Vouchers Again? Please Try Something that Works for All Children

classroom concept, for article on vouchers

Oklahoma currently has two voucher programs. The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities (2010), and the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship (2011), which is a tax-credit scholarship for low-income students or students who are in schools identified as “in need of improvement.” Vouchers have a variety of names. Voucher bills are often given pro-parent empowerment titles such as “Parental Choice,” but they all do the same thing – drain funds from already struggling public schools. Real choice would mean that any parent could choose any school, but that is not the case, even in districts that have so-called open enrollment. It’s only open if there is room at the school, transportation and the like. Effort, time and money would be better spent on improving ALL schools, so that parents would “choose” their neighborhood school.

Types of vouchers include “Opportunity Scholarships,” “Tax Credit Scholarships,” “Education Savings Accounts,” and “Tuition Tax Credits.” The bottom line is that tax dollars go to private schools. The Oklahoma House and Senate are negotiating a new iteration: a refundable tax credit – on the Senate side, a $7,500-per-student credit with an eligibility cap of $250,000 annual household income, and on the House side, a $5,000-per-student credit with no income cap. The negotiations may change details, but essentially the idea is to give tax credits to parents for private school tuition or homeschooling (to appease those rural districts that don’t have private schools).

Both might help enrollment at private schools, but is that the job of state government? Shouldn’t legislators be looking at ways to support public education since public schools educate all children, not just a few?

Here are some problems with providing tax dollars to private schools:

  • Students give up their civil rights when they attend private schools. For example, those in need of special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • States with voucher programs have decreased per-pupil funding for public education. Approximately 90 percent of students attend public schools. Funding for vouchers has increased, while funding for public education, which educates the majority of children – has decreased. This study of seven states with vouchers shows that per-public expenditure in every state except Ohio dropped significantly. pfps.org/assets/uploads/SPLC_ELC_PFPS_2023Report_Final.pdf
  • Rather than going to students in need, vouchers often got to families with children already attending private school, or who are high income. For example, according to K12dive.com, in Virginia “1% of families earning less than $50,000 in FY 2015 received voucher tax credits, compared with 87% of those earning more than $200,000.”
  • Private schools, unlike public schools, do not have to take every child. Children with disabilities, those who are LGBTQ, of a minority race/religion/creed, have limited academic ability, etc. do not have to be admitted by a private school. Public schools cannot turn them away.
  • Private schools do not have public accountability and transparency.
  • Vouchers have not been shown to improve student achievement. brookings.edu/research/on-negative-effects-of-vouchers
  • There is a constitutional and legal issue with religious schools receiving public funds. There are many wonderful private schools. But they are private and maintain autonomy because they want to do things differently than public schools. Getting public tax dollars may force them to provide accountability for how and for whom that public money is being used.

History of Vouchers

Many citizens don’t know the history of vouchers. Here is a concise background from “The Fiscal Consequences of Private School Vouchers”:

Vouchers gained prominence in the United States as a tool to combat public school integration in the aftermath of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

The Court’s decision in Brown ignited a firestorm of resistance, most dramatically in Southern states. Beginning in Virginia, state legislatures adopted voucher programs that provided public funds for white students to attend private schools—often referred to as “segregation academies”—rather than integrated public schools. By 1969, more than 200 segregation academies had opened across the South, with financial support provided through state-funded vouchers.2

 A new era of vouchers, rebranded as offering “school choice,” began in 1990, when the Wisconsin Legislature established the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).3 Over the ensuing decades, while policymakers became increasingly resistant to budgeting full funding for their states’ public schools (often despite court orders to do so), three types of voucher programs emerged, all of which divert public funds to private schools and other private education expenses. Spending on these programs has continually increased. 

As the Legislature tosses about weak ideas under the guise of “school choice,” public schools in Oklahoma are doing their best to educate the state’s children in what has become an increasingly hostile environment from the very institution that should be finding every way to strengthen and support public schools – the Oklahoma State Government.

Why not find ways to support teachers, provide professional development, provide autonomy for classroom teachers, implement significant raises for all teachers and aids, provide wraparound support for struggling families, reduce class sizes, implement an inclusive and diverse curriculum. Those are just a few ideas. Quit throwing political spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Teachers, administrators, college educators and professionals in child development and education already know what works. Ask them.

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