Making School Vouchers Palatable to Democrats

School vouchers have brought about demonstrable improvements to students' educational achievement -- in some cases, but not all. How can we combined free choice with accountability?

School vouchers have brought about demonstrable improvements to students’ educational achievement — at some schools, but not all. How can we combined free choice with accountability?

The Richmond-based Commonwealth Institute (CI) has staked out a reasonable position on two school choice bills before the General Assembly this session. Rather than opposing school vouchers and health savings accounts out of hand, CI acknowledges that children, especially poor children, can benefit from alternatives to public school. But the center-left think tank insists upon holding private schools accepting taxpayer dollars as accountable as public schools.

Not all private schools are created equal. Some excel, far surpassing public schools in performance, while others can be described only as failures. “If the goal of school choice is to provide options for a high-quality education,” writes Chris Duncombe in CI’s Half Sheet blog, “then it makes sense to hold private schools receiving taxpayer dollars to the same standards as public schools.”

Two bills before the General Assembly — HB 1605 and SB 1243 — would create voucher-like educational savings accounts that would provide taxpayer dollars for families pursuing private education or home schooling. One way to hold hold private schools accountable to taxpayers is to adopt a policy practiced in some other states: If a private school falls short of accreditation standards, bar them from accepting vouchers the following year.

As a practical matter, if I understand the system correctly, that means private schools with voucher students will have to administer the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. For a school to receive accreditation, a specified percentage of its students must rate proficient in the exams. That might well mean “teaching to the test,” which some private schools find objectionable. But unless someone suggests another means to hold schools accountable and weed out the inevitable fly-by-nights, meeting state accreditation standards may be the least bad option.

For Duncombe, a second issue is equity. The school vouchers would vary widely from locality to locality, dependent upon state Standards of Quality funds appropriated. “That means a family in Lee County would receive over three times as much as a family in Falls Church,” he says. “This variation is not based on the financial need of the family or the cost of pursuing private education in the area.”

(I’m not sure I see the objection here. A family in Lee County is already receiving three times as much state aid as a family in Falls Church. So, how would funding school vouchers on the same basis be any more inequitable?)

Duncombe’s third criterion is income eligibility: “A millionaire could get tax dollars to send their kid to private school, while a family who lacks the means to supplement the voucher with their own income would be left out.” His proposed solution would be to limit the benefit to households whose incomes are below 133% of free-and-reduced-price lunch eligibility — about $60,000 for a family of four.

These proposals are not unreasonable. Duncombe is not taking a position of “Vouchers, hell, over my dead body.” He’s trying to address the criticisms of school vouchers in a substantive way — in effect, taking away the arguments who those who are inclined to accept school choice over their dead bodies. If these compromises are what’s necessary to win legislative approval, expand the sphere of choice, and empower parents, then I can live with them. With luck, the General Assembly and Governor Terry McAuliffe will decide they can live with them, too.

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7 responses to “Making School Vouchers Palatable to Democrats

  1. alright, come on folks… here I am trying to show some restraint and wait for others… surely there are opinions!

    • There are.

      First let’s examine what it means to be “accountable”, why that concept exists for governments, and why it need not be the same kind of accountability for a private, or “voucher” school.

      For government schools, there are checks and balances such as SOL standards because government schools, at this point at least, lack the most fundamental form of accountability: the student’s ability to walk away to a different school. On the other hand, a system of private schools supported by vouchers would have that most fundamental form of accountability. If a parent thinks they got a raw deal where they used their voucher, they can go to some other school. Under my view of such a system, government schools would no longer need the checks and balances and other so-called accountability standards. Someone suffering in the public school could simply leave.

      Duncombe’s objections are at least more reasonable than what I usually hear: Not enough private schools; 0nly the best students will go to private schools, etc. These objections could be the topic of another post, if they raise their ugly and fallacious head.

  2. “How can we combine free choice with accountability?”

    What an excellent question. There are pitfalls in both. I was a school board member and Chair in CT 20 years ago when school vouchers were a somewhat new thing that were widely discussed and watched.

    Choice: Those of us who can, either pay to send our kids to private schools, or choose to live in school districts with excellent reputations and a community that supports those reputations. Busing was one method to increase choice for those left in schools where the system was not, or could not be, supported. Back then ‘choice’ was seen by many as one way for parents to move out of systems that were required to adopt busing. Neither answer, vouchers or busing, was primarily successful at creating good systems for ALL children.

    Several systems in CT were in dire straights, primarily cities like Bridgeport. At that time state dollars were allocated on the basis of property tax value per pupil, the local basis for monies that was available to fund the school system. That valuation did not include the higher costs of educating disadvantaged and handicapped students who primarily lived in districts with low tax valuations and low community expectations generally.

    Ct was also arguing about funds for special education and ‘behind the curve’ young children. Serving those students across the state mostly required strong parental advocacy and community support for extra funds. Parental expectations played a very big role in what a system did for those students. The availability of school choice matters to those parents, but not to the majority of under served students whose parents can’t or don’t fight for them.

    Choice so far has not answered the question of good systems for ALL students. What can happen is a bad system can get worse when all the students, whose parents care, leave.

    Accountability: Our local CT system tested kids at the beginning of the year and again at year’s end. The test results evaluated how well the students were progressing but also were part of the teacher evaluation. There was no teaching to the test because those tests back then were not content based more ‘ability to think’ based. There is a place for both kinds of tests, and I am not familiar with the new crop, but the means by which we judge accountability need to be broadened.

    Choice can develop good schools but it should not result in disregarding schools where the community is not actively involved. Involving the community is not always easy and while additional funds for remediation help they are not the silver bullet either. What we, at my system, ended up emphasizing was teacher accountability combined with staff support that included opportunities for the teaching staff to receive a variety of continuing education opportunities. That, and assuring good leadership is in place.

  3. CA&W, I was struck by two comments of yours: 1. “What can happen is a bad system can get worse when all the students, whose parents care, leave.” 2. “Choice can develop good schools but it should not result in disregarding schools where the community is not actively involved.”

    That’s the nub of it, isn’t it? Caring parents, or a caring community, are the ones demanding improvements; and if improvements are made they will stay and make them work; and if they don’t get the improvements but have the option to ‘walk’ they will; and if they don’t achieve either, they will press for changes from above. Meanwhile, parents who are indifferent, or who don’t have the option to ‘walk,’ benefit collaterally if improvements are made, but are left behind if the others leave.

    Solution: (1) force activist parents to stay in the regular school system so they may force changes, eventually, to get made? Or (2) let them vote with their feet, highlighting the problems in the schools they leave in the most explicit way possible, but also making the problems worse in the short run?

    I want the benefits of (2), through school choice; but your proviso is extremely important. If parents are leaving a school, somebody has to ask “why” and act on it. The parents who are leaving will not do it. I like your list of things that may need attention — teacher accountability and staff support and continuing ed — but most needed of all, and most difficult to achieve, and most likely to be lacking for the situation to have deteriorated in the first place, is “good leadership.”

    It should not be necessary for parents to leave the regular school system to find good leadership.

  4. Well , I wonder how parents would know if their school was bad and their kids harmed by it if they did not have performance measurements like SOLs?

    how would they ever know ? So the idea that they could not leave – why would they want to leave if they had not data to show them their kids were in a bad school?

    How would you know that in a Choice school also that had no measurement?

  5. The FCC has always maintained that it takes three facilities-based competitors in the same geographic market for consumers to receive competitive prices and better service quality. I’ve generally found that to be true.

    What if the same principle held for education? What if parents had the choice of at least three schools in their general area? I’m assuming the money follows the child; reasonable financial controls are in place; absent a showing that a particular school did not have the capability to meet an individual student’s needs, each school must take on all comers; and the same basic measurements/tests applied to all schools accepting public financing. I don’t think miracles would happen. And I do think many parents would choose their neighborhood public school.

    But I think the attitude of administrators would change. First, there would be fewer of them. And those that were left would feel pressure to please both students and parents by providing high-quality education to their students. The fear that the customer might choose another school would create a very constructive tension in the lives of educators — something that I think would be very good.

  6. I’m all for competition and competitors – that are real and truly available to those it purports to help and TMT and I probably agree on that.

    that means that those who want to enroll – actually do have a real opportunity to do so that there is room at the school and there is financial assistance to pay – as well as the ability to know the quality of the institution just as they would know for public schools or automobiles or health insurance.. and now student loans and colleges …

    I’d like to see public schools directly challenged – both for education for low-income but also for the regular curricula – and that includes those who are already home schooling and private schooling.

    what I’m opposed to are efforts to damage the public schools masquerading as something to “help” the “poor kids”.

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