Diane Ravitch’s Blog: Nebraska’s Teachers: Why We Don’t Need Charters or Vouchers

The Nebraska State Education Association recently paid a visit to the state’s major newspaper and explained why Nebraska doesn’t need school choice: 

Editor’s note: In a recent visit to the York News-Times, Nebraska State Education Association president Jenni Benson and executive director Maddie Fennell shared that organization’s thoughts on two hot-button education issues – charter schools and private school vouchers. The NSEA is the union that represents Nebraska teachers. It is the oldest professional association in the state.

The NSEA’s 10 reasons to avoid “private school voucher schemes” are:

1. Nebraska cannot afford to finance private education as well as public education. There would be only two ways to pay for vouchers—take money from already underfunded public schools or raise taxes. Both are unacceptable.

2. Tax dollars for private education won’t fix student achievement challenges at public schools. The best way to assist all low-performing students is by strengthening public schools and addressing individual learning problems directly. Vouchers will siphon tax dollars away from our public schools where children have the greatest needs.

3. A voucher would be a ticket to nowhere for most children. Private schools can choose to accept or reject any student, and many have long waiting lists and only admit top students. On average, parochial schools reject 67 percent of all applicants. Other private schools reject nearly 90 percent of applicants. “Choice” does not reside with parents but with private school admissions committees.

4. Parents have an expanding array of choices for the public school their child attends. Among the many public school options available in Nebraska, parents may choose to send their child to another public school in the same or different school district, or enroll their child in various public academy schools, focus or magnet schools, career academies, or other public alternative schools.

5. Vouchers don’t create a “competitive marketplace.” Competition is based on an even playing field; there is no fair competition when “competitors” play by different rules. Public schools accept all applicants, private schools don’t. Private schools are not required to provide transportation, special education, bilingual education, free and reduced price lunches, and many other programs that public schools provide. They are also not required to meet even basic state certification or accreditation requirements.

6. The State of Nebraska should not spend tax dollars to pilot test a bad idea. Tax-funded pilot projects should only be conducted to test good ideas. Vouchers are a bad idea! A pilot voucher program would not be a “lifeboat” for some students, as claimed. A voucher system would be the Titanic, draining needed funds from public schools where most students would remain.

7. Vouchers would destroy the “private” in private schools. Parents of children in private schools don’t want the status quo disturbed for their children—they want their schools to be truly private. Private schools accepting tax-funded vouchers or private school tax credit schemes would become subject to government regulation. Allowing public tax dollars to be spent on private schools would be mean private schools would have to change admission requirements, implement state-required testing, certification and accreditation, comply with discipline and expulsion laws, and allow voucher students to be exempted from religious activities.

8. Inserting the word “private” doesn’t make a school good. There is no proof that private school vouchers would improve students’ academic performance. In fact, students attending private schools under the Milwaukee, Cleveland and other private school voucher programs did not outperform their public school peers.

9. Vouchers would promote further religious and economic stratification in our society. Private elementary and secondary schools have been founded primarily by two types of entities: (1) religious denominations seeking to teach academics interwoven with their religious doctrine; and (2) wealthier parents seeking to give their children an advantage over other children. Tax-funded vouchers for private schools would increase divisions between rich and poor and among different religions, threatening the future of our American democracy.

10. Public policy should respect parental choice but provide for all students. The best public policy is to provide parents with even more choices within the public schools, which serve more than 90 percent of the children in Nebraska. Nebraska legislators should concentrate on making all public schools stronger, safer, more challenging and accountable. Public tax dollars should be spent only to improve public schools—not to assist the small number of parents who choose to enroll their children in private schools.

NSEA on Charter Schools

The fact is that charter schools are not meeting the need they were created to fill—including to serve as lab schools to develop new teaching techniques—and many are failing their students and families, while squandering taxpayer dollars.

Reports detail fraud and waste totaling more than $200 million of taxpayer funds in the charter school sector. It notes that these figures only represent fraud and waste in the charter sector uncovered so far, and that the total that federal, state and local governments “stand to lose” in 2015 is probably more than $1.4 billion. It says, “The vast majority of the fraud perpetrated by charter officials will go undetected because the federal government, the states, and local charter authorizers lack the oversight necessary to detect the fraud.”1

The result of charter schools on student achievement just doesn’t live up to the hype. Less than a third of the total charter schools in the U.S. perform better than comparable public schools. The other two thirds are about the same or worse.

In fact, the biggest proponents of charter schools are Wall Street hedge fund and venture capital firms like JP Morgan, USB, and Liberty Partners. Unfortunately, Wall Street losses on charter schools such as Edison have proven that charter schools are a bad investment. Further, even in places where the public schools don’t come close to the standard of quality we have in our Nebraska public schools, charter schools are being closed for poor performance and irresponsible management.

The facts could not be any clearer: Investments in our public schools yield the best returns.

“The Tip of the Iceberg: Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud, And Abuse,” was released jointly by the nonprofit organizations Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the Center for Popular Democracy. It follows a similar report released a year ago by the same groups that detailed $136 million in fraud and waste and mismanagement in 15 of the 42 states that operate charter schools. The 2015 report cites $203 million, including the 2014 total plus $23 million in new cases, and $44 million in earlier cases not included in last year’s report.

Some studies regarding private school vouchers and charter schools:

• Vouchers close neighborhood public schools and benefit wealthy school districts and privately run schools (Vasquez Heilig & Portales, 2014) http://bit.ly/EPAAVouchers

• Vouchers as a reform agenda are not viable given a paucity of peer reviewed evidence that they improve student outcomes in a consistent or large way in the US. (Vasquez Heilig, LeClair, Lemke, & McMurrey 2014). http://bit.ly/TCEPvouchers

• When vouchers are applied universally, education inequity is exacerbated. Schools do the choosing (Vasquez Heilig & Portales, 2012) http://bit.ly/IUPRAChileVouchers

• Charter schools have a 40 percent attrition rate for their African American students (Vasquez Heilig, Williams, McNeil & Lee, 2011). http://bit.ly/BREAttrition

• Charters schools are more segregated relative to public schools in their vicinity. (Vasquez Heilig, LeClair, Redd, 2014 Under Review)

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She serves on the board of the Core Knowledge Foundation, Common Core, the Albert Shanker Institute of the American Federation of Teachers, and Common Good. She is an honorary life trustee of the New...