Jan. 25 – 31 is “National School Choice” week. This annual event presents private school voucher proponents with the opportunity to tout the supposed benefits of “school choice,” an innocuous-sounding moniker that includes not only vouchers but also public school choice like charter and magnet schools.
But the public school options are mere window dressing. Pull back the curtain and you see that the real focus of this event is a push for private school vouchers. This reckless scheme threatens public education and doesn’t offer quality school choice.
First, private school vouchers do not provide students and parents with real and meaningful choice. Under private school voucher schemes, the ultimate choice rests with the school, not with the students and their families. Voucher programs usually allow participating private schools to reject students based on numerous factors, including economic status, gender, religion, academic achievement, sexual orientation, and even disability. Public schools, on the other hand, are required to accept all students.
Some students have even less choice than others. Students with disabilities often aren’t guaranteed the same services in the voucher school that they would ordinarily receive in a public school and can find few voucher schools that offer them the services they need. That is likely why, although students with disabilities comprise almost 20% of the Milwaukee public school population, they number only 1.6% of the city’s voucher school students. And, students who want to attend a secular school are also left with few options, as the vast majority of schools that accept vouchers are religious schools.
Second, voucher programs don’t provide students and families with quality options. Studies consistently show that private school vouchers don’t improve reading and math achievement. For example, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – the country’s oldest voucher program – a recent study shows that the students in the voucher program do no better in reading or math than their peers in public schools. Similarly in Louisiana, 67% of public school students pass their standardized tests, whereas only 44% of voucher students do.
The lack of quality control is even seen in the school buildings themselves. A closer look into the schools that serve Milwaukee’s voucher students found these schools to be lacking in appropriate amenities; many of them were operating out of old storefronts, gas stations, and other run-down facilities. The DC voucher program has a similar problem: students in a school accepting vouchers in DC had to go to the day care center downstairs because the school’s only bathroom wasn’t usable.
Unfortunately, parents often don’t know and can’t discover these problems in voucher schools. With no oversight, access to records and test scores, or public meetings, parents are often denied the pertinent information required to make a good choice.Nonetheless, states continue to create and expand voucher programs. There are currently private school voucher and tuition tax credit (backdoor voucher) programs in 23 states. And as states begin their 2015 legislative sessions, we are already seeing the introduction of numerous voucher bills.
Congress will likely debate private school vouchers too, as it attempts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In fact, the Senate bill already includes a scheme called Title I “portability.” Title I funding was designed to support schools with high concentrations of poverty, allowing schools to pool funds to help students most in need. Title I portability would dismantle the program, allowing funds to “follow the child” to another school. The current proposal limits the funds to public schools. It is clear, however, that supporters of portability want the funds to eventually flow to private schools too—creating a national private school voucher plan.
During this National School Choice Week, it is important to remember that private school vouchers are not true school choice, and they do not offer any real benefit to the children most in need of better educational opportunities. That’s why voters in several states have voted down vouchers at the ballot box. Take the time to let your legislators know that you don’t support private school vouchers and that they should oppose any attempt to create or expand private school voucher programs, including Title I portability.