Advantage, public schools

Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski challenged conventional wisdom when they published research that found public schools were better than private schools at boosting student achievement.

Book cover The Public School AdvantageFive years later, their conclusions have been confirmed several times over – especially by studies of state voucher programs that provide public funding for students to attend private schools.

“In the last four years, every study of student achievement in voucher programs has found large negative impacts, except for a couple of studies that found no impact,” Christopher Lubienski said recently. “The programs are hurting the learning outcomes of children using the vouchers.”

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Stevens was right on vouchers

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who died Tuesday, is being remembered for a lot of things: His evolution from Republican corporate attorney to a leader of the court’s liberal bloc. His common-sense and non-ideological approach to the law. And yes, his snappy bow ties.

Those of us who care about education should remember his forceful dissent in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the 2002 decision that said it was OK for states to pay for tuition vouchers allowing students to attend private schools, including religious schools.

Justice John Paul Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens (uscourts.gov)

Zelman was a 5-4 decision. If just one more justice had agreed with Stevens’ reasoning, the school choice landscape in 2019 might look very different.

The case involved a small pilot program in Cleveland that let about 5% of the city’s students receive state-funded vouchers to attend private schools. Susan Zelman, the Ohio superintendent of public instruction, challenged the program as an unconstitutional violation of church-state separation.

The majority decision, by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, reasoned that vouchers were allowable because the state money went to the parents, not directly to religious schools. He justified the decision with a discourse on the poor quality of Cleveland public schools and the choices available within the public system.

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Bad week for ‘school choice’

Last week was a bad one for the claim that school choice can cure whatever ails education in Indiana. Choice doesn’t always lead to good outcomes.

Start with the story of Delaware Christian Academy in Muncie. Although the school has received $1.3 million in state voucher funding over five years, enrollment dwindled to six students. The building was condemned after an inspector found students “huddled around a kerosene heater in blankets.”

Then look to Indianapolis Lighthouse East. The charter school’s board voted to shut it down after a review conducted for its authorizer, the Indianapolis mayor’s office, cited problems with low test scores and graduation rates, unqualified teachers and lax discipline.

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Voucher program serves the top 20 percent

Over 1,300 households that participate in Indiana’s school voucher program have incomes over $100,000, according to the 2018-19 voucher report from the Indiana Department of Education.

That puts them in the top 20 percent of Hoosier households by income. So much for the argument that the voucher program, created in 2011, exists to help poor children “trapped” in low-performing schools.

Like previous state reports on the voucher program, the current report paints a picture of a program that primarily promotes religious education and serves tens of thousands of families that could afford private school tuition without help from the taxpayers.

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Legislators OK with discrimination

Indiana House Republicans lined up four-square in favor of discrimination last week. They rejected a proposal to prohibit private schools that receive state funding from discriminating against students and staff because of disability, sexual orientation or gender identification.

The House voted 62-33 against the proposal, offered by Rep. Dan Forestal as an amendment to House Bill 1641, which deals with charter school issues. Sixty-two Republicans voted against it. Voting in favor were 32 Democrats and one brave Republican, Rep. Sean Eberhart of Shelbyville.

The proposal was sparked by controversy over Indianapolis Roncalli High School’s suspension of longtime counselor Shelly Fitzgerald after school officials discovered she was married to a woman. Roncalli has been receiving about $1.5 million per year in voucher funding. Indiana spent $154 million last year on tuition vouchers for private schools, nearly all of which are religious schools.

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Education savings accounts would be costly, wasteful

Hats off to Indiana’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. Thanks to it, we can put a price tag on a proposal for a private-school voucher program open to all students, regardless of family income:

At least $170 million a year.

Statehouse domeHouse Bill 1675, sponsored by Columbus Republican Ryan Lauer, would create what’s called an education savings account program. Students who attend accredited private schools could set up the accounts, and the state would deposit funds that they could use to pay tuition and other expenses.

It would go far beyond Indiana’s existing private-school voucher program, which is already one of the biggest and most generous in the country. It comes close to enacting the “universal voucher” plan that libertarians have fantasized about since Milton Friedman suggested the idea in 1955.

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Weak laws allow discrimination in voucher, charter schools

School voucher programs and charter schools practice discrimination in enrollment and hiring because they can, according to a recent policy brief from the National Education Policy Center. Federal and state laws permit discrimination in private schools that receive public funding. And charter schools are held to looser standards than traditional public schools when it comes to selecting students.

The policy brief, by education law scholars Julie Mead of the University of Wisconsin and Suzanne Eckes of Indiana University, examines the legal landscape that allows for discrimination and recommends changing laws to ensure publicly funded schools are open to all.

“To the extent that states have determined that voucher programs and charter schools are part of the menu of educational opportunities” they write, “those programs must also ensure equitable access to both students and employees. To do anything else is to return to the days of separate and inherently unequal education.”

Mead and Eckes identify three factors that allow for discrimination.

  • Federal law largely prohibits discrimination in public spaces but may allow it in private spaces such as private schools, even those that receive public funding via vouchers.
  • Private schools and charter schools design their own programs and may not offer adequate services for certain students: for example, students with disabilities and English learners.
  • State legislatures have taken a hands-off approach to discrimination in voucher or voucher-like programs, which now exist in 28 states.

In Indiana, for example, voucher schools are barred from discriminating by race, color or national origin but may discriminate by religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status or other factors.

The policy brief cites the example of Indianapolis Roncalli High School, which indefinitely suspended a guidance counselor after learning she had married her longtime female partner. The school has received almost $6 million in state voucher funding over the past four years.

It also points to reports that Indiana voucher schools refuse to enroll students because of their religion or sexual orientation and research that finds many charter schools are racially homogenous and enroll fewer special-education students and English learners than public schools.

Mead and Eckes recommend four changes:

  • Congress should prohibit discrimination by schools that receive public funding.
  • Federal agencies should consider withholding funds from schools that discriminate.
  • States should revise voucher laws to ban discrimination by sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, first language and other factors.
  • States should strengthen laws to ensure that charter schools are accessible to all students.

Vouchers and charter schools may have been created with good intentions, Mead and Eckes write, but “we can ill afford to experiment with equity and access in programs funded by public dollars. Insisting that publicly funded programs ensure access to the entirety of the public should be beyond argument.”