Who's Vouching for Vouchers?
§ Lesson Number One: Vouchers drain money and support from the public schools. The Milwaukee voucher program, which this year costs $39 million, is not funded separately but comes directly out of state dollars that would otherwise go to public schools. At the same time that public dollars are going to private voucher schools, the state has imposed spending limits on public schools--which, in the case of Milwaukee Public Schools, has led to a $31 million deficit this year. One of the many contradictions is that under current Wisconsin law, school districts may raise local property taxes to help pay for the voucher program, but cannot raise taxes similarly to meet the needs of public schools.
§ Lesson Number Two: Vouchers do not necessarily foster improved academic achievement. While vouchers have been presented as a way to help provide educational opportunities for African-Americans, the reality is that no one really knows how students in the private voucher schools are performing academically. A report this February by Wisconsin's nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau pointedly noted that "some hopes for the [voucher] program--most notably, that it would increase participating pupils' academic achievement--cannot be documented." Voucher schools are not required to give the same standardized tests demanded of public schools, and even when they do, they are not required to release the scores. Twenty-eight percent of the voucher schools in 1998-99 were not accredited or seeking accreditation or subject to any independent review of educational quality. Available evidence points to a private school system that includes some good schools, some mediocre schools and some substandard schools. This year, three of the voucher schools are so substandard that even the Milwaukee pro-voucher group Partners Advancing Values in Education will not provide scholarships to the schools.
Interestingly, in the past three years there has been another experimental program in Wisconsin targeted at low-income students--this one to reduce the class size in kindergarten through third grade. In contrast to the voucher program, the class-size initiative can document improved academic achievement. In its recently released third-year report, the program, known as Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE), showed that students in small classes performed statistically higher across all grade levels in comparison with a control group of students in non-SAGE classrooms. Gains were especially noteworthy for African-American students. African-American third graders in the program, for example, narrowed the gap between their achievement and that of white SAGE students, while in the non-SAGE schools the gap widened.
§ Lesson Number Three: Voucher schools are not accountable to the public. The voucher schools argue that because they are private, they get to play by different rules than the public schools. As a result, voucher schools do not have to provide any data on test scores, suspension and expulsion rates, teacher certification or teacher salaries, and the education of bilingual and special-education students. They don't even have to hire college graduates as teachers. Further, voucher schools are allowed to circumvent basic constitutional protections such as free speech, due process and equal protection. They also argue that they are exempt from a state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and pregnancy, and marital or parental status.
If a parent prefers that his or her child attend an integrated school, it's even hard to get information on the racial breakdown of voucher schools. Private schools are not required to release such data.
To date, much of the church/state controversy over vouchers has centered on concerns that public dollars are being funneled into religious education (currently, vouchers remain in legal limbo because the Supreme Court has not ruled on whether they violate the separation of church and state). But the First Amendment also protects religious institutions from government "entanglement"--in other words, from the government dictating how religious institutions should operate. An unresolved legal dilemma is whether demands that voucher schools play by the same rules as public schools will violate prohibitions against government "entanglement." If so, what will win out: demands for public accountability or religious freedom for voucher schools?