What Parents Need to Know About School Vouchers

Trina Pruitt, parent and Go Public contributor

School vouchers are a hot topic these days. I regularly run across articles, political ads, and even billboards that aim to sway parents and voters one way or the other on the subject of vouchers, but neither side delves into the issues deep enough to be truly convincing. What parents need to know about school vouchers begins with understanding how a school voucher affects a child’s education.

I began my own research into the questions that have been on my mind regarding the controversial voucher proposal in Texas.  Questions like: 

  • What is a school voucher? 
  • Are school vouchers constitutional? 
  • How do vouchers affect students with disabilities or behavioral issues? 
  • And what about rural areas where private schools are not easily accessible?
Vouchers are a timely topic

As the 88th Texas Legislative session begins, I attempt to answer some of these questions. My goal is to achieve a better understanding of school vouchers for myself and parents like me. 

I have to say, it’s a dense topic. Vouchers raise ethical and moral questions. From constitutionality and religious freedom to discrimination, vouchers are front and center in controversy.  Might taxpayers end up funding education that goes against their personal beliefs? Could vouchers destroy our public schools by rerouting crucial funds? Indeed, all of these uncertainties incite quite a bit of debate.

 
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School Vouchers and School Choice

Breaking down the facts about school voucher programs

What are school vouchers?

The definition of a school voucher is “a government voucher or cash grant given to a parent or guardian to be used toward paying the fees for their child to attend a private or parochial school of choice, instead of an assigned free public school.”   

Private school vouchers take many names, including “scholarship” programs, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts. In any case, all of these programs use public dollars to fund private schools and divert resources away from the public education system that serves 90% of American children.

Taxpayers fund private religious education

The three types of voucher programs

  1. Traditional voucher programs. States give parents public education funding to put toward private school tuition. In this case, vouchers can only be used at participating schools.
  2. Education savings accounts (ESA). States put money in individual accounts for students. Parents can use the money toward the cost of private school tuition or homeschooling costs.  ESAs can be used at any school.
  3. Tax credit scholarships. States give businesses or individuals tax credit incentives to donate money to a scholarship organization. Thus, students meeting the requirements of the program may use the scholarship money toward private school tuition.                 (National Coalition for Public Education)

The Case Against School Vouchers

The National Coalition for Public Education and the National School Boards Association adamantly oppose school voucher programs. They claim that school vouchers: 
  • Fail to raise student achievement.
  • Impact public transparency and accountability.
  • Drain crucial dollars away from public schools.
  • Fail to meet the needs of students in schools that cannot accommodate English language learners or special needs.
More Voucher Opposition
Raise Your Hand Texas (RYHT) explains that school vouchers are ineffective and result in declines in student performance. “Texas consistently outperforms states with voucher programs on the NAEP national assessment.” (RYHT- The Case Against School Vouchers)
The National Education Association staunchly opposes private school vouchers for many reasons, including:
  • Vouchers undermine strong public education and student opportunity. 
  • Voucher programs take scarce funding from public schools and give it to unaccountable institutions.
  • There is ZERO statistical significance that voucher programs improve overall student success.
  • Vouchers do not support students with disabilities, fail to protect the human and civil rights of students, and exacerbate segregation.

Vouchers, Religious Freedom, and Racism

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution establishes that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This means that public school students are free to express their religious beliefs and may not be denied an education because of religion. Public schools cannot refuse admission based on religion or require students to learn and adhere to one faith.  

Religious private schools are able to deny admission to students whose faith differs from the affiliation of the school.

Students that are admitted must adhere to the religious tenets of the school. This can eliminate choices for parents in areas where the majority of private schools participating in the voucher program fall under one religious group. Voucher schemes are fundamentally positioned to drain crucial resources from public schools and their most vulnerable students. Policymakers must consider the origins of vouchers and their impact on segregation. Voucher programs risk worsening segregation in schools and leaving the most disadvantaged students, families, and their community public schools behind. (American Progress- The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers)

Vouchers and The Texas Constitution

THE TEXAS CONSTITUTION, ARTICLE 7 addresses the responsibilities of the state and educational rights. Section 1 states,  “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” 

Texas Constitution Vouchers

Vouchers and Special Education

School vouchers have major limitations if you have a child with learning and thinking differences.

Children with disabilities have rights in public schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides students with:

IDEA in private schools

IDEA does not apply to private schools. Therefore, private schools are not mandated to provide FAPE, IEPs, or evaluations. Additionally, a child’s IEP services- like occupational or speech therapy- do not transfer to the private school.

Private schools do not follow the same hiring guidelines that public schools follow, which means that private school teachers may not have the level of special education knowledge that public school teachers must have.

(Raise Your Hand Texas- The Costly Shortcomings of School Vouchers: Inadequate Accountability, Transparency, and Results)

Vouchers and disabilities

What is school choice?

School choice refers to the educational alternatives available to parents who do not wish to send their children to the local district public school to which they have been assigned.  However, according to Texans For Strong Public Schools, school choice is well established within Texas public school districts and continues to grow.  For example, public schools have always been the leaders in designing innovative programs that respond to what their students, families, and communities need. 

According to the Texas Education Agency, Texas public schools offer school choice. 

Texas School Choice Week

Resources and Information

Issues with School Vouchers – Webinar Series

 

The Coalition for Public Schools hosted an eye-opening series of webinars regarding vouchers, as it is important for the public to understand how funding vouchers affects us as individuals. These webinars intend to inform the public about the following subjects:

  • Constitutionality of school vouchers
  • Special education vouchers
  • Virtual vouchers
  • Federal vouchers and the different types of vouchers proposed 
Webinar on Educational Equity

In one webinar, Paige Duggins-Clay, Chief Legal Analyst for the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), speaks on educational equity in different areas of private schooling:

  • Many rural areas do not have private schools, therefore limiting the opportunities for rural students to use vouchers.
  • Rural public schools would continue to lose funds.
  • Private schools can allow for discrimination in admissions processes, discipline, and employment.  
  • Private schools can deny enrollment based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion. 
  • Private schools can mandate religious requirements for employees.
Webinar on Special Education Rights

In another informative webinar, conservative Baptist Rev. Clark Frailey, Executive Director of Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, Terrence Wilson, Regional Policy and Community Engagement Director of IDRA, and Rev. Charles Foster Johnson of Pastors for Texas Children discuss problems with school voucher programs in their respective states and in Texas.  Wilson argues that parents and students unintentionally give up their rights, specifically regarding special needs programs and services. “Oftentimes when you take a voucher and you go to private school, you lose protections that are available in public school”.  

Webinar on Religious Funding

Rev. Frailey adamantly opposes forcing himself and religious institutions to fund other religious institutions that may not align with his personal values and beliefs. Additionally, he states that the voucher program will “defund the vast majority of students” while the government is “experimenting with real people’s lives. They are losing out for something that is completely unproven and doesn’t have a track record”.

School Voucher Studies

Studies on school vouchers show that voucher programs have no consistent impact on student achievement. Because private schools are not required to administer state accountability tests, assessing the impact of vouchers is difficult. But recent studies in Ohio, Wisconsin, DC, and Louisiana have actually found negative effects of voucher programs.  Click on the voucher programs below to read the findings of each study:  Source: Raise Your Hand Texas

Evaluations of the Louisiana Scholarship program found that voucher students had reduced academic achievement in reading, science, social studies, and math compared to students who did not use vouchers. Additionally, the research found that private schools opting to become voucher-eligible often experience swift enrollment declines prior to joining the voucher program, which indicates those schools may be struggling to maintain enrollment, possibly because of low quality.

Researchers estimate the average voucher student state test scores fell 24% in math and 8% in reading below the control group counterparts during the first year of using the voucher. 

Researchers found that voucher students at private schools did poorly academically compared to similar public school students. They fared worse in math than in English language arts and that decline persisted over time.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is the country’s oldest voucher program, and it was evaluated for five years between 2006-2011. Voucher and public school students were tracked, and they found no consistent difference in achievement growth rates. Researchers found no differences in math and reading growth for students who participated in the MCPC for four years, but found the MCPC students had higher reading growth in their fifth year of participation.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which gave priority to low-income students in low-performing schools, was evaluated in 2012. Researchers found that after four years of participation in the program, overall reading and math scores were not significantly affected.

A 7-year study comparing students in the Cleveland Voucher Program with public school students found there was no significant difference in student achievement.

Section 5 then states, “The available school fund shall be applied annually to the support of the public free schools…the legislature may not enact a law appropriating any part of the permanent school fund or available school fund to any other purpose. The permanent school fund and the available school fund may not be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.”

School Vouchers in the News

My takeaways

I hope I have helped fellow parents understand a little more about school vouchers and the implications of voucher programs in Texas. It is quite a bit of information to digest, and I have only scratched the surface in this blog.  I will continue to follow the proposed voucher bills during the legislative session and post relevant updates here. 

More questions

I do still have questions that I was not able to answer during my research.

  • How are private schools taking public funds through a voucher program constitutionally allowed to continue to deny admission or expel certain students? 
  • What if a voucher student is dismissed from a private school and forced to return to the public school- what happens to those funds that were diverted to the private school in the name of that student?  Does the private school reimburse those funds to the state to then be given to the local public school? 

There are many answers to questions that I have yet to uncover, but I will continue to research. The challenges and controversy that vouchers introduce to our education system could prove to be even more problematic as we move forward debating this issue.

Pledging my support

Personally, I proudly and firmly stand behind my public schools. This includes our inspiring teachers, dedicated administrators, hard-working staff, and all of our very deserving students.  Thus, the research here lays out the many reasons I, as a parent, cannot support the proposed voucher bills.

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