Liberals, Jeff Bryant notes in this post, “tend to laugh off” voucher programs “as aberrations from fly-over country.” They shouldn’t. Bryant is director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America’s Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Jeff owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has written extensively about public education policy. A version of this first appeared on Salon.
By Jeff Bryant
Many people who ventured to Slate recently gaped in horror at a map of the United States depicting a rash of schools – like a case of chicken pox across the nation’s Bible Belt – that are teaching children creationism instead of the scientific theory of evolution, all at taxpayer expense.
It was also recently reported that parents who have sent their children to private – often, religious – schools are, in many cases, now getting to extend that privilege at taxpayer expense. In Indiana, a report from the state Department of Education revealed that state taxpayers are now footing a nearly $21 million bill to give students a private-school education that previously had been paid by their parents. Similarly in Wisconsin, another report revealed that a $3.2 million new statewide program that sends students to private schools at taxpayer expense mostly serves children who had been getting that privilege paid for by their parents. And the program is due to expand next year.
The Wisconsin state program is a state roll-out of a program that has been operating in Milwaukee for years – the same program that recently saw a private school rip off $2 million in taxpayer money and close its doors in the middle of the night. Leaders of that school were then unearthed by Milwaukee journalists in Florida, where they “now live in a gated community … by the beach” and operate – not surprisingly – a private religious school that can get taxpayer money from the state.
In North Carolina, the state legislature recently passed a bill to divert $10 million of taxpayer money meant for public schools to private schools, including those that “provide an education that is Christ-centered” and teach “the truth of scripture” with “Bible-based facts,” such as: “dinosaurs and humans co-existed on Earth; slave-masters generally treated their slaves well; in some areas, the KKK fought the decline in morality by using the sign of the cross; and gay people have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists.”
What knits these news stories together is a common cause: school vouchers. Vouchers – also called scholarships, tax credits and other variations on a theme – turn public dollars for education into private coin to be expended as parents wish and legislators allow.
Liberals tend to laugh off this kind of news as aberrations from fly-over country. But they need to be aware there is a concerted effort underfoot to take school voucher schemes like these nationwide.
Republicans Introduce Nationwide School Voucher Schemes
Sandwiched around President Obama’s State of the Union message last month was a high-profile messaging campaign run by Republicans to promote school vouchers.
A new bill introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., just before Obama’s address “would take about $24 billion – or about 41 percent – of current federal spending on elementary and secondary public schools, and allow states to decide whether to give the lowest-income families the money as individual scholarships to pay for private school tuition, or to attend a public school outside the child’s traditional neighborhood zone, or a charter school.” The bill would hand over “about $2,100 in federal money” for each eligible child, based on family income.
Nearly simultaneous to the Alexander bill, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., also introduced a new bill to “provide federally funded vouchers to children with disabilities, children living on military bases, and children living in impoverished areas,” according to Scott’s official website.
Then, after Obama addressed the nation, Republican leaders took to the airwaves to deliver rebuttals that were laced with the language of school voucher marketing campaigns. In the party’s official response, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., assured, “We have plans to improve our education and training systems so you have the choice to determine where your kids go to school.”
Then Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in his address stridently called for solutions from “the marketplace,” promoting his “economic freedom zones” that allow for “school choice” and give parents an “educational tax credit” because parents, “not the government,” know “what’s best” for kids.
The vouchers, by whatever name, are being sold to the American people as a way to “rescue” students – especially those who live in poverty or have disabilities – from “failing” public schools so they can attend a privately run school at the expense of taxpayers.
Said Alexander of his proposal in the pages of Education Week, “There would be no better way to help children move up from the back of the line than by allowing states to use federal dollars to create 11 million new opportunities to choose a better school.”
But if America’s political leaders can find “no better way” than school vouchers to help poor children, we’re in for a fiasco.
The Milwaukee Model Rolls Out to America
The current marketing spin for school vouchers and similar schemes is that taxpayer money for education should “fund children, not buildings” and should “follow the child.”
Politicians who media outlets often cast as “moderate” and “bipartisan” are often the purveyors of voucher plans claimed to be “all about the children” but are really opening the doors to opportunists who want to spread religious diatribes, make a buck off the taxpayers, or both.
According to this story in The New York Times, “About a third of states have already taken steps to redefine public education with a network of vouchers and scholarships that allow families to use state taxpayer funds to educate their children however they want, whether it be in public, charter, private or religious schools, online or at home.”
America’s oldest running voucher scheme has taken place in Milwaukee for over 20 years. And the results leave a lot to be desired. A report from the Associated Press in 2004 looked at the schools receiving the money from Milwaukee’s school voucher program and found that a school that had “received millions of dollars … was founded by a convicted rapist. Another school reportedly entertained kids with Monopoly while cashing $330,000 in tuition checks for hundreds of no-show students.”
Then in 2009, another Milwaukee voucher school got into hot water over $4.5 million it had received from the state of Wisconsin when “no one in the general public knows anything about how students have done academically,” according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The “most vivid pillar” of the school’s program, according to the report, “has been its emphasis on physical discipline — making students carry desks over their heads, twisting their arms until they ‘give,’ forcing them to do push-ups for infractions.” After the school closed due to its dispute with the state regulators over money, “At least 51 of its 200-plus students have enrolled in the Milwaukee Public Schools since then. What others are doing is unknown.”
Given the report cited above about the Milwaukee voucher school whose owners left students in the lurch and fled to Florida, it’s hard to believe matters have gotten any better for Milwaukee voucher schools. And unfortunately in the meantime, according to AP, “Milwaukee’s 14-year-old voucher program has served as a model for others around the country.”
With the Milwaukee system as the model, voucher programs sprang up across the nation.
In Florida, from 2006 to 2010, the state carried out a school voucher plan that resembled “a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash,” according to a report at The Miami New Times website.
At one South Florida voucher school that had received “at least $236,000 from a state-run tax-credit scholarship for low-income kids … two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor.”
Other cases of voucher school corruption described by the New Times included a school in Hialeah led by a couple who were indicted for stealing information about students from other schools, claiming they were enrolled in their school and pocketing the tuition money. Founders of the Faith Christian Academy in Polk County were convicted of bilking the state of $200,000 through false enrollments. And a high school in Boca Raton had a program that made students fill out workbooks every day for five and a half hours.
New York state has a similar program for pre-K special education students that, according to The New York Times, sent thousands of dollars of government funds to owners of a company employing special education teachers who used the money “to fix up a weekend getaway in the Poconos.” Owners of another similar company getting government cash for special education services “diverted more than $800,000 to pay, among other things, rent and interest to themselves and the full-time salary of an executive who lived in South Carolina and seldom worked.”
When corruption is not the game voucher schools are into, religious indoctrination often sets the agenda.
Zack Kopplin, whose research contributed to the Slate article cited above, “documented over 300 voucher schools, in nine states and the District of Columbia, which are receiving public money, and are teaching creationism in their science classes. The program where [he] discovered the most creationist voucher schools was in Florida, where [he] discovered 164 schools.”
In Louisiana’s statewide school voucher scheme, Kopplin found “at least 20 schools who use a creationist curriculum or blatantly promote creationism on their websites. These 20 schools have been awarded 1,365 voucher slots and can receive as much as $11,602,500 in taxpayer money annually.”
In the meantime, voucher schools rarely if ever show evidence of improving the academic outcomes of children.
Education historian Diane Ravitch recently looked into the academic track record of school vouchers and found evaluations have not shown “any test score advantage for students who get vouchers.”
Education research experts at the National Education Policy Center have examined loads of reports and determined that “even the most dedicated pro-voucher researchers have been unable to find clear evidence of superior performance by students attending private schools as part of a voucher program.” And vouchers “do not improve college enrollment rates.”
Also there’s little evidence school vouchers generally represent a systemic way to “rescue” students from underperforming schools. In voucher schools in Louisiana, for instance, nearly half of the students in the state’s program last year used voucher money to attend “schools with performance scores in the D to F range of the state’s grading scale” – hardly “a move up from the back of the line” for these children.
“Accountability” For Thee, Not For Me
While state scandals continue to plague school voucher schemes, there’s little sign Republicans have learned anything from them.
Those who question school vouchers, such as Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association, from the Times article, claim, “The big issue is really that lack of accountability.” Yet most voucher proponents are doing whatever they can to prevent enforcement of accountability.
From Politico, we learn that the bill Lamar Alexander introduced, “would give the states flexibility to design programs that would follow children not only to the public or charter school of their choice, but also to accredited private schools, tutoring centers, after-school enrichment programs and any other educational program the state approved. Families could even use the money to purchase homeschooling materials.” (emphasis added)
As the reporters at Politico noted, Alexander’s bill “decentralizes authority, giving states the power to set their own policies.”
Bloggers at Education Week noted that both Alexander’s bill and the one introduced by Sen. Scott “would allow states to set their own rules and guidelines for how the money would be distributed.”
This lack of accountability for school voucher programs comes right out of the playbook used in voucher schemes outside the Beltway.
In Washington, D.C., a 2012 Washington Post review of that city’s voucher program — the only federally funded voucher program in the country — found that lack of oversight of that district’s program lead to “hundreds of students” using 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.”
The reporters noted, “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 … 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.” And a November 2013 U.S. General Accountability Office report said that the local agency that administers the program — which has used $152 million in federal funds since 2004 for more than 5,000 students from low-income families – lacks the “financial systems, controls, policies, and procedures” to ensure that federal funds are being spent legally.
In North Carolina, according to Lindsay Wagner of NC Policy Watch, private schools receiving school vouchers need only to “administer a nationally recognized standardized test” that can be “any exam,” so long as the score can be compared to children in taking the same test in any other state.
In Indiana, which also has a statewide voucher program, Diane Ravitch alerted from her blog, state lawmakers were considering banning testing for voucher schools.
This of course flies in the face of the strict accountability that has been ratcheted down on public schools since No Child Left Behind laws, crafted by the very architects pushing school vouchers, went into effect more than 10 years ago.
A Political Strategy Exploiting Children
Rather than improving the prospects of students and the performance of schools, what Republican proposals for vouchers have most to do with is politics.
As Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post noted some time ago, messaging behind the push for school vouchers has shifted from educational effectiveness to moral imperative. Because recent voucher research reveals they “do not have a strong effect on students’ academic achievement,” Strauss noted, “Proponents have shifted their rhetoric away from academic impact and instead highlight parent choice and other issues.”
So now, as Stephanie Simon reported at Politico, “calling for more charter schools, vouchers and tax credits” is a tactic Republicans are eager to use “to attract black and Latino voters.”
For sure, Simon noted, “Helping parents pay private school tuition fits with the party’s mantra that the government works best when it gets out of the way and lets the free market flourish. But top strategists say it’s more than that: Talking about helping poor minority children softens the GOP’s image … Plus, the photo ops are great.”
For some Democratic political leaders, Republican attempts to voucherize America’s schools pose a bit of a dilemma – because they’ve already signed on to the program. One of those leaders, New Jersey freshman Senator Cory Booker, is a particularly ardent fan of school vouchers, mimicking the Republican mantra that “it’s all about the kids.”
Booker was recently called out by Glen Ford on the Black Agenda Report website. “Cory Booker would very much like to appear to be a mainstream Democrat,” Ford stated. “But Booker has never turned his back on the private school hucksters that launched his political career. He will have little choice but to vote in favor of Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander’s school vouchers bill, thus putting himself at odds with most of the Democratic Caucus in the Senate.”
Woe be to us all should Booker and other centrist-minded Democrats sway enough support to pass these Republican school voucher schemes. But even if they don’t, this will not be the last we’ve heard of this agenda.