An introduction to school voucher programs:
School voucher systems are one of the leading topics of debate in education policy. A school voucher system offers state funds for financial assistance to parents who want to send their child to another school district or a private school. Oftentimes, legislatures will set parameters on who is able to receive the funds based on income, school performance, or disabilities, but this is not a requirement in all states. Currently, 14 states and the District of Columbia have operating school voucher programs. The goal of voucher programs is to provide students with a better education, however research has shown mixed results on the effectiveness of these programs. Michigan does not currently have a school voucher program in place, but the state does have charter school laws as well as open enrollment. Michigan’s open enrollment law allows students from low performing schools to transfer to another school within their district. There are also intermediate school districts (ISD’s), which are government agencies acting as liaisons to the state and providing assistance to local school districts on programs and services. ISD’s may allow students to transfer within the ISD or accept students from a nearby ISD.
Proponents of school voucher programs argue that parent’s should have the choice to send their children to whatever school they want. Offering school choice/private school vouchers will promote free market competition between schools. This requires schools to continuously improve as competition to maintain enrollment grows. This type of system increases the accountability of schools. One study found that public schools located near eligible private schools improved at a faster rate than public school not located near private schools. We see similar competition in higher education with public and private universities competing for tuition money provided by the government. Proponents believe that private schools can operate more efficiently because they have flexibility with their funding.
Opponents of the bill argue that the number of students in public schools will decrease, but the cost of operation will not. Public schools receive funding largely on a per-pupil basis. Implementing a school voucher program would shift funds from public education to private schools and wealthier public schools. This will cause many poor schools to close down because they do not have the proper funding to provide all the services their students need. Opponents also argue that the effectiveness of private schooling is not as universal as proponents believe. The U.S. Department of Education found no significant difference between scores of students in private and public schools when adjusted for school and student characteristics. School voucher programs that do not have requirements that give preference to students of a specific race, economic status, or disability tend to be discriminatory. Private schools are not required by law to accept all people, regardless of superficialities, the way public schools are.
What does it look like in other states?
The American Federation for Children and American Federation for Children Growth Fund published a report card ranking every private school choice program in the country. The top rated state for private school choice is Florida with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. This gives tax credits to businesses who contribute scholarship money to low income students, allowing them to attend private schools. One of the top school voucher programs in the country is Indiana’s choice scholarship program. Students on free or reduced lunch receive up to 90% of per-pupil spending that can be used to attend private schools. As income increases, the amount of money receivable decreases. The program targets low to middle income students and students with disabilities. Participating private schools are required to let the state review curriculum and administer state testing.
What are public school teachers saying?
I interviewed two public school teachers with opposing political views from a low income school district in southeastern Michigan that has an ethnically and racially diverse student body. Both educators were asked for their personal opinion on school voucher programs, as well as what it would mean for their district and their job if a program was implemented. This is what they had to say:
Teacher 1: Conservative
Teacher 1 would be in support of a competitive voucher program as long as specific guidelines were put in place. This teacher believes all participating schools should be required to admit, educate, and evaluate all students and staff under the same standards and learning expectations to ensure there is an equal playing field for all. This teacher also believes a program would be more successful if local government had more control over curriculum to promote each district’s strengths and create a more competitive and fair environment. While teacher 1 is in favor of a more competitive educational environment, he feels that a competitive voucher system is theoretical. He believes if a voucher system is implemented under current conditions, his students, district, and job, would be inherently threatened because of the advantages it would give to charter and private schools.
Teacher 2: Liberal
Teacher 2 is not in support of a school voucher system. While he understands that it is an effort to move toward equalizing education for all, he believes voucher systems create an illusion of mobility. Families that need the most assistance are not able to transport their children to schools other than ones in their own neighborhood. This educator also fears that high performing districts won’t accept the most at risk students, causing the system to be discriminatory. Teacher 2 believes that a voucher system would take money out of schools that need it the most and give it to schools that are already sufficiently funded. He says that education is not a commodity that can be bought like gasoline or oranges. A quality education is the combined effort of school, student, family, and community. It should not be seen as a market transaction. While teacher 2 believes school voucher programs are harmful to many schools, he thinks his school would benefit because his school is successful compared to neighboring schools.
What is next for Michigan?
There is no legislation currently being introduced in Michigan involving school voucher programs. With the appointment of Betsy DeVos to Secretary of Education on the federal level, there will likely be a lot of pressure put on the states to move towards these types of programs. There are alternatives to school voucher programs that could be considered in the near future. Scholarship tax credit programs are tax credits offered to businesses for donating money to non-profit scholarship programs that offer scholarships to K-12 students. Another alternative is education savings accounts (ESA’s). ESA’s give parents their child’s state education dollars and let them choose which educational opportunity to spend it on. All of these school choice options are controversial and will be on the center stage of educational debate in the coming years. The DeVos family led a failed attempt in 2000 to amend Michigan’s constitution which would have allowed voucher programs to be implemented. School voucher programs are unlikely to be used in Michigan because of the Blaine Amendment. This amendment prevents the state from sending public money to private and religious institutions. The Blaine amendment is the biggest hurdle for proponents of school vouchers in Michigan and will likely prevent programs from being put into effect.
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