“Average test scores for reading and mathematics, when adjusted for student and school characteristics, tend to be very similar among public schools and private schools” (U.S. Department of Education Report, 2006, as quoted in “School Vouchers,” Wikipedia).
“While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools, the money has also been used to attract star football players, expand the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups, and spread the theory of Creationism, interviews and documents show …. The programs are insulated from provisions requiring church-state separation because the donations are collected and distributed by the non-profit scholarships groups. A cottage industry of these groups has sprung up, in some cases collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in administrative fees, according to tax filings” (“Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools,” New York Times, May 21, 2012).
“Official evaluations of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington D.C. have all found no statistically significant differences in the academic achievement of voucher students compared to public school students …. Indeed, public school students have actually been found to outperform private school students when test scores are weighted to reflect socioeconomic level, race, and disability” (“Vouchers? No, there are better alternatives,” National Education Association Report, n.d.)
Some Specific Problems in Specific Places
Milwaukee. Established in 1990, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is the oldest voucher program in the country, and probably the most studied, since it carried a mandate for the state auditors to analyze its progress periodically. The last report of the state auditors, issued August 17, 2011, “found little difference in achievement scores between students in the city’s private school voucher program and a matched sample of students in Milwaukee Public Schools” (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, August 8, 2011). The program did not take money away from funding for Milwaukee public schools, but it cost taxpayers more per pupil than the students educated in the public schools did.
Florida. According to the Orlando Sentinel (November 24, 2012), “More than four out of every five low-income students receiving a Florida tax credit scholarship are attending religious schools.” But in the November 2012 election, “voters turned down a proposed amendment to the Florida constitution that critics said could have paved the way for tax-funded vouchers for private schools.” Hence, Florida taxpayers are paying millions of dollars to private schools against their expressed will and against their constitution.
Georgia. Georgia’s tax credit program has experienced more than one serious problem. Greg Allen reported on National Public Radio (August 13, 2012), that the program is being widely criticized for its lack of transparency, because state law makes it illegal “to publicly disclose anything about the program, including who benefits from it.”Georgia taxpayers are paying $170 million for the program but cannot find out anything about it. Additionally, the New York Times reports that The Georgia program allows scholarship recipients to attend schools that discriminate against gays (“Backed by State Money, Georgia Scholarships Go to Schools Barring Gays,” January 21,2013). The Times draws extensively from a report by the Southern Education Foundation claiming that “as many as a third of the schools in the scholarship have strict antigay policies or adhere to a religious philosophy that holds homosexuality as immoral or a sin.” One Georgia legislator remarks that allowing this discrimination “circumvents our own public policy with public money …. In our public schools we do not disallow a child from attending on the basis of their sexual orientation.”
Pennsylvania. Established in June of 2012, The Pennsylvania Opportunity Scholarship Program is new but already running into difficulties. The Patriot-News reported in August that parents trying to sign up for the program had to be turned away because it wasn’t ready yet. The program is strongly opposed by the Education Voters Institute of Pennsylvania, who claim that under the plan “100% of students already enrolled in private schools will receive vouchers while only 9% of low-performing public schools will receive a voucher” (Debunking the Myths about Vouchers,” January 25, 2013). The NYT articie (cited previously) uses Pennsylvania as an example of how “some of the programs have become enmeshed in politics …. [T]wo of the state’s largest scholarship organizations are controlled by lobbyists, and they frequently ask lawmakers to help decide which schools get the money, according to interviews.”
Louisiana. Louisiana’s voucher program, with 5,000 students already enrolled, was in November 2013 ruled unconstitutional because it was funded by money specifically designated for public schools (“Judge rules Louisiana school voucher program unconstitutional,” Reuters, November 30, 2012). Reuters observes that the students already receiving the vouchers include “some small, church-based schools that infuse all their classes with Biblical references and do not teach subjects such as evolution.”
Utah. Utah’s voucher program, passed by the legislature in 2007, included all students in the state, including students in private schools, but Utah voters later in that year passed a referendum repealing the program. Those supporting the plan are now considering whether a tax credit program would be more appealing to the voters (“Voting down Vouchers,” Education Next (Spring 2008).
I have not had sufficient time to look at all the many voucher/tax credit programs-eleven by one count, fifteen by another, still more by others. For some, like Virginia, it is difficult to find information because they are so new. But the groups discussed above give ample evidence of the kinds of problems these programs are running into-and creating.
June M. Frazer
January 30, 2013