October 2013 Church & State | Featured

If you ask Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal about the next civil rights movement in the United States, he’ll tell you the battle will be for so-called “school choice.”

“The next great civil rights fight is really about making sure that every child has a great education,” Jindal told Politico recently.

“Let’s be honest,” he continued, “we all want to say we’re for equal opportunity in education, but that’s not the reality in America. If your parents have the means, they probably move to a good neighborhood with good public schools, or they’re saving their dollars to send you to a good private school. There are too many kids in this country today trapped in poor neighborhoods, with poor, failing public schools.”

Fifty years after the March on Washington, D.C., ardent voucher pro­ponents such as Jindal would have Americans believe that they are something like modern Martin Luther King Jrs., seeking enhanced opportunities for all. They claim that parents should be able to use taxpayer money to educate their children as they see fit rather than being locked into certain schools, and they say taxpayer-funded “scholarships” – a euphemism for vouchers – are the only way for low-income families to escape failing public schools. 

But the reality is far different. Despite the best efforts of “school choice” advocates to spin the effectiveness of vouchers, decades of accumulated evidence paints a different story: Vouchers do not improve educational outcomes, they take money away from struggling public schools, they’re cash cows for institutions offering questionable education, they aid students already attending private institutions and they ignore the needs of special-education students.

“[Vouchers] undermine public education as a public responsibility and encourage a consumer mentality, in which social responsibility is dissolved,” Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, education historian and author of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, said in an interview with Church & State.

The American people remain skeptical of vouchers. A poll released by Phi Beta Kappa and Gallup in August found that 70 percent of Americans oppose plans to shift public funding into private and religious schools through voucher plans, the highest number in the poll’s 20-year history.

Yet despite this, more states than ever are piling onto the “school choice” bandwagon. In 2013 alone, 15 states either expanded or created voucher or “neo-voucher” programs —  a system of generous tax credits that are vouchers by another name. 

Why is this happening? Voucher advocates have become adept at employing several lobbying arms, all of which have the ability to curry favor with certain types of legislators.

Powerful groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heritage Foundation, Betsy DeVos’ American Federation of Children and other far-right groups that hate public services provide a rich funding stream for the voucher movement.

Organizations like these talk about helping children. But their real goal is to crush teachers’ unions and shift education from the public to the private sector, opening up potentially billions for rapacious for-profit firms that would love nothing better than to “Walmart-ize” American education.

Joining them are fundamentalist Christians, who believe public education is “godless.” They seek tax support for their network of private independent schools, many of which teach Bible stories in place of science, offer discredited “Christian nation” views of history and are stridently anti-gay and anti-woman.

The Catholic bishops provide the final piece of the puzzle. Catholic schools have been in steep decline for decades, as more and more parents realize their children can get a good education in local public schools (schools that are free of the ultra-conservative dogma that saturates many Catholic institutions). Unable to control their unruly U.S. flock, the bishops are essentially seeking a taxpayer-funded bailout of a private school system that fewer and fewer Catholic parents see as necessary.

That’s the plan, and those are the players. How is it working out so far? Politically, it has been a smashing success. On the ground it’s a different story. Existing voucher programs are flopping. Here’s why.


Studies Show Vouchers In­ef­­fec­tive          

Studies consistently show that vouchers not only fail to boost student academic performance, but many students in voucher schools actual­ly do worse than their voucher-less peers.

Consider Wisconsin’s private school voucher program, which at 23 years and counting makes it the oldest of its kind in the United States. In 2011, a study found that students participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program scored proficient or advanced on standardized tests at a rate of 34.4 percent in math and 55.2 percent for reading, but students in Milwaukee Public Schools scored proficient or advanced at a rate of 47.8 percent in math and 59 percent in reading on the same assessments, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

The results have been equally unspectacular elsewhere. An analysis of Louisiana’s voucher program, released in May, found about 40 percent of third through eighth graders receiving vouchers scored at or above their grade level on statewide tests in English, math, social studies and science; by comparison, 69 percent of all third through eighth grade students statewide scored at or above grade level on those tests.

Likewise, a 2003 study of Cleveland’s then eight-year-old voucher scheme showed the program failed to boost the academic performance of the students taking part in it. The analysis, conducted by independent researcher Kim Metcalf of Indiana University, found that students participating in the program are doing no better academically than their public school counterparts.

“There are no consistent, significant differences in achievement between scholarship and public school students by the end of third grade,” wrote Metcalf in the executive summary of the analysis. “This finding holds across all of the available achievement measures (reading, language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and total battery.)”

Vouchers don’t even help minority students, who are often said to be most in need of better school “choices.” A researcher at Princeton University concluded in a 2003 study that African-American children in New York City who received vouchers through a privately funded program did not show academic gains.

Alan B. Krueger, a professor of economics and public policy, analyzed data presented in 2002 by Harvard University Professor of Government Paul E. Peterson, a voucher advocate, that found black students in the voucher schools scored 5.5 points higher on standardized tests than their counterparts in public schools.

Krueger’s own study of the data, however, showed no academic gains for African-American students in the voucher plan, reported Education Week. In analyzing the data, Krueger concluded that Peterson had erred by omitting too many children from the statistical sample. He also found that allowing a parent or guardian to state a child’s race led to children of mixed race being omitted from the sample when they should have been included. Including the omitted children, Krue­ger found a gain of only 1.44 percentile points on standardized tests, a figure that is not statistically significant.

“For the most representative sample of black elementary school students, offering a voucher had no statistically discernible impact on achieve­ment scores in the New York City experiment,” Krueger said at a press conference at the time.

Ravitch noted that some voucher advocates don’t deny the overwhelmingly bad data shown by test scores.

“Even voucher advocates – some, not all – admit that voucher students do not get higher test scores, but they claim that they are likelier to graduate from high school,” she said. “What they leave out is that the attrition rate in these programs is high, so the graduation rate is higher among a smaller cohort, as in Milwaukee, where 56 percent dropped out before reaching high school graduation.”

Results from Washington, D.C., where a federally funded voucher program has been in operation since 2004, have also been unimpressive. The U.S. Department of Education in 2010 studied the program and found “no conclusive evidence” that students receiving vouchers showed improved math and reading test scores over their public school peers.


Funding Drain: What Vouchers Do To Public Schools

“School choice” proponents like to use underperforming public schools as an excuse to dump money into voucher programs. The money for these programs is sometimes transferred directly from the “failing” schools themselves. In what becomes a truly vicious cycle, these “choice” proponents criticize those same under-funded public schools for their performance, which is then used to justify taking even more money away from them.

That is essentially what’s happening in Philadelphia. After Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett took office in 2011, he slashed the state’s education budget to the tune of $1 billion. He then cited high public school dropout rates and poor test scores statewide as an excuse to set aside more money for Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program.

“We have to think and act smarter,” Corbett said, according to an Oct. 2011 blog post on the Allentown Morning Call’s website. “I know we can do better…we have to have the will to do better.”

But to Corbett, “doing better” meant making public schools worse by robbing them of badly needed funds and transferring that money to charter schools and private schools through tax credits. Corbett wasn’t able to realize his dream in 2011, but he got his way in 2012, adding another $50 million to the EITC.

The effects of Corbett’s cuts have already been dire for many of Pennsylvania’s public schools, but the hardest hits have been felt in Phil­adelphia. In preparation for the 2013-2014 school year, city officials had to borrow $50 million, the exact amount of Corbett’s voucher expansion, so its schools would be able to open on Sept. 9 as planned, Salon reported.

But that wasn’t the end of the borrowing. Salon also reported that at least one city school asked parents to contribute an extra $613 per student so that it would have the necessary resources to begin the year. Salon’s Aaron Kase slammed Corbett’s policies, saying the best interests of public schools are a distant second behind his anti-public school agenda.

“The needs of children are secondary, however, to a right-wing governor in Tom Corbett who remains fixated on breaking the district in order to crush the teachers union and divert money to unproven experiments like vouchers and privately run charters,” Kase wrote. “If the city’s children are left uneducated and impoverished among the smoldering wreckage of a broken school system, so be it.”


Tax Funding For Questionable Education

Voucher plans almost always direct subsidies toward private schools that are not subjected to the same rigorous requirements as public schools. As a result, many unscrupulous individuals set up fly-by-night schools that drain tax funds in exchange for a third-rate education.

Consider a school in Louisiana that made headlines for its abuse of state voucher funds. The Associated Press reported that the New Living Word School in Ruston charged the state $6,300 for each of its 93 voucher students but charged just $530 per person for its 109 non-voucher students in 2012-2013.

What exactly was all of this money being used for? Not education. Robert Mann, a professor at Louisiana State University, said in a column for the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the “school” doesn’t have enough computers, has no real classrooms and employs uncertified teachers who simply stick students in front of DVDs for instruction. All told, the school has received $600,000 from the state of Lou­is­iana and overcharged by $378,000, which it has been told to return. The school was booted from the voucher program, but at the same time education officials admitted that most voucher schools hadn’t bothered to comply with mandatory reporting requirements, meaning the state had no idea what was going on behind school doors.

Similarly unqualified schools have benefited from other voucher programs. The Washington Post reported in 2012 that multiple schools participating in D.C.’s voucher program seem to be in business purely because of taxpayer handouts disguised as “school choice.”

One institution that accepts voucher students, the Academy for Ideal Education, is based in part on an educational model known as “Suggestopedia,” which was devised by an obscure Bulgarian psychotherapist named Georgi Lozanov. Its underlying theory is that students can learn by tapping into the power of suggestion. Another voucher school, the Muhammad University of Islam, is unaccredited; its director freely admits that the school is affiliated with the Nation of Islam, a racially separatist sect with a record of anti-Semi­tism and homophobia.

“No state has ever adopted vouchers because of a popular vote,” Ravitch said. “Legislatures have adopted them because extremists who hate government have been persistent, have persuaded legislators that public education is failing – it’s not – and have taken the false pose that vouchers will help ‘save’ minority children from failing schools. They don’t. It is all a hoax to destroy public schools by anti-government ideologues in combination with budget cutters.”


Helping Those Not In Need

One of the growing problems associated with voucher programs is that they often benefit students who are already enrolled in private schools, rather than helping a new crop of low-income students get the better education voucher advocates promised.

This troubling trend is most evident in Wisconsin, where earlier this year an additional 500 vouchers were made available for areas outside Milwaukee and Racine, which had been the only cities to offer the subsidies. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 67 percent of the 2,069 students who applied for one of the 500 new vouchers are already attending private schools.

Some state lawmakers were pretty upset by that report, including one who raised this issue before the addition of 500 vouchers and was told current private school students were not the target of the expansion. Now she blames Gov. Scott Walker and his band of voucher advocates for lying about their intent.

“Absolutely I believe there was deception on the part of the governor’s office to sell this to my Republican colleagues and to the people of Wisconsin,” state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) told the Eau Claire Leader Telegram. “This is a way of paying for the educations of current private school students.”

Meanwhile in Alabama, some are concerned that students currently enrolled in private schools can’t take advantage of the state’s new private school tax credit program. The program currently offers state tax credits only for children who switch from public schools to participating private schools. But now the Alabama Department of Revenue is considering proposed rules that would expand the tax credits to include students already attending private schools.

“Including private school students in the states’ voucher program is antithetical to the original intent of the voucher system, which is allegedly to help public school children,” AU State Legislative Counsel Elise Aguilar told Church & State. “If a student’s family can already afford to send him or her to private school without a voucher, why should that child be eligible for taxpayer assistance?”


Ignoring Special-Needs Students

Despite claims that voucher programs will help the most needy children, evidence is mounting that a certain class of students will be left behind: special-needs students.

WisconsinWatch.org, a project of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, recently examined vouchers in the state, focusing specifically on how students with learning disabilities and other challenges are faring in private schools. The answer is not too well – because the private schools taking part in the voucher program mostly refuse to serve them.

Writer Rory Linnane interviewed Milwaukee resident Kim Fitzer, whose daughter Trinity suffers from medical and behavioral issues. Fitzer used a voucher worth $6,442 to enroll Trinity in Northwest Catholic School for kin­dergarten during the 2011-12 academic year. In March of 2012, the school expelled Trinity, citing “continuing behavior issues” – but it kept the money.

Critics say it’s a familiar pattern. Under Wisconsin’s voucher law, private schools get to keep half of the voucher as long as a student is enrolled on the third Friday of September. They get to keep the entire amount if the student is enrolled on the second Friday in January. Some special-needs students are kept until these benchmarks are met and then expelled. Most return to public schools.

“The problem with the voucher program is that it cherry-picks which students it’s going to take,” Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine), told WisconsinWatch. “That’s not really a public education system, when you’re not opening it up to everyone and giving everyone a chance to participate.”

Voucher advocates aren’t eager to highlight stories like this. They are masters of spin and love to feed reporters tales of youngsters who flee “failing” public schools.

A story published July 29 in the Tampa Bay Times (Fla.) is a typical example. It discussed 11-year-old Julian Dottin, whose mother, Sophia, wanted to switch him to a private school because it would offer smaller class sizes. She told the newspaper. “There were too many kids in the classroom and the teacher had no help.”

Dottin ended up enrolling her three kids in Southside Christian Aca­demy in St. Petersburg, using “scholarship” funds that were available because of a Florida program that offers tax deductions for donations to tuition assistance organizations. Sophia said she really likes the small classes, but the newspaper report left out one really important detail: There is no indication that the children are performing any better academically than before they switched schools.  

“Anecdotes aside, vouchers have never proven to be an effective solution,” Aguilar said. “There is no evidence here whatsoever that vouchers offer students a better alternative to traditional public schools.”

Americans United objects to vouch­ers because they result in direct subsidies of religious organizations by taxpayers. AU maintains that vouchers clearly violate church-state separation, despite a 2002 Supreme Court ruling upholding Ohio’s plan.

In light of that ruling, AU says, it is imperative to look at the question of whether vouchers are good public policy. The plans have failed that test, AU asserts.

                  “School vouchers don’t really help anyone except the private interests that benefit from an infusion of public dollars,” Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, told Church & State. “But as long as ‘school choice’ advocates continue to put out effective propaganda, these schemes will only propagate nationwide. That’s why we’re working so hard to debunk these false claims disguised as sound educational policy.”