Old arguments on capacity overlook new trends

Education Week has sustained the conversation about the capacity for private schools to meet the demand for school vouchers, and policy analyst Sara Mead has added an additional argument: As they’re currently devised, voucher and tax credit programs do little to increase the number of high-quality schools.

These are, of course, legitimate points, but they do overlook some developments that deserve attention. Mead largely takes issue with the free-market purists who long ago claimed that vouchers would lead to competition in public education on a larger scale. That’s not a straw-man argument, but it does ignore another trend, and one that better defines growth in many voucher and tax credit programs, such as those in Florida.

Notably, the number of schools serving students receiving the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship has increased by 23 percent in the last five years to about 1,100 statewide. Clearly, a soured economy has led many private providers, particularly Catholic schools, to open their doors more widely to low-income scholarship kids. But that doesn’t mean they’ll close them when the economy rebounds.

Catholic schools, to single out one denomination of faith-based instruction, take seriously their mission to reach out to disadvantaged children. In the years after 2001, when the Florida Legislature established the scholarship program, many Catholic schools and others were reluctant to open too many seats to scholarship students, lest the political climate change and repeal what was once a partisan initiative. But a broad coalition of support since then has led nearly half the Democrats in the Legislature to back a “voucher” program. Existing private schools have grown more confident with an effort that can show double-digit increases in low-income student enrollment and they can better fulfill their missions while worrying less about the political headwinds.

And, indeed, there are new providers that have come forward to serve poor students. Many of these entrepreneurs come from the black middle class, clergy and former public school teachers among them, who can now operate financially viable schools in depressed neighborhoods. Black community leaders are employing black teachers and administrators, and they are subsequently pressuring black elected officials to support their efforts.

Are these high-quality schools under Mead’s definition, and will we see more of them under this model? It should be noted that last year, the Florida Legislature created a more layered regulatory framework that requires many individual schools participating in the tax credit scholarship program to open their academics and finances to additional scrutiny. This recognizes that market accountability is not enough and that the more a private school begins to look like a public school, based on its scholarship enrollment, its administrators will have to show how they’re performing. We should give these schools a chance to prove themselves under these conditions the way we allowed charter schools to flourish in their earliest years of accountability.

There is still much to learn about these programs, so we should be careful before dismissing them by using some familiar arguments. But, in the end, what drives an approach like that in Florida is a philosophy that is fundamentally different from an approach that Mead seems to embrace. It’s insufficient to look at scalability from a perspective that liberates only the provider in a top-down system, and that is a subject I’ll explore in another post.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit