This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Pennsylvania House is facing a hot-button and potentially costly issue: whether to go along with Gov. Corbett and the state Senate and approve a taxpayer-funded tuition voucher program.
Passage is uncertain for the program, which would be phased in over three years.
In its first year, the program likely would draw thousands of low-income parents in struggling public schools to try private or parochial schooling for their children. In the second year, the legislation would prove a boon for low-income parents who have been paying for private school all along.
The experience of other cities and states with long-established voucher programs can offer insights into what Pennsylvania could expect from such a program in terms of opportunity and achievement.
The best-known programs are in Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and Ohio.
Studies suggest, in the words of education researcher Diane Ravitch, that vouchers offer "no magic bullet" to improving outcomes for students.
Some studies point to evidence of higher graduation rates for voucher students and strong parental support. Others counter that voucher programs simply don’t serve the neediest families.
Voucher programs have helped keep alive private or parochial school options, research shows.
Ravitch, in an Education Weekblog post, said proponents "no longer claim that vouchers will close the achievement gap. … Instead, they now say that choice will increase parental involvement or that choice is a good in itself or that choice will save money. That last argument … reveals what matters most these days: not improving education, not encouraging creativity and innovation, but cutting costs."
But former Philadelphia schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman, in an October essay in The Inquirer, said she has come to the conclusion that "allowing parents to vote with their feet and letting some education funding to follow children to new schools is the drastic measure necessary for improving the public education system."
Milwaukee’s venture into vouchers started two decades ago, launching the school choice debate. But the first real accountability arrived only recently, with mandatory administration of state exams in the fall of 2010 at the nonpublic schools accepting voucher students. And the results were not promising: They showed lower academic achievement in choice schools than for students attending Milwaukee Public Schools. Neither group did well compared with statewide averages.
At the same time, a University of Minnesota researcher, in a January 2011 study funded by a pro-school-choice group, showed higher graduation rates among voucher students compared with public school students. It also showed overall growth for both groups from 2003 to 2009.
The experience in Milwaukee does show how vouchers bolster private school enrollment. "The principal effect of choice [has been] to preserve the city’s private schools, many of them Lutheran and Catholic," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel concluded in 2005. Nearly half of Milwaukee’s Catholic school students hold vouchers, one archdiocese official said.
A federally funded voucher program backed by the Bush administration got underway in Washington, D.C., in 2004, supporting between 1,700 and 2,000 low-income children a year.
A 2010 evaluation team issued mixed findings, making these points:
- There is no conclusive evidence that the scholarships affected student achievement on standardized tests.
- Voucher students’ chances of graduating from high school were higher – 82 percent for the voucher students compared with 70 percent for the control group, based on the reports of parents surveyed.
- And the program raised parents’ ratings, but not students’ ratings, of school safety and satisfaction.
The Obama administration killed the program in 2009 but funding was restored last spring.
Cleveland and Ohio
In Ohio, school choice efforts opened with tuition vouchers limited to poor students attending failing schools in Cleveland. Later came a separate voucher program for low-income students in low-performing schools elsewhere in the state, plus a program for students with autism.
But public school students often outperformed voucher students on recent state tests in Cleveland and other cities in Ohio, though results were mixed depending on grade level and subject matter.
In an email, Robert Tayek, spokesman for the Cleveland Diocese, said the voucher program has helped the city as a whole. "We believe that the Cleveland Scholarship [vouchers] and the presence of Catholic schools have helped to stabilize and preserve urban neighborhoods where the schools are located," Tayek said.
While initial efforts focused on giving low-income students private school options, Ohio is looking at changing that. Recent lobbying to create a "parental choice and taxpayer saving scholarship program" would open the door to families earning up to $95,000.
"Choice is no longer just for poor families and urban schools," said advocate Terry Ryan of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
The current debate focuses on accountability, Ryan said. "How do you actually hold these schools accountable for performance? If the state is paying the costs, is the school any good?"
As now written, the Pennsylvania plan includes very limited accountability measures for voucher schools and does not offer vouchers to middle-income families.
Ohio also proved to be a testing ground for arguments over the constitutionality of tuition vouchers.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that the Cleveland tuition voucher program, established in 1996, did not violate the First Amendment. The case examined whether the voucher program constituted a governmental "establishment of religion." At the time, 96 percent of more than 3,700 students using vouchers in Cleveland were enrolled in a school with a religious affiliation.
State courts, including Florida and Colorado, have ruled against vouchers.
Voucher opponents in Pennsylvania argue that the state constitution is far more restrictive than the U.S. Constitution. The state Supreme Court has ruled that state monies cannot "reach the coffers" of religious and other private schools.
Nationwide, just two states, Ohio and Indiana, have enacted statewide voucher programs, although five other states offer vouchers to students with autism or other special needs. Tuition tax subsidies exist in nine states, including Pennsylvania. There also is a voucher program serving some students in New Orleans.
As of 2009, a mere 60,000 students, representing 0.1 percent of the 49 million students attending U.S. public schools were participating in publicly funded voucher programs, according to Research for Action, a local nonprofit group.