Sunday, March 05, 2017

Republicans Pursue Vouchers and Privatized Education

The Choices in Education Act 2017 (HR 610), introduced Jan. 23 and now in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, repeals the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which has provided federal funds to address inequities in public schools since 1965. In its place, block grants would go to states that have adopted voucher plans, enabling parents to use public funds to enroll their children in any public or private school. While over 100 bills are now in this committee and most will die there, the fact that this one embodies Secretary Betsy DeVos’s vision for education suggests it will likely be taken up.
This bill is misguided for several reasons. First, while evidence should guide policy, evidence does not show that voucher programs consistently improve student learning. Mark Dynarski of the Brookings Institute analyzed the research in a 2016 issue of Evidence Speaks Reports. He found mixed results: while some students benefited from the New York and Washington, D.C., programs, the same cannot be said of the Milwaukee program. The two most recent and largest studies found that public school students who received vouchers to attend private schools in Indiana and Louisiana, both with statewide voucher programs, actually achieved worse than their counterparts in public schools. Dynarski suspects one reason is that public schools have improved over the last few years, closing what previously had been an achievement gap between them and private schools.


A second reason this bill is misguided is that it requires states to adopt voucher programs, whether desired or not, in order to receive federal funds. California’s voters rejected private school voucher initiatives twice (1993 and 2000). Further, California’s Constitution prohibits using public funds to support “sectarian or denominational” schools, or schools not under public control. So, HR 610 would force California to change its Constitution to enable a plan voters have rejected, in order to prevent school districts, particularly in poorer communities, from losing federal funds.
Currently federal funds provide between 1 percent and 9 percent of the budgets of school districts in Monterey County. The largest earmark is for Title I, which funds services for students from low-income families. Title I as it has operated has shown mixed results. In a 2015 issue of Evidence Speaks Reports, Dynarski and Kainz suggest one problem is that the money is spread too thinly. About half of all school districts qualify, resulting in Title I adding only about 5 percent more money per student, not enough for robust services targeted to the neediest students. Another problem is that much of the money is not spent on interventions that have demonstrated making a difference, such as an intensive program in Chicago that is producing large achievement gains in mathematics among high schoolers in high-poverty black and Latino schools, according to the Institute for Policy Research, or ethnic studies programs that produce significant achievement gains among similar populations, according to two studies reported in the American Educational Research Journal. Replacing earmarked funding with block grants to support voucher programs is not wise. Rather, we should insist that federal funding continue to target inequities, and be spent on programs proven successful.
A third reason this bill is misguided is that it undermines public education by shifting some public funds out of public schools and into private schools. And it does so at a time when the proportion of public school students is no longer majority white, while private schools, particularly in the South and the West (including California), remain disproportionately white, according to a 2016 report by the Southern Education Foundation.
Parents who want to send their children to private schools understandably support voucher programs, although they may not be aware of their uneven track record of results. However, while vouchers enable some students to transfer (how many could actually do so is limited by availability of seats and transportation costs), vouchers hurt the great majority of students who attend neighborhood public schools by pulling funds away from them. Ultimately, the quality of society depends on how well educated its population is. Countries with better-educated populations tend to have higher economic growth, better governments and more civic engagement than those with less educated populations. It should be the federal government’s responsibility to support all public schools in offering the best education our country has to offer.
For these reasons, I urge rejection of HR 610 when it comes up for a vote.

Christine Sleeter is a CSU Monterey Bay professor emerita.



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Christine Sleeter
Professor Emerita, California State University Monterey Bay
118 1/2 Dunecrest Ave., Monterey, CA 93940
 831-915-3876  csleeter@gmail.com   www.christinesleeter.org 
Skype christinesleeter
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