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Janresseger: New Book Contrasts What Voucher Proponents Promise to the Inequitable Results

Teachers College Press recently published The School Voucher Illusion: Exposing the Pretense of Equity, a dispositive analysis of the failure of publicly funded private school tuition voucher programs.

The book is a collection of essays edited by Kevin Welner, Director of the Education Policy Center and professor at the University of Colorado; Gary Orfield, Director of the Civil Rights Project and professor at UCLA; and Luis Huerta, professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Contributors include the editors as well as Derek Black, author of Schoolhouse Burning and professor at the University of South Carolina; Christopher Lubienski, author of The Public School Advantage and professor at Indiana University; Preston Green, professor at the University of Connecticut; and Suzanne Eckes and Julie Mead, professors at the University of Wisconsin, and many other scholars. The list includes academic experts on constitutional law, civil rights, public policy, and the social foundations of education.

In the final chapter, after 270 pages of data and theoretical exploration, Welner, Orfield, and Huerta contrast what the promoters of school privatization promise to the damage caused by the school voucher programs spreading across the states today: “If the real choice is not access to a superior, idealized school with an excellent faculty, but instead to a segregated religious school that is also struggling with concentrated poverty plus a weak and inexperienced teaching force, then vouchers are offering a fundamentally different experience than what’s been advertised.” (p. 276)

What about the diversion of states’ education budgets to private schools?

“What began in Cleveland and Milwaukee as small-scale pilots targeted to ‘save’ students of color from ‘failing public schools’… quickly transformed into a movement to give all students a taxpayer subsidy to incentivize them to leave their public schools and, then, into subsidies for students who were in private schools anyway—simply a transfer of money, usually to families without the financial exigency.” (p. 278)

Through the research reported by contributors to this book, the editors conclude that measuring the fiscal impact of transferring tax dollars to private schools is complicated due to all the ways: “vouchers interact with public budgets… Any measure of the immediate fiscal and educational efficiency of vouchers must… account for significant cost differentials compared to a comprehensive public school system… and must include measures of quality and the amount of services provided to all students.  For example, public schools routinely enroll greater numbers of special education, vocational education, and English language learner students, who require more expensive educational services than those that private schools typically provide.” (p. 284)

There is also the problem of fixed costs that do not change when students leave public schools with a voucher: “A reduction in public school enrollments must also be taken into account due to effects on the economies of scale that support public school infrastructure…. When policies move students out of public school systems, the schools often have fixed costs… that cannot be lowered to match declining per-student aid from state governments, leaving less money for educational operations.” (p. 284)

And what about the vouchers taken up by students already in private schools? “Voucher programs only realize financial savings for state governments when the cost of providing vouchers to families is offset by corresponding reductions for students opting out of the public school system… Advocates who claim voucher and neovoucher programs are a savings to taxpayers use very high switcher rates, which can result in a gross overestimate of public-coffer savings.” (p. 284-285)

What have we lost through the erosion of the Constitutional protection of the separation of church and state?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Although previous U.S. Supreme Courts used to interpret the separation of government and religion under the Establishment Clause, in three recent Supreme Court precedents, today’s justices have relied on the Free Exercise Clause—opining that if a state provides vouchers to private schools, it may not interfere with the free exercise of religion by denying vouchers to private schools that are run by faith communities, even those private schools that explicitly teach religion as part of the curriculum.

Welner, Orfield and Huerta explain how the Supreme Court’s new definition of church/state separation complicates voucher expansion across the states: “A state-established church is, after all, a formalized entanglement between the two institutions.  Connected leadership and decision-making, finances and personnel, beliefs and positions…. Each of these is… a type of entanglement, in the sense that a move taken by one of the two institutions is directly felt by the other… We cannot yet know how far the current Supreme Court will take its elevated Free Exercise concerns about bias against religious institutions—perhaps all religiously motivated discrimination will be given heightened legal protection, or perhaps the Court will treat discriminatory practices as beyond the protection of the Free Exercise Clause, or perhaps racial discrimination will trigger greater scrutiny and protection than discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It is not difficult to see the slippery slope of unregulated funding combined with extreme protection of religious freedom. While religious beliefs are often caring and comforting, some of these beliefs are hostile to outsiders…. (D)iscrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community is not unusual in private religious schools.” (pp. 280-283)

Are the most vulnerable children the ones who actually receive the vouchers? And what about protecting children’s civil rights?

“Advocates for expanding vouchers argue that students of color and low income students, particularly those with special needs, are otherwise denied the choices available to middle-class families. Vouchers, they say, will provide a large step toward equity of educational opportunity. Yet as described throughout this book, actual voucher policies tend to reach a different set of students. Choice research across the globe finds that unregulated choice creates stratification and disadvantages the disadvantaged.” (p. 286)

I wish the National Education Policy Center, of which Welner is the director, would publish, as a resource brief, the list of 13 questions (pp. 286-287) which advocates, critics, and regulators should ask when voucher programs are proposed. These questions are designed to expose a voucher program’s violations of standards of equity and opportunity.  Here are just three examples: “Under what conditions are voucher-receiving schools allowed to reject applicants and expel students?” “Do the voucher-receiving schools have the staff and training to educate successfully and responsively with a community’s diverse population?” “Does the voucher program increase (or diminish) stratification by race and class? For students with special needs and students whose first language is other than English?” (pp. 286-287)

When students bring vouchers to private schools, there are myriad ways their rights are likely to remain unprotected: “State laws should mandate that, with the receipt of public funds, all participating schools become fully responsible to comply with all civil rights laws. For instance, they must agree to comply with the nondiscrimination provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (or a substantially equivalent state civil rights act), including the antidiscrimination policies protecting students and all job discrimination components of staffing. They must also agree to comply with federal laws on special education rights and prohibitions against sex discrimination. Without such policies (which mirror those in many European countries that have voucher-like funding systems), taxpayer dollars are subsidizing open discrimination against some groups.” (p. 288)

The editors conclude The School Voucher Illusion: Exposing the Pretense of Equity with a warning: “As currently structured, voucher policies in the United States are unlikely to help the students they claim to support. Instead, these policies have often served as a facade for the far less popular reality of funding relatively advantaged (and largely White) families, many of whom already attended—or would attend—private schools without subsidies. Although vouchers are presented as helping parents choose schools, often the arrangements permit the private schools to do the choosing… If publicly stated social justice goals are to be anything more than empty and misleading rhetoric, lawmakers will need to address the concerns raised by the authors throughout this volume. Advocacy that began with a focus on equity must not become a justification for increasing inequity. Today’s voucher policies have, by design, created growing financial commitments of taxpayer money to serve a constituency of the relatively advantaged that is redefining their subsidies as rights—often in jurisdictions where neighborhood public schools do not have the resources they need.” (p. 290)

 

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Chris...