goal of the program. Furthermore, participation had no effect on student safety, satisfaction, motivation or engagement.

At the same time, voucher schools in D.C. were less likely than D.C. public schools to have counselors, tutors, or special programs for English Language Learner or students with disabilities. Of the children who left the program in its first year, 45 percent of their parents said it was because the “child did not get the academic support he/she needed.” The following year, 54 percent of parents gave that reason.

Moreover, DC voters don’t want it. Before Congress enacted the program, an opinion poll found 75 percent of D.C. voters opposed it. Last week, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray testified against it. “My emphasis was, and continues to be, on building a solid public education system consisting of traditional public schools and charters,” said Gray, according to The Washington Post.

Here is what is happening elsewhere with vouchers:

  • In Virginia, a new school voucher bill failed last week. It would have diverted a whopping $25 million in state tax credits to a few wealthy corporations who donate to private school voucher foundations – even as the governor’s proposed budget aims to reduce school funding to $4,519 per pupil (down from $5,274 per pupil in 2009.) “We can’t afford it,” warned Rob Jones, director of the government relations and research for the Virginia Education Association. He told state delegates: “Your constitutional responsibility is to fund the public schools.”
  • In Florida, a flurry of legal questions has forced newly elected Governor Rick Scott to back off his plan for new school vouchers. Scott had hoped to create a “state savings plan,” a pot of public money that parents could access to send their kids to private school. After hearing that it likely would require a constitutional amendment approved by voters, Scott said he would concentrate on other priorities. He likely has heard that voters have never approved a voucher amendment in any state.
  • Similarly, in Montana, where lawmakers were considering the same model as Scott, a voucher bill failed in committee last week.
  • But elsewhere, including Oregon and Arizona, voucher bills remain under consideration. In Georgia, a Senate committee could hear a bill as soon as next week to expand that state’s voucher program, which already offers private-school tuition to students with disabilities, to include military families and foster children. In years past, other proposed expansions have been defeated.