February 2, 2016
Flawed Voucher Proposal Would Open Door to Spending Abuse
The Virginia General Assembly is about to consider a flawed school voucher bill that would throw Virginia’s doors wide open to using public education dollars on private schools with almost no standards for eligibility, no limit on how many students can participate, and no requirements for schools to be accountable for their performance.
The legislation – HB389 – would require the school divisions to pay families with public dollars who opt out of public education and pursue private school or homeschooling.
Vouchers aren’t new – 15 states and three cities, including Washington DC, have adopted some kind of program. The proposal facing Virginia lawmakers is so aggressive in its pursuit of public funds that it most closely resembles Nevada’s legislation, which is now on hold pending the outcome of a court challenge that says it violates the state’s constitutional obligation to fund public education.
Here are the five biggest problems with HB389 that make it on par with Nevada’s law as one of the most flawed voucher bills in the country.
1) It’s not targeted to kids who need it most.
Many states that have passed voucher legislation have targeted their use of public dollars to families that are struggling to get by, by placing income requirements on eligibility. For example, North Carolina limits the benefit to households whose incomes are at or below $50,000 for a family of three – and has lower income requirements to receive the maximum benefit. Indiana, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Washington D.C. also have income requirements to be eligible for their school choice vouchers.
The Virginia legislation places no income requirements on eligibility. A millionaire’s son or daughter could receive tax dollars to attend a private school.
2) No limit on participation.
Other states have taken steps to ensure their voucher programs do not jeopardize the quality of public instruction. Besides basing eligibility on income, some states limit the number of slots that can be awarded each year. For example, Wisconsin capped slots available in each school district to one percent of its total public school enrollment in 2015-2016.
The proposal facing Virginia lawmakers puts no limit on participation or the amount of money. With no estimates on how many students might participate and which school divisions might lose the most students, the impact on Virginia’s public schools very much hangs in doubt.
This threatens to undermine state support for public schools, which are reimbursed on a per student basis. It might violate the state constitution, which requires the state to provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age. In fact, the only other state that has passed voucher legislation with such broad eligibility requirements is Nevada.
3) Payment based on geography, not need or cost.
Under the Virginia proposal, the amount of money going to participating families would vary according to the school division where the student lives and range from $2,135 to as much as $6,922. That means a family in Lee County would receive over three times as much as a family in Arlington County. This variation is not based on the financial need of the family or cost of pursuing private education. In fact, the cost of living is quite a bit higher in northern Virginia, where families in most localities would receive small payments, than in other areas of the state with much larger payments.
Other states with voucher programs offer a tiered payment based on the financial need of the family. For example, Indiana’s program pays almost double to a family of three making less than $37,200 than to a family making between $37,200 to $55,750.
4) Few limits on how payments are used.
Many states with voucher programs sensibly limit acceptable expenses to tuition and fees at approved private schools. They are not allowed to fund homeschooling, transportation, computers or Internet access, or allow families to save the money for college tuition. These restrictions help ensure that public dollars are spent in a responsible manner and are not just a handout to participating families.
Virginia’s flawed proposal puts almost none of these common-sense limits on how families spend the public education money they get. This means, for example, that families that homeschool their child could use part of it buy a new computer and pay their Internet bill.
Even more egregiously, the legislation permits families to save the money for future college expenses. This means a wealthy family that does not need assistance paying the tuition of a private elementary or secondary school can put it in the bank to use later to help pay for college. This would be akin to providing a non-merit, non-need-based scholarship that is only available to students outside of the public education system.
5) No quality controls.
Finally, many other state voucher programs put in place an approval process or accreditation requirement for schools that are allowed to participate in the program. These requirements are essential to ensure that public dollars are being used to support high-quality educational programs. Utah, for example, requires schools to apply for approval from the state to become an eligible school for their voucher program.
The Virginia proposal has no accreditation standards for the private, parochial, or home schools parents may choose for their child – or qualification standards for their educators. “Qualified” schools include any private, sectarian, or nonsectarian school and “qualified” instructors include paraprofessionals, educational aides, or tutors.
–Chris Duncombe, Policy Analyst