December 2011 Church & State | Featured

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) claims he has the solution to the problems in his state’s public school system.

Corbett has been promoting a plan that would allow some low-income families to use taxpayer-funded school vouchers because he says the program would help reduce the state’s dropout rate and improve educational outcomes for some of the poorest students.

The proposal targets families earning no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($41,000 for a family of four) who would be slated to send their kids to schools that are in the bottom 5 percent in terms of standardized test performance. Vouchers would permit students to attend public or private schools, including religious schools, provided the school chooses to accept the student.

The amount of voucher money available to a student would depend on his or her family’s income, but in the first year of the program about $50 million in taxpayer money would go to students who already attend private schools.

Corbett said the state can’t continue to run from failing schools and high dropout rates anymore.

“We have to think and act smarter,” Corbett said, according to an Oct. 11 blog post on The Morning Call’s website. “I know we can do better… we have to have the will to do better.”

The voucher bill passed the Pennsylvania Senate 27-22 on Oct. 26 and now awaits an uncertain fate in the House of Representatives.

The problem with Corbett’s voucher program is the same as with all voucher programs: those who promote it make assumptions and rely on misconceptions to argue for an idea that doesn’t necessarily help students who get the vouchers, hurts public school education as a whole and provides state-funded handouts to religious schools.

In Pennsylvania’s case, Corbett is wrong about the high dropout rate. The dropout rate in Pennsylvania was 2.6 percent in the 2007-2008 school year, well below the national average of 4.1 percent in that year, according to an Oct. 11 article by the Associated Press.

If Pennsylvania public schools are indeed failing, perhaps it’s because Corbett has hacked their funding. Since taking office in January, Corbett has cut $900 million from the public education sector.

This war on public school education is not unique to Pennsylvania and is on the rise. The AP reported in August that 30 state legislatures have contemplated voucher bills in 2011, up from just nine in 2010. Additionally, 28 states have considered tax breaks for private school tuition this year.

Americans United is currently tracking bills under consideration in Kentucky, Louisiana, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wisconsin, in addition to Pennsylvania, that would either create school voucher plans or tuition tax credit programs. An Iowa legislator, meanwhile, has gone so far as to introduce a state Senate resolution that would urge the U.S. Congress to pass a constitutional amendment allowing school vouchers.

A major proponent of these tuition tax credits and vouchers, unsurprisingly, is the Roman Catholic hierarchy that is in increasingly desperate need of state and federal handouts for its parochial school system. According to a July 3 article in The New York Times, the number of Catholic schools in the United States has fallen from 13,000 to 7,000 over the past 50 years. The number of students attending Catholic schools has subsequently decreased from about five million to about two million.

Although 34 Catholic schools opened nationwide in the 2010-2011 school year, 172 closed, according to The Times.

When Corbett’s plan passed in the Pennsylvania Senate, Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., said in a statement that the voucher legislation will “ensure that ideal educational opportunities are accessible and available to all” and that “exploring ways to give parents the ability to make the best decisions for the education of their children is a worthy goal.”

What the bishops won’t tell you, however, is that studies consistently come down hard on voucher programs.

In Tennessee, the House of Representatives is considering a bill that would give vouchers of $5,400 to all students who receive free or reduced-price lunches.

According to the Nashville Tennessean, Metro Nashville Schools Director Jesse Register said the bill “undermines and derails our state’s transformation in public education,” noting that it doesn’t give new teacher evaluations, more charter schools and teacher incentive pay in poor-performing schools an opportunity to work.

A study released by the U.S. Department of Education in June 2010 found that students participating in Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program showed no statistically significant difference in math and reading performance from their public school counterparts. The study also found that the vouchers did not significantly impact students’ reports of school safety, climate and overall satisfaction with their school.

“In most studies of voucher programs, the students essentially don’t improve,” Americans United Assistant Legislative Director Peter Kurdock told Church & State. “Test scores don’t significantly improve.”

Those who argue that vouchers do help students make significant academic progress may be relying on misleading information, because programs like the one in D.C. allow private schools to select the students they want to accept – and they take the best available.

“Voucher programs give private schools choice, not students,” Kurdock said. “The schools cherry pick the kids they want.”

Another issue with school voucher programs is that they often lack accountability. Many states do not require private schools to test their students, and the states that do often require scores to be submitted only for an entire school, not for individual students.

This lack of oversight of private schools can also have other consequences, such as unqualified teachers. It was revealed recently that many teachers in Washington, D.C., private schools didn’t have bachelor’s degrees, suggesting the level of education provided by some private schools is no better than some public schools.

Proponents of school vouchers also argue that private schools are a good investment because some of them have a much lower cost per student. While that’s true, it’s misleading because public schools have to spend money on special-needs students and students whose first language is not English, while private schools often do not.

Even with this lower per student cost, private schools are often too expensive for students with vouchers to afford the tuition because many vouchers, such as the one proposed in Tennessee, do not cover anywhere near the full tuition cost.

“Many elite private schools in Memphis cost much more than $5,000 per year,” Kurdock said.

Despite all of the negatives associated with school voucher programs, the concept is spreading in part due to anti-union fervor, according to Kurdock.

There are “groups interested in breaking teachers’ unions,” he said. Many people blame unions for all the problems in public schools.

And then there are those who are “generally against public school education,” he said. Some people want “kids sent to private religious schools so they can be taught religion,” Kurdock said.

Some of the voucher debate is also fueled by the economy.

“When the economy is bad, education funding for public school is often one of the first budget items cut,” Kurdock said. “People paint vouchers as a way to save money, but it’s misleading because it’s not a saving of money; it’s just shifting money from public schools to private schools.”

With fuel (and funds) from the Religious Right and other right-wing forces, it seems voucher proposals are not going away anytime soon. The voucher program in Pennsylvania gained traction thanks in part to backing from deep-pocketed advocacy groups.

FreedomWorks, which is chaired by former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, has utilized a full-scale promotional effort for the voucher legislation, having sponsored town hall meetings, launched a statewide radio ad campaign and organized phone call and letter writing campaigns, according to an April report in The Morning Call.

Another influential backer of vouchers nationwide is Betsy DeVos, former chair of the Michigan Republican party. DeVos is the wife of Dick DeVos; her father-in-law is billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. Betsy has said that her family is “the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party,” according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Betsy DeVos heads several nonprofits that advocate for vouchers and “school choice,” and she has taken special interest in Pennsylvania. She invited Corbett to speak at one of her organization’s national policy meetings in May. Betsy DeVos’ Alliance for Choice has helped raise more than $6 million to lobby for Pennsylvania vouchers, according to a May report in the Philadelphia Daily News.

There are also politicians seeking office who will try to advance the voucher agenda. In New Hampshire, the first Republican to declare for the state’s 2012 gubernatorial election, Ovide Lamontagne, has said he supports vouchers and wants to amend the New Hampshire Constitution to make it okay for taxpayers to support religious schools.

An Oct. 9 editorial in the Concord Monitor (New Hampshire) said:

“Removing the ban on taxpayer support of religious schools, even when the money is allegedly used for only secular purposes, would be a terrible mistake that would shrink the separation of church and state.”

Such a ban wouldn’t make the Founding Fathers too happy, either. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, “[T]o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.”

Kurdock said that churches could subsidize the educational programs they offer if they wanted to and, as Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn has noted, if an organization can’t support itself with its own members, then maybe that organization isn’t worth supporting.

The next time someone stands up to tout the virtues of vouchers, maybe they should keep Lynn’s words in mind.