The main focus of the current conversation on rewriting No Child Left Behind has been on whether or not annual standardized testing of students will be retained in a new bill. But there are other important issues that have gotten less attention — school vouchers, for instance.
The House and Senate are now debating their respective bills to revamp the federal government’s education law. The House bill includes vouchers — which essentially allow the use of public funds for private school tuition — while the Senate version does not, though some Republican senators want to put them in.
On Wednesday, Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, made a speech on the Senate floor opposing efforts to amend the Senate’s “Every Child Achieves Act” to include vouchers. Murray has been working closely with Senate education committee chair Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).
Here is Murray’s speech, as prepared for delivery, in which she makes a case against vouchers:
M. President, since our nation’s founding, the idea of a strong public education for every child has been a part of the fabric of America. In the late 1770s, Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill in Virginia that outlined his plan for public schooling.
At the time he wrote, “By far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people.” Jefferson knew that educating children would strengthen our country. And that is still true today.
Today, a good education can provide a ticket to the middle class. And when all students have the chance to learn, we strengthen our future workforce and economy.
But M. President, nearly everyone agrees that our nation’s current education law – No Child Left Behind – is badly broken. The bipartisan bill – the Every Child Achieves Act – that we’re debating on the floor is a strong step in the right direction to finally fixing that law. And it will help continue our nation’s tradition of making sure all students have access to a quality public education.
But, M. President, some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are interested in voucherizing the public school system. Instead of investing in our public school system, they want to send federal resources to private schools. That would be a major step backward.
Vouchers undermine the basic goals of public education by allowing funding that is designated for our most at-risk students to be re-routed to private schools. I urge my colleagues to oppose any attempt to use federal education funds for private school vouchers.
M. President, I strongly oppose vouchers for several reasons. For one, vouchers divert much-needed resources away from public schools and re-route it to private and religious schools.
Today, public schools across the country, and particularly those schools with high concentrations of students in poverty, need more funding, not less. We cannot afford to send scarce federal resources away from public schools to benefit private schools.
Secondly, vouchers would send federal taxpayer dollars to private schools that are in no way accountable to the public. Proposals to create vouchers do not require private schools to adopt strong academic standards or to provide students with disabilities with the same services they have in public schools.
And unlike public schools, private schools do not need to serve all students. There is no guarantee that private schools would make sure students have access to state-licensed teachers.
And they would not administer the same assessments as public schools—which would diminish accountability to federal taxpayers. Many of my colleagues demand evidence and accountability in other federal programs. And I hope they would agree we need that in education, too.
M. President, some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle like to argue that vouchers create options for students and families. That might be true for students from more affluent families. But vouchers do not provide a real choice for the overwhelming majority of students.
Vouchers might cover some, but usually not all, of the tuition at a private school. In some cases, a voucher would make just a small dent in the full cost of a private school. That would enable students from more affluent families the ability to afford private schools, because they have the means to make up the difference. But students from low-income backgrounds would still be priced out of that choice.
So M. President, vouchers only provide the illusion of choice to students from low-income backgrounds. And it is these low-income students who ultimately lose out when funds are siphoned away from the public schools they attend.
But perhaps the most important reason I oppose private school vouchers is because they do not improve student achievement. Study after study has shown that vouchers do not pay off for students or taxpayers.
In 2012, researchers compared students enrolled in Milwaukee’s voucher program compared with students in Milwaukee public schools. The researchers found little evidence that the voucher program increased the achievement of participating students.
The District of Columbia’s voucher program has gone through four congressionally mandated studies from the Department of Education. Each of these studies has concluded that the program did not significantly improve reading or math achievement. And this program came at the cost of funding that could have helped improve local public schools.
So, M. President, there are several reasons to oppose any amendment that redirects federal funds to private schools. Public schools already have to deal with scarce federal resources, this would just exacerbate the problem. Private schools would not be accountable for the federal taxpayer dollars they receive. Vouchers do little to expand choices for low-income families. And finally, studies have shown that vouchers do not increase student achievement.
An amendment to allow public funds to flow to private schools would be a step in the wrong direction and I strongly urge my colleagues to vote against it.
M. President, I believe real improvements in student achievement come when teachers and school leaders have the resources they need to help students succeed. So we need to work together to strengthen the public school system – not dismantle it.
I hope we can continue our bipartisan work together to help ensure all students have access to a quality public education, regardless of where they live, how they learn, or how much money their parents make.
Thank you, M. President. I yield the floor.