Maryland’s Mistake: Vouchers Comes To The Free State

Maryland's new voucher plan is little more than a bailout for religious schools – with the bill being handed to the taxpayer.

Maryland recently became the latest state to adopt a school voucher program that will benefit mostly religious schools. The state will spend $5 million on the program, which is aimed at low-income students in Baltimore.

The Washington Post is ecstatic. The newspaper, which constantly promotes vouchers on its editorial page, recently published an editorial that reads like a string of talking points from the Cato Institute.

According to The Post, legislators in Maryland who had previously opposed vouchers changed their minds after being lobbied by lawmakers from Baltimore. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) supports the plan, which was inserted into the state budget.

Observed the newspaper, “They stressed the urgency of helping young black men in the city. Education…is key to better futures, and the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray last April shone new light on the shortcomings of the public school system and the injustice that does.”

Freddie Gray was a 25-year-old man who was arrested by Baltimore police in April of 2015 for possessing a switchblade. He received rough treatment in police custody and later died of a broken neck. Six police officers have been charged in his death. The legal cases against them are ongoing.

It’s clear this was a tragic incident. What’s not so clear is how vouchers might prevent it from happening in the future. 

The Post goes on to celebrate the fact that private schools taking part in the voucher plan will be tested and won’t be permitted to discriminate against students on the basis of “race, color, national origin or sexual orientation.”

The testing requirement sounds nice, but we know from history that once these programs are established, testing mandates will never be allowed to disrupt the money stream. In Wisconsin, home of the nation’s first voucher program, voucher students have performed worse on standardized tests than kids attending public schools. None of this mattered to Gov. Scott Walker and his supporters, who last year actually expanded the voucher program.

In Louisiana, a recent study of the voucher program there revealed that students with vouchers performed worse on standardized tests – as much as 50 percent worse in math scores in particular – than their peers who were not in the program. Again, no one is talking about shutting it down.

As for the anti-discrimination provision, take a look at that list again. Do you notice something missing from it? That’s right – religion. If the pattern in other states with voucher plans holds true, most of the participating schools in Maryland will be religious in nature. They’ll reap a bounty from the taxpayers and still retain the right to refuse admission to or expel any student who fails to meet their theological litmus test.

Finally, The Post crows about a federally funded voucher program in Washington, D.C., which, it claims, “has improved academic outcomes for participants and spurred improvements in public schools.”

The editors of The Post keep asserting this, but it’s not true. Several objective studies of the D.C. plan have been conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. They show no student improvement. In addition, the D.C. plan, as in other states, has been plagued with shoddy schools of questionable quality.

There’s also no evidence that the D.C. voucher plan has spurred the public schools to improve. Yes, D.C.’s public system is doing better these days, but no one has proven that this is due to the voucher plan. If you can’t show a connection between the two events, you’ve merely invoked the post hoc fallacy.

These days, the biggest supporters of vouchers tend to be people and groups that just don’t like taxpayer-funded public services, which they oppose on ideological grounds (think Koch Brothers). They are joined by lobbyists for the Catholic Church, which is eager to win tax support for its shrinking network of private schools.

There’s a great irony here: The anti-government types worship at the altar of the free market, yet they have joined forces with church officials seeking state help to prop up a school system, that even many Catholics have decided they don’t want to attend.

In short, the Maryland plan is little more than a bailout for religious schools – with the bill being handed to the taxpayer.

Sadly, the voucher con doesn’t even achieve its purported main goal: helping low-income students get a better education. A $5 million program may peel a small percentage of Baltimore kids away from public institutions, but most will remain in those schools.

Instead of weakening public education by siphoning money away to private, religious schools that elevate preaching over teaching and retain the right to kick anyone out who doesn’t agree, Maryland lawmakers would have done better to focus on the public schools that need help. After all, these are the institutions that are educating the vast majority of Maryland’s young people.

P.S. Every time we write about this topic, someone at Cato or the Heritage Foundation manages to put down his copy of Atlas Shrugged long enough to write to us and insist that “gold standard” studies show that vouchers work. The only problem with this is that the studies they cite don’t show that – as even some former voucher advocates are now admitting.