Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Who Really Benefits from School Voucher Programs?

Many will remember that a large part of the “No Child Left Behind” school initiative that was passed by the Bush administration was concerned with providing school vouchers for families of students who feel the public school system does not sufficiently meet students educational needs. In theory, vouchers seem like a viable solution for improving the level of education for America’s students. Families are provide with a given amount of money to put toward tuition in a private school of their choosing, implying that parents will be able to find a school that will provide a first-rate education. Much debate has centered on the efficacy of voucher programs, and the funding of these programs continues to be an issue within state and national legislative bodies.

A recent post on Americans United for the Separation of Church and State investigates Senator Lieberman’s “personal mission” to renew funding for the voucher program in Washington, DC. The post presents the views of those who oppose the program and the reasons they feel it does not work. It cites three US Department of Education studies that show “no significant improvement in the reading and math scores of D.C. voucher students coming from schools in need of improvement.” The post also cites a 2007 Government Accountability Office report that “found participating private schools lacked occupancy permits and employed teachers without bachelors’ degrees.” Such evidence would seem to suggest that voucher programs are not an effective means to improve American education.

In addition to raising questions about efficacy, voucher debates raise questions of establishment. In the Supreme Court case Zelman v Simmons-Harris (2002) the question of establishment was addressed concerning the voucher system in Cleveland, OH. The issue that arose in Cleveland was that 96% of the students who opted for the voucher applied it toward tuition into religious schools. The reason for such a high percentage going to religious schools rather than non-religious private schools was that the amount of money provided by the voucher would not pay enough of the non-religious schools. Implicitly, the higher costing private schools offer better resources for learning and a better overall education.

The Majority opinion of the Court found that Cleveland’s voucher program did not violate the establishment clause because the program was deemed formally neutral in purpose. The dissenting opinion argued that the effect should also be taken into account. According to the post, “approximately 82% of DC voucher students attended religious schools in 2009.” It seems likely that no voucher program can logistically offer enough money to allow students to attend the higher priced, non-religious private schools, so the majority of students will tend to go to cheaper religious schools. The Americans United post explains that the DC voucher program, which provides almost three times the amount of money as Cleveland’s, does not provide “parents nearly enough money to cover the tuition for Sidwell Friends, the elite private school attended by Obama’s daughters.”

The post also states that the majority of people who are supporting Sen. Lieberman in his ‘mission’ are religious groups: “Religious Right groups, right-wing think tanks, anti-public school forces and religious school lobbies.” This would seem to point to the fact that the purpose of voucher program legislation is to promote religious teaching rather than improve student learning.

There are, of course, a multitude of issues that contribute to the difficulties faced by public education. However, after teaching for five years in North Carolina Public Schools, I have been convinced that two of the biggest problems arise from insufficient funding and classroom overcrowding. These problems absolutely cannot be fixed by incorporating a voucher program. I think money that is wasted in voucher programs should be redirected into the public schools to lower the student-teacher ratio and improve educational facilities and resources.


Rachel B said...

I absolutely agree with Gavin on this issue. While I’ve never taught in a public school, my high school was wildly overcrowded and the teachers were underpaid and overworked. What was interesting in my situation was that I started at a mega school with about 4,000 students which my school board then split off into 3 separate “neighborhood” schools. There are plenty of segregation complications from this, but I won’t get into that debate here. The purpose of the neighborhood schools was to reduce class size and give more one on one attention to students. However, because the school board didn’t hire enough new teachers because they didn’t have the funds to do so, there were actually more students per classroom after the split. If the government can continue to pump more and more money into things like voucher programs, why do many schools still have this problem? I agree with Gavin that they could find much better ways to spend money rather than the voucher program.

Claire said...

I also agree with Gavin that the voucher program is ineffective. I believe that taxpayer money could be more effectively spent by filtering it into public schools rather than voucher programs. However, I do not think that these programs constitute Establishment. The government does not define which programs are eligible to receive funding based on religion. Secular private schools should not be more expensive under the voucher program than parochial private schools. However, I think that the discrepancy in cost is due to the fact that most private schools are parochial schools. If secular private schools cost the same as parochial private schools under the voucher program, the secular private schools may become overcrowded. All in all I do not think that the voucher program works, but it does not violate the Establishment clause.