School vouchers: Still a bad idea despite Indiana court ruling

So the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s school voucher program is constitutional. It isn’t the first time a supreme court has made a questionable call but, apart from the legal argument, the decision doesn’t mean that vouchers are a good educational or civic idea.

They aren’t.

Indiana is one of a growing number of states with school voucher programs. These allow public dollars to be used at private schools, including religious schools, including those religious schools that use creationist materials that teach anti-scientific notions such as the idea that the universe is no more than 10,000 years old, and that humans lived at the very same time as dinosaurs.

With Tuesday’s decision by the Indiana Supreme Court, Indiana can now expand its program, in which more than 9,300 low-income students already are enrolled. Under the program, students in grades 1-8 can receive up to $4,500 annually for private school tuition, and high schoolers can get a little bit more. The court ruled that the money is going to families, who use it as they wish, rather than the schools themselves, which the justices believe is an argument that gets around the separation between church and state.

Voucher programs have been growing over the last decade, with quiet advocacy by right-wing Republicans, some of whom don’t believe in public education. A 2011 report that reviewed studies on vouchers noted that most of the early programs were aimed at low-income families in large cities or at students attending the lowest-performing public schools in a state, but the newer programs include middle-income families. When Indiana passed its voucher program in 2011, it was then the broadest in the country, including low-income as well as middle-income students. Louisiana’s voucher program surpassed that in size, and it was also challenged, and is now awaiting a decision on its constitutionality by the state Supreme Court.

The notion is that families deserve to have a “choice” of schools for their children. The reality is that the amount of money provided in each voucher isn’t enough to  cover tuition at a great many private schools, especially the elite ones that get most of the media’s attention, such as Sidwell Friends, which the Obama daughters attend.

Take a look at the voucher program in Washington D.C., which is the only federally funded voucher program in the country at the moment (though Sen. Rand Paul would like to change that). It was designed to give poor children a chance to attend private schools and, presumably, get a better education than students stuck in failing public schools. Well, a review of the voucher program by my colleagues Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown found this last year:

   … A Washington Post review found that hundreds of students use their voucher dollars to attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings, such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted Deanwood residence, and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist.

At a time when public schools face increasing demands for accountability and transparency, the 52 D.C. private schools that receive millions of federal voucher dollars are subject to few quality controls and offer widely disparate experiences, the Post found.

Some of these schools are heavily dependent on tax dollars, with more than 90 percent of their students paying with federal vouchers.

Yet the government has no say over curriculum, quality or management. And parents trying to select a school have little independent information, relying mostly on marketing from the schools.

The director of the nonprofit organization that manages the D.C. vouchers on behalf of the federal government calls quality control “a blind spot.”

And this one is in the District, supposedly under the nose of the federal lawmakers who passed the program. One can only imagine the level of oversight in other programs.

There are arguments made that students in voucher schools do better than their peers who wanted vouchers but didn’t get them and are in public schools. Research shows that that is largely not true. For many voucher advocates, the real problem is public education.  Back in 2002, Dick DeVos, who is the son of the co-founder of Amway, made a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a portion of which you can see in this video, laying out a strategy for promoting school vouchers in state legislatures in a way that would not draw too much attention. “We need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities,” he said, also saying that his supporters should refer to public schools as “government schools.”

This is the bottom line: Public funds should go to public schools. As much as President Obama agrees with the choice movement when it comes to charters, he rightly opposes vouchers for this very reason. So does Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The answer to failing public schools is not vouchers. They aren’t even one of the many answers. Whatever the Indiana Supreme Court says.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 26, 2013