Vouchers: Empowerment or Diversion?

“Opportunity Scholarship” programs, otherwise known as private school vouchers, have become a complex battleground. An opportunity scholarship proposal in Tennessee was withdrawn yesterday, for example, after legislators began worrying that vouchers could support Islamic schools as well as a range of other private and religious institutions.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam introduced a bill to provide a limited number of vouchers to low-income students in failing schools. An expansion to his bill was proposed, and an alternate version circulated, making scholarships available for more and higher-income students. Favorable descriptions, including the Governor’s own introduction, say that vouchers offer “options outside the traditional public education system” for “students stuck in the lowest performing schools.” But vouchers are also described as “diverting” money from public schools.

The “diverting” language is often heard from those who worry about funding of traditional and neighborhood public schools and from teachers unions, concerned that private school teachers do not have the same protections as public school teachers. In Tennessee, the “diverting” language appeared in the context of support for religious schools. The Murfreesboro Post, for example, reported on March 31: “A pair of proposals moving rapidly through the Tennessee General Assembly could potentially divert tax dollars currently allocated to public schools to Islamic private schools, and two Rutherford County senators are raising concerns about the legislation.”

One of the most vocal opponents was Bill Ketron, a Republican from Murfreesboro who introduced anti-Shariah legislation in 2009.

Voucher supporters include StudentsFirst, the organization founded by former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The group’s mission is “to defend the interests of children in public education and pursue transformative reform, so that America has the best education system in the world.” StudentsFirst argue that “school choice policies, including private school options, are about empowering parents to select the best school for their child.” The Tennessee branch of StudentsFirst hired lobbyists and purchased ads supporting the voucher legislation.

Although Tennessee has put its voucher legislation on hold, 18 states and the District of Columbia continue to offer vouchers, and the American Legislative Exchange Council and other advocates for school privatization continue to promote such legislation (See ALEC’s 18th Report Card). ALEC and other proponents claim that vouchers improve outcomes for vulnerable students. The research continues to appear mixed, at best, however.

One of the more positive studies, A published in early 2013, found high school graduation and retention in college was higher among voucher students than among public school attendees. But the authors of this study, which focuses on Milwaukee’s long-term voucher experiment, note that only a small fraction of the city’s 17,000 voucher students are high schoolers. In addition the authors caution that there is an “unidentified selection bias” in use of the vouchers.

Meanwhile, to return to the issue of state support for religious schooling: The Indiana Supreme Court rejected a challenge just last week to vouchers, saying that private choice of parents to use state scholarships for religious schooling does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled similarly in 2002, and a Louisiana decision is expected soon.

— Virginia Spatz
for The Education Town Hall
on We Act Radio
—- April 4, 2013 edition

Listen live on Thursdays at 11 a.m. (EDT) on http://www.WeActRadio.com
full recordings archived for later discussion and sharing

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