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Janresseger: Why Public School Supporters Must Not Give Up the Fight Against School Vouchers

An enormous body of research demonstrates that publicly funded private school voucher schemes divert essential funding from public schools and also ultimately undermine the education of the children who take vouchers. To the state legislators driving the ideologically designed bills being fast tracked today, however, the evidence doesn’t seem to matter. Here are all the reasons those of us who prize our public schools should push back against the expansion of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schools.

In a new piece for The Nation, the authors of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse DoorJack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain: “(S)chool voucher plans are a raw deal not just for public schools and the students who attend them but also for taxpayers. Programs like the one jammed through by the Republican legislature in Iowa… stand to immediately transfer massive amounts of cash directly from state treasuries to the families that least need it. While proponents, like Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, sold the plan as a way to give choices to poor and middle-class families, the program will chiefly subsidize the parents who already send their kids to private schools. The cost of that subsidy is significant—an estimated $340 million each year once the plan is fully phased in—and will be borne by the 500,000 students who attend the state’s underfunded public schools.  And it’s not just in Iowa that Republicans are pulling off this reverse Robin Hood maneuver. In Arizona, where lawmakers recently made all students eligible for school vouchers, 75 percent of the students who applied for the new subsidy never attended public school…  While earlier voucher programs, like the one adopted in Milwaukee more than 30 years ago, were limited to families enrolled in public schools, and came with strict income qualifications, the plans being adopted now dispense with any such limits….”  The real goal is always a universal voucher open to all.”

In Ohio, the recently proposed Senate Bill 11 would vastly expand the state’s already enormous EdChoice voucher program. The Plain Dealer’Jeremy Pelzer reports: “Right now, EdChoice scholarships are open to families who either live near a low-performing public school or have a household income at or below $69,375, or 250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. DeWine’s budget plan would raise that financial limit to 400% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, or $111,000 for a family of four.  Such a change would make vouchers almost, though not completely, universal, which would create a major shift in what Ohio’s education looks like.”

As part of their justification of their proposed 2023, EdChoice voucher expansion, Ohio lawmakers are falling all over themselves to praise a new pro-voucher study conducted by two Ohio State University professors for the Thomas Fordham Institute, one of the state’s pro-privatization advocacy groups. Not surprisingly the new report, published on Fordham’s website, promises that expanding the state’s voucher program won’t hurt the state’s public schools that serve 1.7 million students.

Last week, The National Education Policy Center, whose affiliated academic experts review research reports conducted for think tanks to promote their pet policies, asked Joshua Cowen, a professor at Michigan State University to review Fordham’s report on the impact of Ohio vouchers.  Cowen summarizes his critique of Fordham’s report: “(W)hile the report is broadly methodologically sound for the narrow questions it poses, the questions it asks are out-of-date with respect to current concerns raised by voucher critics, which focus on substantially decreased student achievement among students using vouchers. The report also relies on more permissive standards for statistical inference than peer-reviewed articles would typically allow. Moreover, the report’s Foreword, written by Fordham staff, frames it as an effort to provide new data for privatization advocates rather than respond to legitimate concerns raised by voucher critics.  The Foreword dismisses criticisms as ‘Chicken Little’ and ‘sky-is-falling’ histrionics….”

Cowen explains: “The report’s findings narrowly provide the rationale for its conclusions. Two important caveats to that support are: first, that the initial finding— (public school) enrollment declines of approximately 10-15 percent per district—drives the other three findings, which are simply the result of which and how many students left public schools. And second, that the finding of neutral revenue impact rests entirely—and the report acknowledges this—on the fact that the voucher program itself has no direct impact on the ability for local districts to raise revenue (say, through tax referenda or attraction of a wealthier tax base).”  That last point is prescient, because the 25-year-old DeRolph school funding decision declared Ohio’s long-standing overreliance on local property taxes for funding schools to be unconstitutional.

Cowen further criticizes the report’s conclusion that the EdChoice voucher program has improved overall public school achievement: “Average district achievement improved not because district performance grew but because lower scoring students left the districts—a fact that the authors acknowledge on page 21.” Cowen adds: “(T)he report uncovers a problematic finding that district exits among economically disadvantaged students—especially those scoring lower on exams—are driving upticks in average district achievement. These are precisely the children who are served poorly by voucher programs, and they do not stay long when they enter a voucher school. Rather, low-income, low-scoring voucher enrollment is a revolving door in and out of private schools. What the report implies is that public district achievement went up because particularly low-scoring students every year were cycling into the voucher program. That is not a good thing, given what we know about how well they do once they get to non-public schools.” (emphasis in the original)

Another obvious problem with Fordham’s new study is its allegation that the current EdChoice program has not contributed to racial segregation. Steve Dyer, a public schools advocate, blogger, and former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee, challenges that particular conclusion in Fordham’s report: “The study compares the racial makeup of voucher students with the statewide racial makeup of Ohio students.” Dyer points out that racial segregation is a district-by-district condition; the state’s overall racial makeup is quite irrelevant to what may be happening within each of the state’s 610 school districts. Dyer explains: “There are 95 districts that lose 10 students or more to EdChoice. In 76 of those districts, accounting for 87% of all vouchers given through the program, a higher percentage of white students take vouchers than… (the percentage of white students) in that district. The average difference between (the percentage of) white students taking vouchers and (the percentage of) white students in those 76 districts was 76.2%. That means that in the districts where 87% of voucher students come from, voucher recipients are 76.2% more likely to be white than their public school counterparts.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Two hundred Ohio school districts have now joined the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit, which seeks to have Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program declared unconstitutional. Dyer confirms the lawsuit’s claim that EdChoice vouchers exacerbate racial segregation.

Acknowledging today’s well-funded, ideologically driven attempt across the states to drive the school voucher legislation through Republican state legislatures, last week Joshua Cowen enumerated what current research demonstrates about serious damage wrought by the widespread expansion of vouchers across the states: “First, vouchers mostly fund children already in private school… Second… Although a few tiny studies from the late 1990s and early 2000s showed small gains in test scores for voucher users, since 2013, the record is dismal… Third… the typical private school in line for a voucher handout isn’t one of the elite private schools…. The typical voucher school is what I refer to as a sub-prime provider…. The fourth pattern is related: kids flee those sub-prime schools… Fifth comes the issue of transparency and oversight… If we’re going to use taxpayer funds on these private ventures, we need to know what the academic results are… Finally… Imagine you simply knew that written into the legislation for voucher programs is the explicit right of private schools to turn down any child they wanted to reject so long as something about that child varied from the school’s so-called ‘creed.'”  Cowen adds: “And then there is the simple fact that groups like the Bradley Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the Kochs (are) all major players in voucher research and advocacy.”

David DeMatthews, professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas and David S. Knight, professor of school finance at the University of Washington remind supporters of public schooling that their advocacy is more important than ever during the wave of new voucher legislation across the states: “Americans from all backgrounds have fought to gain access to public schools, including freed slaves, immigrants, and people with disabilities. These struggles have led to a free universal public education system that propels each child into our democracy, communities and economy… Vouchers jeopardize all of this because they transfer money from public schools to individual parents through grants, savings accounts or scholarships to pay private school tuition. It is a system where self-interest replaces the common good, culminating in separate education systems for children living on the same street in the same community.”

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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 Christ—working ...