Recently an Austin news channel held an interview with a top state elected official who was promoting the need to approve school vouchers in Texas. He stated the need for vouchers was driven by the need to allow for school choice. The elected official stated that approximately 500 campuses across the state of Texas were rated "Unacceptable." The message -- parents should have choices. To the lay person this statement sounds appropriate. A parent could easily ask "Why not give parents a choice when their school is failing?" On the surface school vouchers sound like a plausible option but in practice school vouchers could present many real problems that ultimately will not help to improve our solid public school system.
School vouchers in theory are certificates issued by the government that parents can apply towards tuition at the school of their choice.
The value of a voucher is arbitrary but would be set by the state legislators at a fixed amount. The exact amount is not critical at this time but it would be set around the average cost spent per pupil in Texas public schools. The range of a voucher program in Texas could be approximately $5,000-$5,500 per child. So let's make the assumption that as a parent I receive this voucher from the state so that my child may attend the school of my choice. What would be my realistic options? Currently there would be two choices; attend a private school or home school. Let's examine each one of these options as it relates to school choice and what systemic problems may surface in relation to the topic.
Using a school voucher to allow a parents' school choice of private schools sounds possible but there are many unanswered questions. The first unanswered question is the issue of tuition.
The average tuition cost for the top 10 private schools in the Dallas area in 2010-2011 was $20,000 according to the Dallas Business Journal. If, as a parent, I have a $5,000 voucher to apply towards my tuition, I still need to generate $15,000 on my own. This makes attending a top tier private school out of reach for most middle class parents. Yes, parents could choose a private school that is less expensive but not all private schools are created equal which brings us to the next question. If a private school takes public funds, will they have to meet state accountability and fiscal responsibility standards? Without holding private schools accountable to academic and fiscal standards, how do we know if taxpayers' dollars are being wisely invested and students are receiving a sound education? As it should be, all public schools are accountable to state academic and fiscal standards because we are funded by taxpayer dollars. The public has a right to know if tax dollars are being invested wisely. I believe it's safe to say that most private schools want to remain "private", therefore; using public funds without transparency on the part of private schools creates a huge conflict of interest.
Home schools, facing the same issue of transparency with public funds, could be more problematic. If a parent chooses to home school their child, how will the public know if these dollars are being used for educational purposes only? There is no doubt that some very conscientious parents will use a $5,000 voucher of public funds wisely to educate their child. However, there is the other side of the spectrum; family situations not conducive to an appropriate learning environment. As an example, let's say the parent is unemployed and in a desperate move decides to pay the rent or buy food with this voucher. What measures would be in place to prevent this from happening? Even a less drastic example can raise concerns. Let's say the parent actually buys a curriculum for $5,000 but because of the lack of structure in the house, the parent or student never applies the curriculum. Will there be an academic accountability system to measure student progress?
Another dilemma is once the voucher is spent in a private or home school setting, will the student have the opportunity to return to public school if the funds have been expended. Many times even the most diligent parent realizes that the private or home school setting is not working for their child but have already purchased the $5,000 curriculum or paid tuition in that amount. How will the public school receive funding for the student if the student's allotment has already been spent?
There are a lot of unanswered questions related to how an effective voucher system would work. Below is a list of questions about a voucher system raised by Superintendent Mary Ann Whiteker of Hudson ISD in a recent article in the Lufkin Daily.
1. Will a private school retain the right to refuse students based on disability, academic achievement, religious beliefs or discipline?
2. Will a private school, receiving students that are eligible for free and reduced meals, be required to offer meals under this federal program?
3. Will private schools retain the right to charge tuition above the value of the voucher?
4. Will vouchers limit the religious instruction offered in private schools? (Separation of Church and State)
5. Will the state offer vouchers for all students currently enrolled in private schools or home schooled?
6. Will the private school/home school have to reimburse the state if the student withdraws from the private school during the year to re-enroll in the public schools?
It is also important to address the role of charter schools. Although not specifically related to vouchers, when it comes to "school choice" charter schools are often mentioned. All charter schools are state funded on a per pupil basis and parents do not need a voucher to attend. Therefore, most parents already have this option and their children are welcome to attend the charter school of their choice if they meet the school's enrollment guidelines.
The reality is that charter schools are failing at a higher rate than public schools. Out of the 482 charter schools in the state, 38 or 7.8% of them were unacceptable in 2011 according to the Texas Education Agency. In comparison, out of the 8044 campuses, only 458 public school campuses were rated unacceptable by the state; approximately 5.6%. Based on these numbers, public schools outperformed charter schools in 2011.
If you are looking for options, why not transfer your child to another public school. Public schools have a higher success rate. The fact is that 94% of all public schools have met the state's very rigorous standards. Public schools are making a difference every day for students.