We hear a lot in the news about school choice and vouchers. These terms are often tied to national or state education reform. Many state legislatures have already passed bills affirming the need for school choice by approving school vouchers, while others are actively considering them.
But what do these terms mean? What is their impact on student learning? And, what’s the best way to develop common sense school choice solutions?
Laws vary from state to state, but in Missouri students are allowed to enroll in school at age 5 and are required to start by age 7. They must continue to attend school until 17 or until they’ve completed 16 credits toward high school graduation. The basic concept of school choice is to let parents and guardians decide where and how they want their child educated. Under current law, they have three options:
- Enroll their child in the local public school at no charge;
- Pay tuition to send their child to an area private or parochial school; or
- Take on the role of educating their child at home.
In most instances, these options are sufficient for meeting the needs of students across Missouri. However, some parents want additional flexibility when it comes to educating their child. Perhaps they want to send their son or daughter to a private school but can’t afford the tuition — maybe it’s not feasible to homeschool – or there’s another public school close to where they work, and it would be more convenient to enroll their child there. In Missouri most would agree that personal freedom is a vital part of who we are, including having a say in how and where our children are educated.
The challenge lies in how to best implement school enrollment options.
Proponents often suggest vouchers as a solution to navigating the waters of school choice options. Similar to a coupon, a school voucher is a “transfer ticket” – thereby allowing a student to transfer from one school to another. A school voucher could conceivably be used across traditional public schools, public charter schools, private and parochial schools, or virtual schools.
One method for implementing school vouchers is through state and/or federal tax credits. Currently under consideration in the Show-Me State are two bills (SB160 and HB478) known as the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program, which would allow parents who live in any county with a charter form of government or in any city with a population of at least 30,000 to take advantage of state tax credits for sending their child to the school of their choice. However, in their current form these bills remove all educational oversight from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and place this authority into the hands of the state treasurer. In other words, while their passage would certainly pave the way for greater school choice, they could also jeopardize educational quality and risk hurting the students they were trying to help. While the state treasurer is well qualified to manage the fiscal details of tax credits and disbursements to schools, the responsibility for ensuring academic quality should be left up to those with expertise in that area—namely, DESE.
An obvious benefit of school choice is personal freedom for parents and students. However, we must also consider potential drawbacks before legislating a voucher system. For example:
Student Learning and Achievement: Before we make any decision involving education, the most important question we must ask is, “What will be the impact on student learning and achievement?” If we’ve done our homework and can be confident that students will benefit, then by all means we should proceed. However, if we simply don’t know the impact of a decision, then we must proceed cautiously. The fact is, more quality research studies need to be conducted to determine what long-term effect school vouchers have on student learning. However, the current results suggest in the short term, elementary and middle school student learning has actually dropped in many states, particularly in math. On the other hand, high school graduation rates tend to be greater for students who participate in a voucher program. So right now—we simply don’t know enough to conclusively say that a voucher program is an effective way to advance student learning. The takeaway: Before passing any school choice legislation, lawmakers should consider what the current body of educational research says about the impact of voucher programs on student achievement.
Funding Impact on Public Schools: Public schools receive state funding based on a foundation formula, and average daily student attendance plays a big role in how much school districts receive each year. Simply stated, when student enrollment drops schools receive less money to operate. In districts where businesses and industry are plentiful, local tax revenues are typically higher and therefore schools are less dependent on state funds. In poorer districts where property taxes are lower and less commercial revenue is generated, schools are very dependent on the aid awarded by the state each year. Fewer students means there is less money to develop curriculum, to buy new textbooks, and invest in technology. Fewer students means there is less money to pay for highly-qualified, experienced teachers. And in an increasing number of rural schools, districts are being forced to cut back to a four-day school week in order to save on essentials such as bus transportation, meals, and electricity. The takeaway: While we want to promote personal freedom, we must be careful not to place additional financial strain on local public schools, which in turn could have a negative impact on student learning.
Regulatory Impact on Participating Voucher Schools: Under the proposed voucher system in Missouri, participating schools would receive funding for each transfer student as disbursed by the state treasurer. Given the fiscal challenges that many private and parochial schools commonly face, the program could provide a much-needed financial boost. However, if those schools accept state funds, they risk losing considerable autonomy and could be held accountable to the state for student achievement. The takeaway: Non-public schools will need to carefully consider the impact of receiving state funds before they elect to participate in a school voucher program such as the one currently being proposed in Missouri.
A Common-Sense Solution
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to offer parents greater freedom when it comes to educating their child. We can all agree that our children deserve an exceptional education – one that will meet their individual needs and help them to reach their fullest potential. However, it’s important to carefully think through the details, considering potential benefits and pitfalls before moving forward with public policy decisions.
The Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program could be viable, with some modifications:
1.) Establish the Program as a 5-year pilot, renewable as long as it proved to be fiscally feasible and educationally beneficial to students.
2.) The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) should serve as the regulatory body responsible for ensuring the academic quality of schools participating in the Program, while the state treasurer should be responsible for fiscal oversight and management of tax credits and payments to participating schools.
3.) DESE officials should collaborate with qualified educational researchers to design and implement a comprehensive research study to determine the short-term and long-term impact of the Program.
4.) A panel of stakeholders representing the state treasurer, DESE, parents, participating schools, and the general public should be formed to monitor the ongoing success of the Program. A set of metrics should be agreed upon and reviewed at established intervals in order to make recommendations regarding continuation, modification or if needed, discontinuation of the Program.
Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as accreditation, competency-based education, and teacher/school leader prep programs design. Roberta also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com).
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