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VOL. 43 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 22, 2019

Voucher promoters employ old model for new effort

By Kathy Carlson

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Parents and teachers will join Tennessee lawmakers this spring in trying to determine what Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account proposal, a school-choice option that is similar to school vouchers, would mean to them.

The plan, announced March 15, gives lawmakers a little more than six weeks to digest and act on it before the end of April, when the General Assembly traditionally adjourns. Like any bill, the administration’s ESA bill is subject to changes from legislators and is only now working its way through the legislative process.

Backers of the bill say the ESAs and school choice in general will improve students’ academic performance and prod public schools to improve. Opponents say there’s scant evidence that choice works and it diverts much-needed funding away from public schools.

Both school vouchers and ESAs allow parents to choose how to use the money the state spends on each student for public education. A big question for parents and legislators is whether vouchers work. Do they improve educational experience and academic performance?

It’s complicated and it takes a little homework to understand both vouchers and ESAs.

Modern vouchers have been around since 1990, when the city of Milwaukee adopted them, and are still in use. The great-granddaddy of vouchers, town tuitioning, dates to the 19th century when Maine and Vermont allowed students in remote rural areas without public schools to use state money to go to the nearest public or private school.

School choice and vouchers gained currency with the free-market economic philosophy of Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, who championed the idea starting in 1955.

EdChoice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing school choice and Friedman’s ideas, describes vouchers as transferring state funds spent to educate students in public school to their families to use toward private-school tuition. The private schools can be religious or nonsectarian.

Individual states will set their own standards for which private schools can accept vouchers.

ESAs represent “a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts,” to be used for tuition and other education-related services, according to EdChoice. What ESAs can be spent on will vary by state, and the states differ in how parents have to account for their use of ESAs.

Lee campaigned on education reform and school choice last year, and since his inauguration two months ago has consistently promoted school choice and tied it to better outcomes for students.

The governor has spoken of personal experiences that guide his approaches to public policy. He spoke on the campaign trail about getting to know a young student through a YMCA program. Lee helped him enroll in a charter school and saw the student benefit from the change. Lee has said that children’s educational opportunities shouldn’t be dictated by their ZIP code.

The evidence in the United States on the effectiveness of school vouchers hasn’t been compelling, however, says Sean P. Corcoran, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. For one thing, not all programs have been evaluated, and the programs aren’t widespread, he explains.

As of March 2017, there were 24 separate voucher programs in 14 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Education Commission of the States, a research organization that supports state policymakers. Many have been implemented during the past 10-15 years, mostly in states that also allow charter schools.

The Milwaukee program has a long track record. Three college professors, Dennis Epple, Richard E. Romano and Miguel Urquiola, describe it and other voucher programs in “School Vouchers: A Survey of the Economics Literature,” published in the Journal of Economic Literature in June 2017.

The Milwaukee vouchers were first available to students in grades K-12 with household income at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty level. Religious schools weren’t an option at first, but later were added as long as students could opt out of religious instruction.

The private schools initially couldn’t charge voucher students more than the voucher amount, even if tuition was higher. Later, high schools were allowed to charge the difference to some eligible families with higher incomes.

Currently, families can earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, currently $77,250 for a family of four in that state. (The Tennessee ESA bill sets income eligibility using a different measure, 200 percent of the maximum income to qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches, for a maximum income of $86,870 for a family of four.)

Participating Milwaukee private schools must be accredited and meet at least one of four performance standards, such as minimum attendance levels and a minimum percentage of voucher students advancing to the next grade. Milwaukee voucher students take the same achievement tests as public-school students.

In 2012, 112 private schools accepted Milwaukee vouchers and enrolled more than 24,000 students. The schools decide how many slots to make available to voucher students and must accept all students. If a particular school is oversubscribed, students are chosen to attend by lottery.

The voucher covers the lesser of tuition or what the authors called “the standard district allocation,” which was $6,442 in the 2012-13 school year. The article notes that voucher schools accounted for 20 percent of Milwaukee school enrollment in 2004.

The results of many voucher programs, including Milwaukee’s, are mixed.

“Really, in none of these cases (in the U.S.) is there a strong case to be made for vouchers on (the basis of) short-term academic achievement measures,” such as reading and math scores, Corcoran points out.

Looking at vouchers and students over a longer term, benefits have been shown, he acknowledges. Students who attended private schools on vouchers have tended to have higher high school graduation and college enrollment rates than students who stayed in public school. But it’s hard to say how much of the benefit came from the vouchers since other factors may have been at work, Corcoran says.

It’s also hard to document whether vouchers and other school choice programs will improve public schools because of increased competition.

“I think it’s a hard question,” Corcoran continues. “On balance, studies that looked at the effect of vouchers on public schools show a small positive effect.”

It’s difficult to isolate the cause of the positive effect, he adds. For example, improvement could result from lower class size after students left for private school, rather than from a conscious effort by a public school to improve.

So how did vouchers become part of the debate on public education? They can be seen as part of a gradual shift in attitudes toward more choice, greater tailoring of education to the individual student and less government overall.

Corcoran talked about two main arguments for vouchers. One is that students shouldn’t be forced to attend a low-performing public school. The other is an argument on principle, favoring free-market principles such as those of Milton Friedman.

“There has been a spate of interest recently in vouchers,” Corcoran says. However, he adds, “They’ve never taken off in the United States and have never been that politically popular. There’s never been a groundswell of support for them. People tend to support public schools.”

One recent public opinion poll, plus Lee’s election as governor, suggests support for vouchers may be building.

A 2017 poll suggested more than half of American adults favor some form of school vouchers.

The poll was reported the following year in a policy brief from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The public debate surrounding school vouchers continues to outpace research on outcomes on their use, which is far from conclusive,” a CPRE news release stated. “Recent studies, for example, have found vouchers do not improve academic achievement, but they may improve graduation rates and they may provide a greater sense of school safety and satisfaction among parents.”

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, is carrying the Lee administration’s ESA proposal in the Tennessee House.

“Bill Lee actually campaigned on the issue” of school choice, he says. “His opponent (former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean) attacked his position on vouchers, and Lee won by 20 percentage points.”

State lawmakers need to “zero in” on Lee’s victory and remember that school choice “was one of the defining issues,” Dunn notes.

He sees ESAs as an opportunity to change a child’s trajectory in life.

Plus, Dunn says Tennessee already has school choice in higher education. The state university system supports higher-education choice through Pell grants, Hope scholarships and Tennessee Promise scholarships, which students can use to attend the college of their choice.

“UT hasn’t gone out of business because kids go to Vanderbilt or Maryville,” he says. Imagine what higher education would be like, he continues, if it was organized geographically, like K-12, and students had to go to college based on where they live.

“What’s worked so well in higher education … we’re applying the exact same principles to K-12,” he says.

But vouchers have been a hard sell in Tennessee over the past 10 years.

“I have some real reservations about tracking how parents spend ESA money” on items other than tuition, explains Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville. The current administration proposal allows parents to spend ESA money on tutoring, computers and other things besides tuition, although the student must leave public school to utilize the ESA money.

Dickerson advocates taking a measured approach to school choice, so lawmakers can track whether the programs benefit the children.

“We have to remember why we are doing this,” he says. “We want to give kids a better chance to succeed. It will take at least a year before we know whether the new approach is succeeding. It takes a while for children to build their skills.”

Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, which represents public school teachers in collective bargaining, says “both charter schools and any form of private school vouchers have proven to destabilize public school budgets and negatively impact existing classrooms.

These privatization schemes also have a track record of harming student achievement.

“We have seen in other states where students in voucher programs and unaccountable charter schools are not keeping up with their peers in traditional public schools,” Brown adds. “There are many proven ways to improve public education for all schools; unfortunately, the governor is choosing to invest significant resources in two dangerous paths.”

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