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Everything you need to know about vouchers

Trump, DeVos figure to make them a reality soon

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs serving a totFourteen states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs serving a total of roughly 178,000 students. State funds are diverted from school districts to families who receive vouchers that are used to pay some portion of tuition at private and religious schools. These enrollment figures were compiled by the pro-voucher EdChoice. All figures are for the 2016–17 school year, except for Louisiana, Maine and Georgia, which are for the 2015–16 school year, the latest available for those states.

Observers of Donald Trump’s first 50 days in office have learned to take the new president at his word when it comes to the promises he made as a candidate. On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to allocate $20 billion in federal funds for block grants to states to support vouchers for low-income children to attend private and religious schools. In Betsy DeVos, he’s chosen an outspoken proponent of school vouchers as his education secretary.

Here’s a Q&A to give you the information you’ll need to know when Trump makes his move.

What is a voucher program?

A voucher program reimburses parents for some portion of the money they spend on tuition at private or religious schools. The money is all or some of what the state would have otherwise spent to educate the child in a public school. In most cases, funding is removed from already cash-strapped public schools. Vouchers are most often reserved for low-income students or for families zoned to a public school deemed low-performing by the state.

Where did the idea come from?

Free-market economist Milton Friedman came up with the idea of school vouchers in a 1955 essay. Friedman proposed offering vouchers to parents to pay for “approved educational services” provided by private schools. He said the government role in education should be limited to ensuring that schools met “certain minimum standards.”

How many states have voucher programs?

Fourteen states have voucher programs: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin — and Washington, D.C. They serve about 178,000 students.

That’s not a lot. What gives?

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of vouchers in 2002, but many state constitutions, including New York’s, still have Blaine Amendments, which prohibit spending public dollars on religious schools. But vouchers also do not have wide public support.

Why is that?

People overall support their public schools, and they rightly are concerned that vouchers pull funding from neighborhood public schools. The voucher-pushers know that. To get around the stigma of “vouchers,” some states have created “education savings accounts” and “education tax credits,” both ways to redirect public money to private and parochial schools. In other states, supporters have simply rebranded vouchers as “scholarships.” 

Scholarships? That sounds kind of nice.

That’s exactly what they want you to think. Don’t be fooled. It’s lipstick on a pig.

But don’t vouchers improve student achievement?

Funny you should ask. Over the last two years, researchers have studied the voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio. These three states together enroll more than a third of all students in voucher programs nationwide. According to an article in the Feb. 23 issue of The New York Times, the dismal results have surprised researchers: Student achievement in math and reading declined drastically. And you should know the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute conducted the Ohio study with money from the voucher-loving Walton Foundation. That study found students who use vouchers to attend private schools fared worse academically compared with their public school peers.

Do voucher programs offer more choices for all parents?

No, only for the parents of students the private and religious schools accept. Public schools serve all children. Even charter schools are supposed to take all kids (though, in practice, they often do not). Private and religious schools are under no such obligation. They generally have selective admissions based on varying criteria, usually including a student’s academic ability and behavior record. 

Will vouchers help students with disabilities?

No. Apart from the relatively few private schools that exclusively serve students with serious disabilities, most private schools are not equipped to serve students with special needs. Voucher programs that specifically target students with disabilities rarely include all students with disabilities and require parents who accept the voucher to waive civil rights protections granted by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that all students receive a “free and appropriate” public education.

But don’t voucher programs give poor children the chance to attend private schools they could not afford otherwise? 

Vouchers typically pay only a certain amount. It’s up to the family to pay the balance of the tuition, and most low-income families do not have that kind of money. Or like in the Louisiana voucher program, only a limited number of private schools opt to participate.

Is it true that vouchers are being used by middle-class families, too?

Voucher programs can be Trojan horses. In Indiana, they were sold to the public as a program to help low-income families, but soon after, the income requirements were relaxed so that even families that can afford to pay for private schools with their own funds now have access to vouchers. In Indiana and other places, voucher programs are now subsidizing the private- or religious-school education of children who never attended public schools. The net effect is to starve public schools of resources and further segregate the schools. 

What is the impact of a voucher program on public schools?

A double whammy: Vouchers drain money from public schools that now have a greater proportion of students with learning barriers that require extra support and special services. Public schools end up with fewer resources to help all students, particularly high-needs students.

In his campaign for president, Trump said school choice is “the new civil rights issue of our time.” So do civil rights advocates favor school choice?

The NAACP said it best: “Vouchers take critical resources away from our neighborhood public schools, the very schools that are attended by the vast majority of African-American students. Furthermore, private and parochial schools are not required to observe federal nondiscrimination laws even if they receive federal funds through voucher programs.” 

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