LEGISLATIVE BULLETIN: Don't Send Public Money to Unaccountable Private Schools

By Matthew Ellinwood – Policy Analyst, Education & Law Project

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

·         Voucher programs do not improve student achievement: in education systems that have experimented with vouchers traditional public school students regularly outperform voucher recipients. 

·         Vouchers do not save money. Promises of monetary savings from vouchers have not materialized for education systems that have implemented voucher programs.

·         In the jurisdictions that have had voucher programs in place the longest (Milwaukee and Cleveland), traditional public school students outperform voucher recipients on the overwhelming majority of available proficiency measures.
 

House Bill 944 would establish a voucher-like scheme under the guise of private school “opportunity scholarships.”  Opportunity scholarships are commonly termed “neovouchers” because they function in essentially the same way as traditional vouchers but avoid some of the legal problems and negative connotations associated with traditional vouchers.

Voucher programs do not improve student achievement, and in education systems that have experimented with vouchers, traditional public school students regularly outperform voucher recipients.  Proposed voucher schemes are usually accompanied by purported claims of savings, but these savings have not materialized for education systems that have implemented voucher programs.  Accountability and transparency are extremely limited for voucher programs because private schools are not subject to the same requirements as traditional public schools.  As a result, serious financial abuses are common amongst schools participating in voucher programs.

 

No Positive Impact on Student Achievement

House Bill 944 does not contain the words “student achievement”, and with good reason - vouchers have been tried in the United States for over 20 years and no positive impact on student achievement can be shown.  In fact, in the jurisdictions that have had voucher programs in place the longest (Milwaukee and Cleveland), traditional public school students outperform voucher recipients on the overwhelming majority of available proficiency measures.  Neither school district has been able to improve its position among the lowest performing urban districts in the nation.  None of the highest performing states or countries on international educational measures has achieved success by utilizing voucher programs – all have done so by making a strong financial commitment to traditional public schools.

 

Diverting Resources from Underfunded Public Schools

House Bill 944 would siphon $100 million dollars from the public school system over the next three years, and the amount of money required to fund the program is set to grow each year.  This loss of funding would come at a critical juncture when traditional public schools are already systematically underfunded.  North Carolina currently ranks 46th in the nation in per pupil expenditures, ahead of only Mississippi in the Southeast.   The state currently spends half a billion dollars less on public schools than it did in 2008 even though the student population has risen by over 50,000 over the same time period.

Voucher proposals are always unaccompanied by claims of potential long-run savings that do not materialize.  Voucher proponents claim that vouchers will save the state money because the amount of the voucher ($4,300) is less than the state’s average per pupil expenditure (around $6,000).  However, these calculations fail to consider the fact that most students who attend private school previously attended public schools.  For each of these students who would have attended private school regardless of the existence of the voucher program, the state loses $4,300.  If at least one out of every four voucher participants falls into this category of students who already planned on attending private school, the state will lose money as a result of starting this voucher program.  This will likely be the case, as most students attending private schools have attended public school prior to enrollment in private school, and because kindergarteners and first graders who have never attended public school are eligible to receive vouchers under House Bill 944’s voucher scheme.

 

Low-Income Families Would Still Lack Access to High Quality Schools

Voucher programs that have operated in the United States have struggled to limit participation to low-income students.  The main difficulty is that the amount of the voucher is often much smaller than the cost of private schooling, particularly at prestigious schools, and low-income families are unable to make up the difference. By contrast, high- or middle-income families may be more likely to take advantage of vouchers as a taxpayer-funded subsidy to help pay for private school tuition, which they otherwise would have had to pay in full.  This will be particularly true regarding House Bill 944 because the amount of the voucher ($4,300) is far less than the cost of tuition at a high quality North Carolina private school.

The two most comprehensively evaluated voucher schemes in Cleveland and Milwaukee show that voucher programs have not been effectively limited to low-income students. In spite of similar income limits to North Carolina’s voucher proposal, both voucher programs serve a population of students that is less impoverished than the population of students remaining in the traditional public schools.

 

Private Schools are Unaccountable for Public Funding

Vouchers and neovouchers completely remove the developing system of public school accountability and transparency to taxpayers and their representatives by encouraging students to exit the public school system and attend private schools. Private schools are not subject to the testing requirements, failing school turnaround models, school report cards, or curricular requirements that public schools are. In essence, there is no way for taxpayers or elected officials to know if public funds are being spent wisely in private schools because private schools are not held accountable in the same way public schools are.

 

This lack of accountability has led to serious abuses in jurisdictions that have tried voucher and neovoucher schemes.  In Milwaukee, voucher funds have paid for luxury cars, gold necklaces, personal real estate, and in many cases have gone directly into the pockets of school operators who were later found guilty of embezzlement.  In Florida, 25 cases of fraud have been substantiated regarding the McKay Opportunity Scholarship, including one school that defrauded the state out of over $200,000 by claiming to serve students with disabilities who had never enrolled.  North Carolina cannot afford to send public money to unproven, unaccountable private schools at a time when public schools are already dramatically underfunded. 

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