School Voucher Programs Create Inequality

The story line of legislatures pushing for privatization in education is familiar. Instead of focusing federal support efforts on ensuring all students receive equal opportunities for a quality education, legislatures choose to funnel support into private schools, essentially forcing taxpayers to support two school systems instead of one.

While legislatures claim these measures are meant to “improve” schools, low-income students pay the price, receiving financial help that covers only half or partial tuition to schools that often are far away from their homes. This increases the challenges facing these students and widens the opportunity gap that plagues our education system. While legislatures continue to rally around vouchers, evidence continues to mount showing voucher systems not only are unfair, but short-sighted and ineffective.

A recent joint study from the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University revealed voucher programs did not translate into higher rates of success for students anywhere. In New York, school vouchers made no statistical impact in numbers of students attending college; Wisconsin public school students are outperforming their voucher recipient peers; and New Orleans’ voucher students are learning things that simply are inaccurate.

The study followed college-going behavior through 2011 of students who had received school vouchers for first through fifth grade in the late 1990s. Results found that the offer of a voucher only increases college enrollment by an estimated 0.6 percentage points. The New York School Choice Scholarships Foundation offered 1,000 scholarships to low-income families with non-charter or privately schooled elementary-age children. The scholarships were worth up to $1,400 and were good for three years. However, the average tuition in New York was higher than the value of the scholarships, and the difference in was placed on the family.

The story is much the same in Milwaukee and New Orleans.

“Like ‘right-to-work’ laws that promise more jobs and a better economy—but that actually bring down wages and make working conditions worse—school ‘reform’ schemes are built on a lie.…the big lie behind school reform is that putting public money into private education plans improves education, especially for poor students,” writes Ruth Conniff in her February 2013 article titled “Flunking School Reform,” in which she discussed upcoming legislation in Wisconsin in comparison with other voucher programs across the United States.

Aona Jefferson, president of the Council of School Officers and AFSA Local 4 in Washington, D.C., writes in an e-mail to AFSA discussing school vouchers: “They are a detriment to public education in that they cause a reduction to the funding of public schools by reducing the number of students attending.”

In Wisconsin, Republicans and their sponsors plan to extend their private school voucher program and reconsider the idea of a charter school district that would pump public school funds into an online charter school. This means money that could be spent improving the public schools will be redirected into private and online charter schools. Instead of investing more money into kids’ futures in public schools, this plan invests less money in the public school system.

Students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program performed more poorly than their public school cohorts on standardized reading and math tests. While private and charter school students did score higher than public school students in reading, science and social studies, the public school students did better in math and language arts, according to the 2011 test scores. The school choice program was implemented to help improve results for poor city children in failing public schools by allowing them to attend higher-performing private schools with publicly funded vouchers.

New Orleans faces a different problem with unaccountable schools receiving voucher students. The ridiculous curriculum of some of these schools includes “dragons were real, the Ku Klux Klan was a charitable organization, and creationism is science,” Conniff writes. Not only are these ideas out of line with traditional education, these schools are partially funded by taxpayer dollars.

The arguments supporting a school voucher program mostly involve wording such as “the public schools are terrible,” “my child can receive a better education elsewhere,” and “there are better resources at a charter or private school.” However, we could have the same resources, discipline and perceived quality of education if we simply invested the same amount of time, commitment and money into our public schools.