No matter what you call them, vouchers don’t work

February 4, 2013 |

Victoria Advocate, February 3, 2013

By David Anthony

In a recent column, former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby offered some sage advice to incoming legislators: “Whenever somebody wants to ‘reform’ something, hold on to your purse or wallet. What they really want to do is transfer money or power from some other group to their group.” Hobby’s advice – Just vote no.”

This is timely advice with the 83rd Session of the Texas Legislature under way, and school voucher supporters vowing to make another run at passing voucher legislation despite a string of failed attempts. They have some powerful allies this time in Governor Perry, Lt. Governor Dewhurst and newly appointed Senate Education Chair Dan Patrick.

Voucher proponents won’t openly call for school vouchers. Their proposals are cloaked in carefully calculated, poll-driven language. They’ll give their proposals names like, “tax credit scholarships” and “Taxpayer Savings Grants,” and will feign surprise when these vouchers in disguise are labeled as such.

It is all engineered to sound very compelling. Until you look at the facts.

Vouchers use public tax dollars for private schools with no accountability. At a time when $5.3 billion in funding has been slashed from the state budget for public schools while accountability standards have continued to rise, voucher proponents wish to divert revenues from the state budget to send students to private schools at taxpayer expense.

Legislators are confronted with two equally unacceptable choices – either give public money to private schools with no accountability or insert government into private schools.

Voucher proponents will try to use what I call Texas two-step “scholarships” to dance around this issue: A corporation is given a dollar-for-dollar credit against its state taxes for providing funding for private school tuition.

The money comes from the state of Texas as surely as if the comptroller had signed the check.

But the extra shuffle step lets voucher advocates avoid the difficult legal and political issues of holding private schools accountable for their use of these funds.

Vouchers are for the few, not the many. We have nearly 5 million children in our public schools, and that number is literally rising every day. We need solutions that will meet the needs of as many of these students as possible.

The promise of school voucher programs is sold to inner-city parents as a way for their child to buck the odds, boost academic achievement and live the life that their private school peers have coming to them. Unfortunately, this has never actually happened on any relevant scale. There simply aren’t enough private schools to make a dent. While public schools educate 5 million Texas students, private schools in Texas only educate about 313,000. Against the backdrop of these numbers, vouchers aren’t a solution. They’re a distraction.

Vouchers do not significantly improve academic achievement. Not only do private schools lack the capacity to absorb students on any meaningful scale, but the overwhelming weight of evidence is that vouchers result in no meaningful improvement in academic achievement for students. One recent study concludes, “[a]dditional research has demonstrated that vouchers do not have a strong effect on students’ academic achievement.” Another observes that, “the best research to date finds relatively small achievement gains for students offered education vouchers, most of which are not statistically different from zero.” Shouldn’t improved academic achievement be the real test of reform?

School choice already exists within public schools. Instead of vouchers, the legislature could more effectively focus on improving the choice options already available within our public school system. Many school districts offer open enrollment, inter- and intra-district transfers and charter schools in addition to state and federal programs that provide students with the ability to transfer out of an underperforming school.

According to a survey conducted by Raise Your Hand Texas, out of 66 of the largest school districts in the state by enrollment, 321,196 students in these districts are already attending school on a campus or in a program other than their neighborhood school – more than the number of students educated in the all of the private schools in Texas put together.

It is not the lack of a voucher that keeps students in an underperforming school, but a lack of knowledge of options already available or access to transportation. Providing transportation and other refinements to these public choice alternatives is much more likely to provide options for parents in an underperforming school and reach a large number of students. Vouchers simply helicopter out a few students while leaving many behind.

Vouchers do little but distract from the real issues facing our education system. So, legislators, heed Lt. Gov. Hobby’s advice on this so-called “reform.” Then we can focus our energies on improving our public schools so that every child has a fair shot at quality education.

Dr. David Anthony is the CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit education advocacy organization working to strengthen public education in Texas.