Proponents of school choice have dubbed this week School Choice Week. In honor of School Choice Week, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under the first George Bush and today the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, announced a new bill to provide a kind of federal school voucher program.
According to the NY Times, Alexander’s bill would re-purpose $24 billion federal education dollars, 41 percent of all federal education spending. Alexander’s bill would allow states to choose “whether to give the lowest-income families the money as individual scholarships to pay for private school tuition, or to attend a pubic school outside the child’s traditional neighborhood zone, or a charter school.”
He claims the money would provide a voucher for 11 million low-income children with an average per-child grant of $2,100. The NY Times explains, “Under Mr. Alexander’s bill, states would be allowed to opt in to the voucher program. States could also continue to distribute federal funds to public schools rather than individual students.” While there is little chance vouchers will be adopted by today’s U.S. Senate, the introduction of such a bill illustrates the dogged persistence of those who support this old, old idea.
Voucher programs have never been popular. When proposed as ballot issues across the states, voucher plans have never been adopted by the voters. Not ever. The oldest voucher plans in Cleveland and in Milwaukee have neither significantly demonstrated higher academic achievement among their participants nor have they, as promised, improved the public systems in their respective cities through competition. Voucher schools have not been well-regulated by their states. Voucher schools in Louisiana’s new program, for example, have been reported to teach religiously based creationism as though it were scientifically proven.
While vouchers are always proposed as so-called solutions for poor children said to be “trapped in failing public schools,” in many states a child is not required even to have attended a public school before receiving a voucher. In states like Ohio, the vouchers have instead been a way for private and parochial school parents to receive scholarships to the schools their children were already attending. A new report by StateImpact Indiana documents that during the initial two years of Indiana’s relatively new voucher program, “income-eligible students had to have spent two semesters in public school” to be granted a voucher made up of funds taken from the state’s public school budget. But the rules keep being adjusted and the number of children who previously attended a public school continues to drop. “Indiana will pay an estimated $81 million in private school tuition this year, up from $15.5 million in 2011-12.”
School choice programs are very often established by states in their poorest urban school districts. When asked her opinion about Senator Alexander’s proposed bill, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, identified the most serious repercussion for public school districts of school choice programs including vouchers: “Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships have done a tremendous amount of harm in destabilizing already austerity-filled and under-resourced schools all throughout America.”
Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network, describes the same problem: parents and children left behind without any choices at all as their schools are abandoned by children considered desirable by charter schools or by children who can secure a voucher. “Instead, the choice that most parents will be stuck with is whether they stay in their neighborhood school—as it is rapidly being de-funded to the private sector and gradually being depopulated of the children of the most well-to-do parents….”
Last fall, Moody’s Investor Service released a special report that confirms such worries; according to Moody’s, current school choice policies are driving some urban school districts into a fatal decline. Moody’s worries about school choice in the form of charter schools. Moody’s warns, according to Reuters, “one in 20 U.S. students attends a charter school…. But in 11 major cities, the percentage is much larger, ‘making charter schools a predominantly urban phenomenon.’” Moody’s reports that in New Orleans, 80 percent of students attend a charter school, with 40 percent in Washington, D.C., and over 20 percent in Albany, Cleveland, San Antonio, and St. Louis.
Two separate factors, Moody’s warns, combine to threaten the financial stability of these and other urban school districts: first the foreclosure crisis which has significantly reduced property tax revenues and diminished the number of children living in devastated urban neighborhoods and hence driven down the attendance numbers that determine state aid, and second the rush of children to charter schools, also diminishing per-pupil basic aid from the state to the school district.
According to a Washington Post commentary on the Moody’s study: “…some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines. It begins with people leaving the city or districts. Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts. The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students. As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts. Rinse, repeat….”