President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 education budget calls for the creation of a new federal private school voucher program. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a longtime proponent of vouchers. A recent series of NPR articles raises a number of questions about existing voucher programs and suggests that expanding vouchers is not likely to improve educational outcomes
Trump and DeVos push voucher expansion in proposed budget
Trump and DeVos budget calls for federal voucher program. On May 23, President Donald Trump released his 2018 budget proposal. Alongside steep reductions in many education programs and elimination of several others, his budget blueprint earmarks “$250 million for a new private school choice program.” [The Washington Post, 5/23/17; Office of Management and Budget, America First, 2018]
DeVos has a long history of supporting vouchers. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “has been an advocate of vouchers for decades” according to The Washington Post. She is the former president of the voucher-boosting American Federation for Children, and she and her husband are longtime donors to politicians who support expansion of voucher programs. [The Washington Post, 2/27/17]
Vouchers, Trump and Devos' preferred “private school choice” option, redirect public money to private schools. Private school choice programs, or vouchers, permit families to use public education money to pay part or all of the tuition at a private school. These programs are designed to expand educational opportunity by allowing low-income families to access high-performing private schools. As explained by NPR’s Cory Turner:
Think of traditional vouchers as coupons, backed by state dollars, that parents can use to send their kids to the school of their choice, even private, religiously affiliated schools. The money is all or some of what the state would have otherwise spent to educate the child in a public school.
Often called scholarships, vouchers are most often reserved for low-income students, children with disabilities or for families zoned to a failing public school. [NPR, 12/7/16]
Boston Globe highlights some of the education programs the budget would defund entirely to help pay for vouchers. While the Trump budget plan would allocate $250 million to “private school choice,” it also proposes to completely defund other programs geared toward low-income students and communities such as student assistance and loan programs and funding to support afterschool programs -- presumably in order to fund the shift. The Boston Globe lists them:
• Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program — $2.345 billion
• 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which supports before- and after-school programs as well as summer programs — $1.164 billion
• Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, which delivers need-based student financial aid — $732 million
• Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants — $277 million
• Comprehensive Literacy Development Grants — $190 million
• Strengthening Institutions — $86 million
• International Education and Foreign Language Studies Domestic and Overseas Programs, which are designed to strengthen the capability and performance of American education in foreign languages and international studies — $72 million
• Impact Aid Payments for Federal Property — $67 million
• Teacher Quality Partnership — $43 million
• Account Maintenance Fee Payments to Guaranty Agencies — $443 million (over 5 or 10 years)
• Public Service Loan Forgiveness — $10.213 billion (over 5 years); $27.471 billion (over 10 years)
• Subsidized Loans — $14.297 billion (over five years); $38.873 billion (over 10 years) [The Boston Globe, 5/23/17]
NPR’s in-depth series exposes problems with school vouchers
NPR: Four main reasons vouchers are problematic. In May, NPR published a series of in-depth articles that primarily examined existing private school voucher programs in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Florida. The coverage raises many questions about vouchers, and suggested that a substantial expansion of these programs may be problematic. NPR’s coverage highlights four key issues with existing voucher programs: One, many vouchers are not used by the families that need them the most. Two, voucher programs drain public education funding while allowing struggling religious schools to continue to operate. Three, voucher schools discriminate against students. Four, voucher programs have failed to show positive student academic gains. [NPR, 5/12/17, 5/16/17, 5/17/17, 5/19/17].
Issue #1: Many vouchers are not used by the families in greatest need
NPR: Vouchers are used by students already attending private schools. Some voucher programs are primarily serving families that are not low-income, and that could already afford private school tuition. NPR’s reporting on Indiana’s private school voucher system suggests this could be happening in the state already. From the May 12 report:
The biggest headline from the program's growth is this: Today, more than half of this year's voucher class didn't leave a public school — because they've never attended one.
“We're not losing kids from our schools [to vouchers],” says [Fort Wayne, IN] Superintendent Wendy Robinson. “We're now just having the state pay for kids who were never going to come here anyway.”
“When you look at that trend data, it is alarming,” says Jennifer McCormick, [Indiana’s] new Republican superintendent of public instruction, and a former public school teacher. She says of the old narrative that vouchers were largely meant to help low-income students escape underperforming public schools: “That's not necessarily the case” today. [NPR, 5/12/17]
Arizona is already leading the way in expanding voucher policies that benefit mostly high-income families. Arizona newspapers have reported that the recently expanded voucher program in that state is the first in the nation to set no income limits on voucher eligibility. This is despite evidence that Arizona’s vouchers are already primarily “benefiting students in more-affluent areas.” [Arizona Daily Star, 4/14/17, The Arizona Republic, 3/30/17]
Issue #2: Voucher programs redistribute public money to help private schools and wealthy individuals profit
NPR: Voucher programs have financially propped up private, religious schools. For religious schools facing declining enrollment, voucher programs have been a funding “lifeline,” and also allowed some to “scale back” on financial aid. From the May 12 NPR report on Indiana vouchers:
For schools that were financially strapped — and, with Catholic school enrollment plunging in recent years, there are many of those — vouchers have been a lifeline, not just in Indiana but also in Milwaukee, home to the nation's oldest voucher program.
In a recent study of Milwaukee's program, researchers found “vouchers are now a dominant source of funding for many churches” and that parishes “running voucher-accepting schools get more revenue from vouchers than from worshipers.”
[A] far smaller share of [affluent religious private school] Roncalli students qualify [for the voucher program]: 30 percent. Still, given the larger size of Roncalli's student body, that adds up to about $1.5 million this year. And that money has allowed the school to scale back the financial aid it offers. [NPR, 5/12/17]
Research shows voucher programs can be used as a “get-rich scheme for shrewd taxpayers” and wealthy donors. In addition to redistributing public education money to private schools, voucher funding provisions can function as tax shelters for the wealthy. An analysis from the School Superintendents Association found that in certain states, “scholarship fund” donors that subsidize private school voucher programs can see their tax bill drop by more than 100 percent of the amount that they contribute to voucher scholarship programs, a tax break not available for any other form of charitable donation. This lost tax revenue is another way that voucher programs drain public education funding, while providing outsize benefits for high-income individuals. The New York Times reported on the new analysis:
The superintendents’ association ardently opposes school vouchers, saying they take taxpayer resources from public education to finance unaccountable private schools. The report adds a new wrinkle: Funding for those vouchers is helping the rich get richer.
“What we found was really shocking,” said Sasha Pudelski, assistant director of policy and advocacy at AASA, who was an author of the report. “The net result is less money flowing into public schools.”
AASA and the liberal-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy examined programs in 17 states that send more than $1 billion a year to private schools via tuition tax credits, and concluded that private schools were benefiting from a “federally sanctioned voucher tax shelter” for wealthy taxpayers.
Issue #3: Private schools that receive the majority of voucher money are discriminatory
NPR: Private schools can deny students entry for many reasons. Public schools are required to accept all students regardless of income, race, gender, religion, or background. However, private schools that receive public education money from vouchers can and do choose which students they want to enroll. From NPR’s May 12 report on Indiana schools:
Participating private schools in Indiana have the freedom to do what they've always done: admit or reject students based on their own guidelines, even if those students are using taxpayer-funded vouchers.
A spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Education, Adam Baker, says “a private school can deny a student based on past academic performance or prior disciplinary action,” among other criteria.
Some schools post GPA requirements on their websites. Struggling students need not apply. Ditto students with a suspension. This has raised fears among the state's public school leaders that private schools are cherry-picking.
In its online admissions packet, Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington lays out its expectations of students. It lists “behaviors prohibited in the Bible” to include “homosexual or bisexual activity or any form of sexual immorality” and “practicing alternate gender identity or any other identity or behavior that violates God's ordained distinctions between the two sexes, male and female.”
The school then makes clear that, “in situations in which the home life violates these standards, LCA reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a student.”
Lighthouse received $665,400 in state voucher dollars this year. [NPR, 5/12/17]
NPR: Some voucher programs for special needs students don’t take the most challenging students. In Florida, the McKay Scholarship voucher program was created specifically to serve special needs students. However, in practice, Florida private voucher schools are likely to refuse entry to the highest-need special education students. From the May 17 NPR report, which focused on Florida’s voucher programs:
Helping kids like Ayden [who has ADHD, autism, and a seizure disorder] find a better fit is exactly why vouchers for special-needs students were created. There are 20 of these programs around the country, but the McKay Scholarship program in Florida is the largest, and one of the oldest. Given his diagnoses, Ayden is eligible for about $11,000 a year to attend a private school.
But there's a catch. For the past eight months, Ayden's mother has not been able to find a school within driving distance that will accept him. “They talk about McKay like it's this great thing, but talk to these private schools and as soon as I say 'behavioral issues,' they'll tell you that they can't accommodate him,” Lynn says.
When it comes to vouchers for special ed, the problem, say legal experts, is twofold: not enough rights and not enough money. Lynn and six other Florida families interviewed for this story have transferred again and again, among public, private, home school, virtual and charter schools, following a road of hope and disappointment.
“When we hear that Florida is a role model, we cringe a little bit because we see so many problems with the system,” says Stephanie Langer, a Florida attorney who specializes in special education rights. [NPR, 5/17/17]
Research shows voucher programs can also contribute to racial segregation in schools. In addition to school-by-school instances of discrimination, The Century Foundation also found that voucher programs tend to increase racial segregation in areas where they are implemented. From the foundation’s recent analysis (emphasis added):
Voucher programs on balance are more likely to increase school segregation than to decrease it or leave it at status quo. Although the demographics of students and schools create conditions under which vouchers could increase school integration in some places, there is little evidence that this has happened in practice. The best available data on the impact of school vouchers, tracking the movement of students in two different voucher programs, shows that voucher students by and large did not gain access to integrated schools as a result of the programs. Two-thirds of school transfers in one program and 90 percent of transfers in the other program increased segregation in private schools, public schools, or both sectors. Furthermore, data suggest that there is a strong risk that voucher programs will be used by white families to leave more diverse public schools for predominantly white private schools and by religious families to move to parochial private schools, increasing the separation of students by race/ethnicity and religious background. [The Century Foundation, 3/21/17]
Issue #4: Vouchers often have no academic benefit for students who need help most
NPR: Students in voucher schools in Indiana and Florida experienced little to no academic benefit, or fell further behind. NPR’s reporting in Indiana and Florida included research showing some private schools that serve voucher students were leaving students behind. In one Milwaukee voucher school, NPR’s Claudio Sanchez wrote, “not a single student is at grade level: not in math, not in reading, science or social studies, according to state education officials.” And in Indiana, the results for students in the voucher program are similar. From NPR’s May 12 report focused on Indiana:
Students in Indianapolis who left public schools to attend private Catholic schools, for example, experienced no benefit in reading but “moderate and statistically significant average annual losses in mathematics compared with the gains they experienced while attending traditional public schools,” the report says.
[Notre Dame Professor Mark] Berends adds that's “roughly like students moving from the 50th percentile down to about the 44th percentile” in math. And, he says, that's the effect over the course of one year.
“So, if this continues over multiple years,” Berends warns, “you can see that that's a pretty dramatic drop in achievement. [NPR, 5/12/17]
Research has found other voucher programs across the country are also producing lackluster results. The Brookings Institution has written on the uniformly poor academic outcomes from Louisiana’s voucher program, and The Washington Post has reported extensively on the negative impact on student achievement for voucher students in Washington, D.C. A comprehensive Economic Policy Institute report on voucher programs found that overall they offered “insignificant gains in test scores and limited gains in graduation rates.” [The Brookings Institution, 1/28/16; The Washington Post, 4/27/17; Economic Policy Institute, 2/28/17]