Sunday, August 14, 2022

A few reasons for and against vouchers


“The topic of school choice goes by different names in different places, but according to Frisco Independent School District Board of Trustees president Anne McCausland, the purpose is all the same,” editor-in-chief Megan Lin writes in The Wingspan, the student newspaper at Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas, on the northern edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

Hogan visits Cornerstone Christian Acad., Bowie (Anthony DePanise / Maryland GovPics via Flickr CC)

“Vouchers this year are being called a couple of different things—vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts,” the paper quotes Ms McCausland as saying. “It’s basically something that certain legislators are proposing that would allow parents to take the money that typically a school would get for a student, and then take that money and it would follow the student, say, to a private school, to the parent if they’re homeschooling, or maybe even an online school.”

That’s how it would work in Texas, and as a public school trustee, Ms McCausland told the student newspaper she doesn’t support any kind of voucher program. Other states have different laws about homeschooling, virtual or online charter schools, and other facets in the school code that make certain schools eligible or ineligible for public funding, but the basic principle is the same: Send some of the tax money a parent pays for education to a private school of the parent’s choice, not to the public school system.

The term “school choice” refers to both the individual school the parent decides to send his or her kid to and the orders to the government to send those tax dollars, paid into the state treasury by all citizens and intended for the common good, to that school, as long as that school is eligible to receive those funds. The first part already exists; some politicians are now advocating for the second part of that definition.

In Maryland, which has a small voucher program that started this school year by sending between $1,000 and $4,400 to families to help pay tuition at a private school of the parent’s choice, US News & World Report characterized a visit to the state capital by more than 1,000 voucher supporters as the drawing of “battle lines on public funding for private schools.”

These aren’t new battle lines. They were drawn back in the 60s, and the argument hasn’t advanced a bit since then. Politicians just keep hoping educators have forgotten, I guess.

“I intend to fight for school choice session after session after session,” The Texas Tribune quoted Texas Lieutenant Gov Dan Patrick as saying at a Dallas Regional Chamber luncheon. “And it’s not going to hurt public schools. It’s going to make them better.”

How (not) to make the public schools better

Now, Mr Patrick’s argument that vouchers will somehow make the public schools better is likely a myth. It has never been shown to happen, and politicians have been squeezing public school budgets for decades. If that’s how it worked, it would have happened somewhere.

Theoretically, I concede it’s possible that taking money away from the public schools will have a neutral effect on the quality of the educational programming those schools provide, but it’s hard to believe that taking money away from the public schools will have a positive effect on the quality of the educational programming.

On the other hand, not all state programs reduce the funding for public schools in order to accommodate vouchers. I’ll get to that side of the argument in a minute, but now, I need to explore this idea people have that taking money or threatening to take money away from public schools somehow makes them better.

This is a red herring, thrown into the water by politicians who are trying to sell the public a business model regarding salesmanship, product marketing, and profit and loss: if there’s competition for those tax dollars and schools are forced to compete, voucher proponents argue, schools will improve their product naturally, as any good business would, and therefore provide a better education for students.

WHAT IF I OWN A SMALL HOT DOG STAND? I might set up shop on a street in downtown Baltimore. Next to me, another guy might set up a food truck from which he sells gyors. I discover from customer surveys that I’m losing money not because I don’t sell gyros, but because I charge people extra for a can of soda. Many of my former customers prefer the gyro cart because that guy gives them a free soda when they buy a gyro.

Fine. So I start offering people free soda as well, hiking the price a little on my hot dogs to compensate. And business starts to come back.

Now translate this to the public schools. Suppose I’m the principal of a neighborhood elementary school in a state that offers vouchers for parents who decide to send their children to a private school. I find out from standard surveys people get about public schools that I’m losing students because people want their kids to get a Catholic education as part of their school life.

That’s a problem, because I don’t have the legal right to start teaching kids about the Bible. My hands are tied by laws that were stamped into the US Constitution, so I’m going to lose these students if a Catholic education is what their parents decide they want.

With vouchers, though, I’m also going to lose the money that came with that full-time pupil. Depending on how many full-time pupils I lose, I may have to lay off teachers, not upgrade technology, not fix the plumbing in the girls’ bathroom, or make other sacrifices in order to, at least, teach kids math, reading, and science. They’ll be tested on those subjects, and failing to achieve the state’s arbitrary standard will jeopardize my school’s existence.

As in business, competition only drives improvement if the competitors have the capacity to make those improvements. Not only don’t I have the legal right to make certain changes in my public elementary school, but I also lose capacity to make other improvements when the government takes money away because the number of full-time pupils at my school, a number on which funding formulas are based, has been reduced.

In Maryland, where Gov Larry Hogan, a Republican, has expressed strong and unequivocal support for the state’s fledgling voucher program, known as BOOST, most of the schools that receive voucher funds are religious.

It’s illogical to try to get the public to buy the idea that sending money to these private schools will drive improvements in the public schools, since the public schools are prohibited, by the US Constitution, from making many of the improvements those parents want for kids.

But Mr Hogan, being smart, doesn’t make that argument in Maryland.

Since the claim that vouchers will make the public schools better wouldn’t fly in a highly educated state like Maryland, Mr Hogan takes a different tack: he says the vouchers create opportunities for low-income families to send their children to a private school.

“We think it was a great program that helped a lot of kids, and as I’ve always said, I don’t care what side of the aisle the ideas come from, you know, if they’re good ideas, we want to push for them,” Mr Hogan was quoted as saying at yesterday’s rally in Annapolis. The BOOST scholarships, he said, “helped many of these kids out here, and we just want to give a couple million to help even more kids get a great education.”

At least four recent long-term studies, however, refute the claim that vouchers “help” many of these kids. In fact, vouchers have been shown to reduce the quality of educational programming the voucher students receive at the private schools, when compared to their peers who were eligible to receive voucher funds but decided to stay in the public school system.

Voucher proponents are trying to make us disregard the evidence, though, and dismiss scientific findings, as The Catholic Standard showed pictures of Catholic schoolboys at yesterday’s rally holding signs that proclaim “All Are Welcome.” Ignore the science, ignore the quality of education, and ignore the greater good, they say. We have an open heart, and we love you.

“This money definitely helps our school,” the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service quoted Anna Crisci, a middle school teacher at St Michael’s School in Ridge, as saying. “We wouldn’t be open if we didn’t have BOOST money. To have a private school where they get one-on-one education is so important—small class sizes, especially for kids who struggle with reading and math. It’s so important to have that one-on-one.”

The flaw in this argument—and again, I turn to a business model—is that the one-on-one time the Catholic school’s parents are paying for, and Ms Crisci says is important, is jeopardized by offering scholarships through the voucher program. Increasing the number of students at a school, unless the school is required to hire more teachers, can’t possibly benefit the one-on-one time teachers spend with students.

Again, I concede that the voucher money might have a neutral effect on the one-on-one time, but take the argument to its logical conclusion, as it is nearing in the state of Florida, which President Donald Trump highlighted in his speech before Congress this week.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that “every” kid had a voucher. Now, instead of talking about capacity-building in the public schools, of which there would be none, leading to the inevitable closing of those public schools, the private schools are under absolutely no obligation to hire additional teachers, reading specialists, speech therapists, counselors, or anybody else to build their capacity.

The US Constitution specifically prohibits the government from imposing any mandate on how a Catholic school teaches its kids, what programs it provides, or how many teachers it employs. Some schools, of course, will do the right thing, even without accountability to the government or the public, simply because they love kids and want to do the right thing.

But some schools, especially those seeking to enhance the bottom line for shareholders, won’t do the right thing. And if they’re not accountable, they’ll get to keep my money.

This is why Senator Tim Kaine’s questioning of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearing was so important. He asked her if she supported “equal” accountability for all schools, whether public, public charter, private, religious, or whatever, that were receiving federal funds. She wouldn’t take the bait.

Her refusal under oath reveals the fallacy of the private school funding argument. For Catholic schools who love kids, it’s pretty clear they would do whatever they have to do to educate kids properly. If they had to purchase equipment or hire specialists for kids with certain disabilities, I have no doubt in my heart that they would.

But other private schools get lumped in with the Catholic schools here, including online or virtual schools. If private schools that receive public funding aren’t held accountable for how they spend that money—and make no mistake, that’s the whole point of Senator Lamar Alexander’s recent push to strip accountability requirements out of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the US would have no law to prevent a school corporation from spending those tax dollars to buy hot dogs for a restaurant in Tampa, to buy AK-47s for a coup attempt in Turkey, or to buy investment instruments for shareholders.

All I know is that the money I paid through my taxes, and subtract from my check every two weeks, isn’t going to the public school as much as it could, since I live in a state that supports vouchers. These programs are also bad for good private schools, though, which I didn’t used to worry about but must now look into since my tax dollars are at stake.

What happens at many of these schools already—especially the for-profit virtual schools—is that they spend an inordinate amount of money on slick marketing campaigns to attract new students. That means they’re not spending all they can on programs aimed at keeping existing students happy or supplying them with the educational programming they may need, based on their abilities or disabilities.

If there’s enough money for economically disadvantaged families to send their kids to these private schools, eventually even the good private schools will have to start spending an increasingly inappropriate amount of money to compete for students.

Public schools, of course, aren’t designed to create marketing campaigns, because, honestly, they don’t have a choice in what kids they can accept. Traditional public schools instead spend almost every dollar on developing the best educational programs their resources will allow, not on creating slick marketing campaigns to attract new students. This does create overhead and some waste, of course, but taking money away won’t fix that, I don’t think. Furthermore, voucher laws don’t provide any mechanism for making this type of improvement in public schools.

When it comes to choice, I would personally prefer a school that invests in educational programming, not in marketing or development. I think the education there is better, even if it doesn’t have as much one-on-one time. However, I must admit, if my parents had a voucher program, they probably would have sent me to a Catholic school. We were too poor to afford the tuition, but they both told me several times they would have sent me to a Catholic school.

EDUCATION is what you make of it, and one of the reasons Catholic schools are usually better than the neighborhood public school is that parents are more invested in their kids’ education at the Catholic school, on average, than the parents are at a neighborhood public school. Parental engagement almost always produces gains. Vouchers aren’t about parent engagement, though. In fact, they encourage a reduction in parental engagement by emphasizing money, not the quality of education, at private schools.

This is the ultimate flaw in the argument for vouchers: There’s no way vouchers will make public schools better, as Mr Patrick and others argue, since parents will be increasingly disengaged from those public schools as money is made available to them for sending their kids to a private school. Then, making it easier for parents to send their kids to private schools will have a tendency, on average, to decrease their engagement at that school as well and could lead to a slow deterioration of quality at the private school accepting the voucher.

“We cannot rely on throwing money at this problem like administrations past,” wrote Ms DeVos yesterday in a USA Today op-ed. “Instead, we need to enact serious, substantive reforms that go to the source of the problem.”

It’s as if she’s not aware that voucher programs are completely, 100 percent, about throwing money at a problem in education. So I ask: Does she think it’s good to throw money at the problems in education, or doesn’t she? If it’s not good to throw money at a problem in education, vouchers, which do exactly that, are a bad idea. We should instead reform the efficiency in our public schools, sure, improve the arts and after-school programming to engage students, improve the family support services to engage parents, and so on. Money isn’t the answer, and Ms DeVos appears to agree with me on that.

Paul Katula
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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