StudentsFirst: voucher programs should prioritize students with greatest need

Editor’s note: This guest post from StudentsFirst is authored by Vice President of Fiscal Strategy Rebecca Sibilia and fiscal policy analyst Sean Gill.

We appreciate Doug Tuthill’s recent redefinED post challenging StudentsFirst to consider supporting voucher or tax-credit scholarship programs that aren’t just limited to what he describes as the “failing schools” model. We agree with his assertion that school choice policies, including private school options, are about empowering parents to select the best school for their child.

It is true that we believe voucher programs should prioritize low-income students in low-performing schools. However, we want to make clear that this position is not based simply on a “politically safe compromise.” Indeed, our entire State Policy Report Card judges not what is politically popular, but rather the laws and policies we believe, through evidence, best practices, and common sense, will deliver the best results for kids.

We think it is important that states focus on more than policies that just provide access to schools; states must prioritize expanding access to high-quality choices for families that traditionally lack them. A Brookings study found that students from low-income households are much more likely to attend low-performing schools than middle or high-income students. This is important because the same study further confirms that low-income kids can actually achieve at high levels when they attend high-performing schools. Unfortunately, as Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett has mentioned, low-income families often lack the resources to enroll in potentially higher-performing private schools or to relocate to a school district that offers a better public education.

Policymakers must always consider tradeoffs and unintended consequences when considering how to budget limited resources. Consider if a state adopted a universal voucher program. This would provide the most theoretical choice, but it could also easily have the unintended effect of simply subsidizing the students already enrolled at private schools and those in families who may otherwise be able to afford private school tuition. This would result in few new students being able to attend a high quality school option, and wouldn’t expand access to those who need it the most.  Presumably, avoiding this problem is one of the reasons why the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program is currently limited to low-income children.

Using this logic, we believe that when state resources are limited or the existing supply of desirable private schools is limited, it also makes sense to prioritize vouchers or scholarships for those low-income children attending a low-performing school or living in low-performing school districts. There are practical, administrative considerations that also make targeted programs more effective. For instance, when looking at the state of Tennessee, where Gov. Haslam has proposed a voucher program, we’ve determined that the four districts with the lowest performing schools also have both higher concentrations of low-income families and private schools in their communities.

We find that most voucher and scholarships programs are capped by enrollment or appropriation levels. Given that low-income students can be found in most counties throughout a state, these caps then create an unintended consequence of spreading out scholarship recipients among multiple communities, which would not provide enough demand to create new private school options.

But if policymakers focused resources on failing public school districts and areas with high concentrations of impoverished students, this could create demand for a new market of high-performing private schools in the communities that need the additional options the most. Our point here is to say that we are not ready to abandon a “failing schools” model outright; there may be situations, depending on the state, where further targeting a program’s reach actually makes better sense as a means of serving the most students.

Mr. Tuthill also says that each state’s definition of a low-performing school or a “failing school,” which typically includes a school’s standardized test scores, doesn’t necessarily align with a parents’ evaluation of whether a school meets the needs of their child.  That is true. But surely the state accountability data is not irrelevant either – thus, the solution could involve a more robust set of performance information, rather than to ignore it entirely.

Notably, Mr. Tuthill wrote that our CEO and founder, Michelle Rhee, evolved on this issue when she was chancellor of Washington, D.C. Public Schools. Our policy agenda is not static; we continue to evaluate our approach to school choice. For instance, spurring the proliferation of new high-quality private schools, thereby creating multiple school options for low-income students, is certainly a laudable goal, albeit still relatively untested. However, if states have the resources necessary to spur this proliferation – such as providing vouchers or scholarships to every low-income student who wants one and ensuring these vouchers are competitive with private school tuition – then that would be a policy worth considering.

Also important to note is that we believe Florida can improve its accountability framework for schools participating in its voucher program. Like all schools that receive public dollars, private schools that receive scholarship students must be held accountable to high standards of student learning. Our policy report card graded favorably those programs that include accountability measures that did not just collect data on student achievement, but also provided consequences for private schools that did not demonstrate results. Indiana’s scholarship program is open to all low-income students, but we graded it higher than Florida’s program because Indiana contained stronger accountability measures.

As mentioned, we’re keeping an open mind. We agree with the school choice community that traditional public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, and, yes, private schools have their respective roles meeting the diverse needs of our kids. We look forward to continuing to discuss how to deliver the right educational mix.

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BY Special to NextSteps