Even for those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about education policy, it is hard to develop a comprehensive understanding of the scope of school privatization. We might grasp the problems of charter schools in our particular state, but it is difficult to track how our own state’s voucher program or charter oversight law compares to that in other states.
Putting into perspective the scale and implications of school privatization across the states is the purpose of a new report, Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools. The report, released jointly last week by the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the Network for Public Education, is designed to create the context for understanding the growing, but still relatively small effort driven by the far-right, to privatize one of our society’s oldest public institutions.
The new report establishes the relative scale of public, private and charter schools: “(T)he overwhelming majority of students in this country continue to attend public schools with total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 projected to increase by 3 percent from 50.3 million to 51.7 million students. This compares with a 6% enrollment in charter schools, and a 10.2% enrollment in private schools, with the majority (75%) of private school students attending religious private schools… Nonetheless, within the past two decades, there has been a fervent push by those interested in privatization who seek to de-prioritize the importance of public schools and effectively undermine their functionality.” “In total, 28 states plus the District of Columbia have traditional voucher or neo-voucher programs. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws.”
The privatization of education is defined as the redirection of public tax dollars as vouchers for private school tuition or the use of tax dollars to pay for a school operated by a private contractor. School privatization schemes include–charter schools, private school tuition vouchers, and two kinds of neo-vouchers—tuition tax credits and education savings accounts. The new report examines all of these forms of privatization in each state and the District of Columbia. The report’s authors then apply a rubric for judging whether the states have protected their primary public education system or whether they have created explicit policies to encourage families to seek privatized alternatives that drain tax dollars out of the public system. The states are also rated by whether they have protected students’ civil rights as they set up privatized schools; whether states have designed the necessary regulation and oversight for charters and vouchers; and whether the operation of charter schools and voucher schemes has been made transparent to the public which is providing the funds.
Overall: “States earned an A+ rating for successfully putting all of their resources to supporting public schools and successfully resisting public funding for privatized alternatives. The states with the best overall grades for resisting school privatization are predominantly rural states with a strong commitment to community public schools and an aversion to public dollars leaving already-cash-strapped rural schools… There are 22 states with grades between a C and a B+. Six states and the District of Columbia received a grade of D or D+ and 17 received a grade of F.” States earning an A+ are Nebraska, North Dakota, and West Virginia. The three states with the lowest ratings are Arizona, Florida, and Georgia.
Besides awarding an overall “school privatization grade” to each state, the report separately grades the 50 states and the District of Columbia on the impact of their voucher programs (traditional voucher, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts) and on their charter school laws—all with the purpose of examining the ways privatization impinges on the rights of students and on the responsible use of tax dollars.
Many states fail to hold privatized schools accountable for protecting students by hiring well qualified teachers. “With the exception of 6 states—Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia—all states have charter school laws. Twenty-eight of these states and the District of Columbia fail to require the same teacher certification requirements as traditional public schools….” “Arkansas, Maine and North Carolina plummet to the bottom for the failed accountability of their voucher programs. For instance, none of these states required background checks for teachers and employees in voucher schools.”
Neither is there sufficient oversight across the states for checking on what students are learning in privatized schools. Of the 15 states and the District of Columbia with traditional voucher laws, “Nine states plus the District of Columbia do not require students to take the same tests, despite national mandates for public school students.” And of the 6 states with Education Savings Accounts neo-vouchers—programs where parents who remove their children from the public schools take with them a publicly funded credit card that the parents can use to pay for services the parents themselves patch together—“except for Florida and Nevada, none of the states with ESA programs required state testing or prior public school enrollment.” And: “Of the 18 states with Tuition Tax-Credit Programs, 9 fail to require any accreditation of the schools that receive a benefit….”
States have neglected to demand transparency from their privatized schools: “Public schools are overseen by school boards whose members are elected or appointed by public officials. Moreover, these school boards must hold open meetings and provide an open process for gaining public input and reaching decisions. Discipline codes must be available to parents, and suspension and expulsion rates are reported and shared… This is not the case for private schools supported by voucher programs as well as for the charter schools in the majority of states.”
The report’s author, Tanya Clay House has served as the public policy director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the report makes a strong case for the role of civil rights protections in the public schools, protections that have historically been hard won by advocates seeking to ensure broader protection of formerly marginalized groups of children: “In addition to protections against religious discrimination or the establishment of religion, other protections should exist to equally ensure the ability of all students to obtain a quality education and be free from discrimination in school enrollment and in the classroom. Such requirements as random selection admissions policies protect against specific discrimination based on claimed merit or other requirements, such as the refusal to accept LGBTQ students. English language learning programs and exemptions from participation in religious instruction should exist in any educational program funded by taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately, private schools by their very nature are not subject to federal civil rights laws… In fact, voucher proposals often contain language specifically intended to circumvent civil rights laws.”
What about the fiscal impact? “Vouchers and charters… divert tax dollars ordinarily directed to public schools thus limiting the capacity of public schools to educate… students.”
In a statement published to accompany the new report, the President of the Network for Public Education, Diane Ravitch describes what she believes is the most important lesson of this report: “No state has added extra dollars for charters or vouchers. They simply take money away from public schools, which most students attend… The vast majority are enrolled in public schools, and their public schools are cutting budgets, laying off teachers, increasing class sizes, and losing programs like the arts, so that a tiny minority can use public dollars to attend charter or voucher schools, where teachers are less qualified and less experienced. This diversion of public dollars is hurting public schools whose doors are open to all.”