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January 16, 2017

Details Matter When It Comes to School Choice

Virginia’s legislative session has started and lawmakers will soon be voting on proposals that attempt to promote choice for Virginia’s students and families. Some of these proposals are not as well thought through as they need to be in order to offer options that meaningfully increase opportunity and improve student learning.  

Lawmakers and advocates interested in promoting positive school choice for Virginia’s students and families should have concerns with these bills because they lack a number of important safeguards that would protect students and taxpayers.

In particular, state lawmakers in the Senate and House are proposing the creation of a voucher-like educational savings account that would send taxpayer dollars to families pursuing private education or homeschooling. The House bill – HB1605 – is very similar to the flawed proposal last legislative session, which lawmakers chose to shrink in size and delay, and ultimately Governor McAuliffe vetoed. The Senate bill – SB1243 – is also similar, but does a slightly better job targeting taxpayer dollars to families that might need financial assistance and ensuring that dollars must be spent to support elementary and secondary education.

The first concern is accountability. Neither proposal includes accountability standards for the private, parochial, or home schools parents may choose for their child – or qualification standards for their educators. Under the proposal, “qualified” schools include any private, sectarian, or nonsectarian school that does not discriminate based on race or nationality, and “qualified” instructors include paraprofessionals, educational aides, and tutors.

Accountability is essential, because the research shows that voucher programs have mixed results when it comes to student performance, with some recent studies in Louisiana finding significant, negative impacts. One way to address this is accountability safeguards that require participating private schools to meet accreditation standards similar or identical to those used for the public schools. In states with these strong standards, private schools with unacceptable ratings are barred from accepting students with a voucher for the following year.

If the goal of school choice is to provide options for a high-quality education, then it makes sense to hold private schools receiving taxpayer dollars to the same standards as public schools. Some supporters of private school vouchers have echoed this sentiment: “fund individual schools of all types, measure their performance on an equivalent basis, provide information to the consumer, and intervene in instances of significant failure.”

Lawmakers should consider similar accountability measures here in Virginia.

The second concern is equity. The payment in both proposals is largely based on geography not need or cost. Under the bills, the amount of money going to participating families would vary according to the school division where the student lives and so would vary from $2,100 to $6,846. That means a family in Lee County would receive over three times as much as a family in Falls Church. This variation is not based on the financial need of the family or the cost of pursuing private education in the area. The House proposal includes slightly higher amounts for lower income families and for students with an Individualized Education Program, yet this adjustment is dwarfed by the the variation based on geography.

Other states with voucher programs do a better job and offer a tiered payment based on the financial need of the family. For example, Indiana’s program pays almost double to a family of four making less than $45,000 than to a family making between $45,000 and $67,400.

Lawmakers should consider basing payments solely on financial need rather than geography.

Lastly, the House proposal places no income requirements on eligibility, only a slight adjustment in voucher size. A millionaire could get tax dollars to send their kid to private school, while a family who lacks the means to supplement the voucher with their own income would be left out. The Senate proposal does a better job. It limits participation to families whose income is less than or equal to 300 percent the federal poverty limit – $72,900 for a family of four– or for students with an Individualized Education Program.

Many states that have passed voucher legislation have done a better job than both proposals at targeting their use of public dollars to families struggling economically. For example, North Carolina limits the benefit to households whose incomes are at or below 133 percent of free and reduced price lunch eligibility – $59,790 for a family of four – and has lower income requirements to receive the maximum benefit.

That is not to say that private school vouchers can’t work. Reviews on the topic find examples of both positive and negative impacts on school performance. However, the mixed findings highlights the need for having a strong program that ensures both accountability and equity.

Lawmakers should take are hard look at the proposal for a voucher-like savings account in Virginia, because the research shows that the details matter when it comes to promoting effective school choice options.


Chris Duncombe

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