Sunday, December 8, 2019
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Hogan wants to double private school scholarships

Gov Larry Hogan, Republican of Maryland, announced his intention on December 13 to double the funding the state provides in the form of education tax credits that can help low-income students attend private schools, the Baltimore Sun reports.

Bais Yaakov students welcome Gov Hogan Tuesday. (Steve Kwak / Maryland GovPics via Flickr CC)

Beginning this year, the state has provided scholarships, in the form of education tax credits, to students’ families who qualify. The money can help them pay tuition at private schools that are eligible for the program. Unlike voucher programs in many other states, the new law, as enrolled, includes accountability requirements (see page 129) for all eligible schools, but many religious schools are eligible in the state. Here’s the complete list.

Slightly more than 2,000 students took advantage of the program this year, the state’s education department reported in October, but the number of applications received was about double that number. The program has $5 million in funding from the state budget, and when Mr Hogan visited the Bais Yaakov School for Girls, a Jewish day school in Baltimore, on Tuesday, he said he wanted to increase that number to $10 million over the next three years.

Officially the program is called “Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today,” or BOOST. Scholarships this year ranged from $1,000 to $4,400 each, with the highest amount going to students who qualified for free school meals and attended a public school last year. The BOOST program was also available for students in kindergarten through 12th grade who already attend or had applied to attend one of the participating non-public schools.

“Every Maryland child should have access to a world-class education, regardless of the neighborhood they grow up in,” Mr Hogan said in October. “With innovative programs like this, Maryland is giving students the opportunity for a better education and a brighter future.”

But some see the program and others like it, known as “voucher” programs, as bad for public education.

The basic idea behind voucher programs is that since parents pay a portion of their taxes to fund public schools, if they’re not using those services from the public schools, then the part of their taxes that were earmarked for the public schools should go to providing an education for their own kids, at the schools where they get educated. On the one hand, the state is obligated to provide a free education for all children; on the other hand, it isn’t the state that decides this student shouldn’t use those services that the state has made available but the parents, because they consider the state-provided schools insufficient or inadequate.

From a logical point of view, there are two flaws, and it requires a brief thought experiment to understand the flaws. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that every student had a voucher to pay for tuition at a private school. They’re not all eligible, so that’s not how it is, but in Florida last year, for example, the number of students whose families received education tax credits like Maryland’s exceeded 90,000.

The governor is proposing to increase the program gradually so that “every” child—his words—can take advantage of the opportunity to attend a non-public school. One can only assume the program will expand, so let’s take it all the way to the end in our thought experiment.

If we have many low-income students attending these private schools, that money is taken away from the public schools, and then those public schools get shuttered. “The school is under-utilized,” government officials say. Then those teachers and administrators lose their jobs.

Now many private schools woo parents with flashy marketing and development campaigns, justified by the huge amount of money they can expect from the voucher programs, touting life at the school. Non-voucher-eligible parents who are paying tuition, up to $30,000 or more every year in some cases, now find their sons and daughters mixed with all these low-income public school students, some of whom are reading several grade levels below their chronological age.

(Note: Schools where the annual tuition is higher than $14,000 per student aren’t eligible for BOOST payments in Maryland, but laws can be changed. So let’s proceed.)

Time for a brief reality check. If we assume, at this point in our thought experiment, that private schools won’t have the capacity or will require an academic test of some sort for admission, then our experiment fails due to a total refutation of our initial premise that the scholarships give “every” student the “opportunity” to access a “world-class education.”

If no opportunity ever existed for a given public school student in the first place, we need to change the name of this program to “Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students who already have options Today.” We need to continue though, assuming there are no capacity issues or academic issues barring students from entry to the private school of his family’s choice. If there are, then the family doesn’t really have a “choice,” do they?

Since private schools don’t usually have certification requirements for teachers that are as demanding as those in public schools, the crowded conditions may result in teachers who can’t individualize instruction, which is what parents are paying for.

Now those parents think, “What can I do to get the education for my kid that he deserves?” So they read about and enroll their students in online schools, which operate as profit centers where the only goal is to teach school subjects to students as efficiently as possible. Other adolescent life skills get ignored as if the only reason kids go to school is to learn academic content.

Students left in the private schools are those whose families can take advantage of the vouchers. Soon the quality deteriorates there and schools can’t adjust, because they’ve hired teachers who aren’t fully equipped to handle these variations in student performance.

So at its logical albeit unlikely fulfillment, a typical voucher program is bad for education at both public and private schools. It would increase the odds that students will enroll in for-profit schools at the K-12 level, though, so the programs are good for schools like that.

But ultimately, providing a tax credit favors the wealthy and puts the poor at a disadvantage, since funding the program this way makes parents come up with the money first and then get a reimbursement payment in April. People living paycheck to paycheck will be at a disadvantage.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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