The Pennsylvania School Board Association is circulating “Questions about vouchers your legislator should be asking.” Others have legitimate questions and concerns. This Policy Brief answers them all.
PSBA: “1. Senate Bill 1 says the commonwealth will pay the costs of each student’s first year of voucher attendance at private school; and estimated $50 million the first year, $100 million in the second year, and an unknown amount in the third and later years. Where is that money going to come from? New taxes?”
Pennsylvania taxpayers currently pay $26 billion per year, up from $16 billion in 2002, to fund the public school system-an increase of 56% while inflation was just 18%. However, these tax dollars are not the property of school boards or the school employee labor unions, but are supposed to be dedicated to the education of children.
Today, school boards and labor unions have effectively turned the concept of “public education” on its head. What used to mean “the education of the public through diverse means” has become synonymous with the direct ownership, operation, and control of schooling by special interests. They believe this is their money. It’s not, and school choice is how we begin to reclaim the original concept of public education-that is, the education of the public.
Every child must have the option to choose a school that will best meet his or her academic, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. The promise of public education will only be fulfilled if we return to parents the right, freedom, and flexibility to choose amongst a variety of schools-including public, charter, private, religious, and home schools.
PSBA: “2. Where will the new money come from to pay the costs of voucher students already enrolled in parochial and other private schools? Since they are not leaving a public school, how do their vouchers reduce the public school’s costs?”
The Harrisburg School District spends approximately $17,675 per student. Under Senate Bill 1, a low-income student trapped in a chronically underperforming school would be eligible to utilize a state-funded voucher of approximately $8,828 to attend an alternative public or private school. Where does the remaining $8,847 go? It stays in the district; effectively increasing the amount of money per student for the remaining children. Further, if the receiving public or private school charges less in tuition than the voucher amount, the difference is transferred to a fund to pay for future expansions of school choice to more children.
When children transfer from high-cost public schools to lower-cost schools of choice, there will be sufficient money to both increase the per student expenditure in the home district while also giving low-income families with children already in private schools the financial ability to stay.
PSBA: “3. When voucher students leave a public school, how will that reduce costs if they don’t leave in groups of 25 or more from the same school and grade?”
School districts must continually deal with fluctuations in student enrollment. Giving a child a voucher to choose another school is no different. Furthermore, and more importantly, no child should be forcibly trapped in a school simply because some adults can’t figure out how to manage a budget.
Instead of trying to prevent parents from finding a safer or better performing school for their children, school administrators and teachers ought to be more concerned about how they can improve their schools so they become the school-of-choice.
But for argument sake, let’s consider the Harrisburg School District, which is costing taxpayers about $17,700 per student, or approximately $390,000 for a classroom of 22 students. What if five of those students chose to use an $8,800 voucher to attend a safer or better performing school? What would this do to the district’s budget?
First, instead of $390,000, this classroom of now only 17 students has about $345,000-or 44,000 fewer dollars than before. Of course, the per-student spending goes up over $20,300 per kid that chooses to stay put because $8,900 was left behind by the voucher students.
It is true that many “fixed costs,” such as debt, building maintenance, utilities, and transportation can’t be immediately reduced because five children got a better educational choice.
Commonwealth Foundation has analyzed the Harrisburg School District and calculated its fixed costs. What we find is that about 36% of spending is on these fixed costs. But the unions have claimed fixed costs are as high as 60%. So let’s take their number, which is more than 50% more than what we’ve identified as fixed costs. This would mean that the class of 22 kids has a fixed cost of $234,000. So, even with the loss of five voucher kids, the classroom still has more than $110,000 above their fixed costs. Indeed, this suggests that this classroom of 22 kids could lose as many 17 students and STILL cover its fixed costs! [How? 17 voucher kids leave behind $151,300 ($8,900 each) + $88,500 for five remaining students ($17,700 each) = $239,600]
Clearly, the argument that school boards can’t balance budgets because of school choice is absolute nonsense-and if nearly 80% of kids are vacating a classroom or a school, we shouldn’t be funding it all. It should be shut down!
PSBA: “4. Why do they say that “the money follows the child” when it’s been nearly 20 years since basic education subsidies were influenced by enrollments?”
The education tax money should follow the child. And tax payments to schools-public, charter, cyber, or private-should be determined solely by how many kids choose to attend a particular school. In fact, even the “costing out study” endorsed by the PSBA and others in the education establishment, recommended a formula in which funding is determined by student enrollment-not by lobbyists. School choice is how we put children’s interests ahead of the system’s or any particular school’s interests.
PSBA: “5. Can Pennsylvania taxpayers afford this?”
Taxpayers cannot afford the current system! Despite Pennsylvania taxpayers spending $26 billion annually on public schools and more per student than 39 other states ($13,000 per child); and despite a decreasing student enrollment of nearly 27,000 student while adding nearly 33,000 employees since 2000, Pennsylvania public schools failed to deliver anything other than stagnating returns on that investment.
School choice doesn’t cost any more money. Indeed, both the new voucher program (at most, an estimated $50 million in year one) and the expanded EITC ($75 million) account for 0.5% of total public school spending. This means that 99.5% of the current $26 billion we spend on public education stays in the public school system.
PSBA: “6. Since people without school-age children also pay school taxes, why is it unfair for families with children in private schools to do the same thing, when they have the choice to take advantage of their public schools? Doesn’t Pennsylvania Constitution ask that we all contribute to the support of a thorough and efficient system of public education system [sic]?”
Today, parents choosing outside “the system” must pay twice-once in taxes for the school they don’t use, and again in tuition to the school actually educating their children. In what world is this “fair”? Again, the purpose of public education should be the education of the public, not the funding of one system of schools over another. Giving a monopoly of both tax dollars and children to school boards and labor unions has not delivered a “thorough and efficient” system.
PSBA: “7. What about families with many children whose multiple vouchers might add up to many times what they pay in taxes? Should there be a proportionate reduction?”
There is no proportionate reduction in the public school families with many children, so why are families trying to find a better education in an alternative public or private school somehow inferior or relegated to second-class citizens? If we are committed to the education of children-rather than a “system”-then every child should be treated equally irrespective of the type of school or zip code.
PSBA: “8. How can there ever be genuine “competition” between a school that can pick and choose the students it wants to enroll, and a school that has a legal duty to educate all children, including the ones the private schools don’t want?”
Public school officials complain that they have to serve all students while private schools do not. Therefore, kids trapped in underperforming public schools should not be permitted to attend a private school that is not also required to accept every child. But other federal and state programs from the GI Bill to Pell Grants encourage specialization in schools-serving some types of student while not serving others. Why not K-12 schools?
It is a fundamental principle of organizational structure that specialization of effort leads to more individualized customer attention, improved product diversity and performance, higher quality, and lower costs. Imagine if the telephone companies had been able to prevent competition from cell phones, or if the Post Office had been able to stymie email.
If specialization of effort is such a threat to the public schools, they should use their political clout to break themselves into more selective and specialized units rather than preventing parents, students, and taxpayers from doing so on their own through more school choice.
PSBA: “9. How can there be genuine competition between schools that have to shoulder numerous unfunded mandates and schools that are free from those constraints?”
Public schools should be freed from unfunded mandates. The fact that the PSBA and PSEA don’t work as hard to identify and repeal these mandates as they do to prevent low-income children from escaping chronically failing schools once again reveals they put “the system” ahead of the learning needs of children.
Don’t deny poor kids trapped in underperforming schools because the adults employed by “the system” don’t like the rules and regulations from Harrisburg-ironically, these are the same rules and regulations they think private schools must be strapped with if they educate kids with vouchers.
PSBA: “10. Will the parochial and other private schools still be able to deny admission to voucher students who are cognitively or physically disabled?”
This is a loaded question. It implies private schools don’t serve special needs students when in fact they do. Many parents would like the private school option for their children because these schools often serves special needs children better than assigned public schools. For the last 10 years, thousands of students have left traditional public schools to attend private schools all across the Commonwealth thanks to scholarships provided by the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program. For 10 years, families have been seeking other educational options for their children in the state’s private religious and non-sectarian schools. For 10 years there has been no evidence of widespread cases of families being refused admittance. Why? Because when parents have control, they seek the school that is going to best meet their child’s individual educational needs. And as a result, there are all sorts of schools serving the diversity of student needs.
PSBA: “11. If they admit them at all, will parochial and other private schools be required to provide accommodations and related services to students with physical disabilities, and ensure that a program designed to provide meaningful educational benefit is available to students with cognitive disabilities?”
Again: For the last 10 years, thousands of students have left traditional public schools to attend private schools all across the Commonwealth thanks to scholarships provided by the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program. For 10 years, families have been seeking other educational options for their children in the state’s private religious and non-sectarian schools. For 10 years there has been no evidence of widespread cases of families being refused admittance. Why? Because when parents have control, they seek the school that is going to best meet their child’s individual educational needs. And as a result, there are all sorts of schools serving the diversity of student needs.
PSBA: “12. Will the parochial and other private schools still be able to deny admission to voucher students who have poor academic records or a history of behavioral problems?”
Senate Bill 1 prohibits participating schools from accepting or rejecting students based on academic criteria. And again: For the last 10 years, thousands of students have left traditional public schools to attend private schools all across the Commonwealth thanks to scholarships provided by the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program. For 10 years, families have been seeking other educational options for their children in the state’s private religious and non-sectarian schools. For 10 years there has been no evidence of widespread cases of families being refused admittance. Why? Because when parents have control, they seek the school that is going to best meet their child’s individual educational needs. And as a result, there are all sorts of schools serving the diversity of student needs.
PSBA: “13. Since most parochial and other private school students do not take the PSSA, graduation tests or the same other tests public schools do, how will parents be able to evaluate where best to use a voucher for their student? Will the same data we publish about public schools be available for the private schools accepting voucher students? If not, why not?”
Many people, particularly policymakers, confuse rules and regulations with accountability. While it is true that public schools must adhere to many laws, this fact has failed to make schools answerable to the public. Simply forcing students to take state tests does not create accountability. In fact, the “underperforming schools” defined in SB 1 force students to take the PSSA-and a majority of students fail. Where is the accountability for these schools? Should they get more money, as the PSBA and PSEA claim is the problem.
As long as children are unable to escape a school that is failing to meet their needs, real accountability will never exist in the public school system. Giving parents choices in how and where their children are educated creates a level of accountability that no law will ever generate. It is this fundamental component that prevents public schools from being truly accountable to taxpayers, parents, and children.
In general, parents have their children’s best interests in mind, more so than does the government or even a caring teacher. Under the current system, parents lack control and influence over the education of their children. With choice, parents have the opportunity to remove their children from a poorly performing or otherwise unsatisfactory school and to place them in other schools. Schools that fail to respond to parental concerns will constantly face the prospect of losing students to other schools that do.
Private schools survive and thrive only because they attract and retain parents who are willing to pay for their children’s education, twice-once in taxes for schools they don’t use, and again in tuition for the school that is actually educating their children. Parents who are paying for their children’s education expect a return on their investment. So it is unnecessary to impose the government-run model on private schools as each school will supply the demands of parents-or they will eventually go out of business.
PSBA: “14. There seems to be an assumption that parochial and other private schools can do a better job, even with students from the worst socio-economic backgrounds. Have there been solid, peer-reviewed studies that substantiate that, or identify what it is that we think private schools do better or differently?”
Nine of the 10 “gold standard” evaluations of voucher programs reported statistically significant gains in achievement for all or some voucher recipients. Students who remain in public schools also benefit from school choice. According to the Center for Education Reform:
- Students in the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program posted graduation rates that were 18% above their public school peers. Additionally, students gained 3.1 months of additional learning in reading.
- Students who participated in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program for four years demonstrated significantly higher learning gains in math (11 percentage points) and reading (six percentage points) than their peers in conventional public schools. In addition, they graduated at a rate that was 18% higher than students in conventional public schools.
- Students who participated in the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program demonstrated a seven percentage point increase in reading scores and a 15 percentage point increase in math scores over their peers in conventional public schools.
- Low-income students participating in a Florida corporate voucher program are keeping pace with-and in many cases outpacing-all students nationwide (not just low-income children), despite the fact that the scholarships are a third of the cost of the per pupil expenditures in conventional schools.
PSBA: “15. Instead of vouchers, why not just do what it takes to make it possible for public schools to follow the same approaches that voucher advocates think make private schools more successful?”
Public schools should follow the successful models of private (or other public schools), and that’s one of the benefits of school choice. When parents can choose, public schools are forced to compete. This competition is improving those affected public schools.
- In 18 out of 19 academically rigorous studies, vouchers had a positive impact on public school districts. There has never been a single study demonstrating that scholarships have a negative impact on district school performance or their ability to raise funds.
- In Milwaukee schools facing the most competition–with two-thirds or more students eligible for vouchers–fourth-grade math test scores achieved an annual gain of 6.3 National percentile Rank (NPR) points over four years. In contrast, the schools facing no competition saw an annual gain of only 3.5 points.
- Seven empirical studies on voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., found that participating private schools are much less segregated than school districts.
PSBA: “16. Will voucher students have to take the same standardized tests to measure their progress as public school students? If not, how will the success of a voucher program be measured to see if the tax dollars spent are actually having a positive effect?”
Again: Private schools survive and thrive only because they attract and retain parents who are willing to pay for their children’s education, twice-once in taxes for schools they don’t use, and again in tuition for the school that is actually educating their children. Parents who are paying for their children’s education expect a return on their investment. So it is unnecessary to impose the government-run model on private schools as each school will supply the demands of parents-or they will eventually go out of business. On the other hand, public schools that provide all sorts of tests continue to get more tax dollars, and they never go out of business.
PSBA: “17. If there are institutional obstacles to the success of public schools, can’t the General Assembly and Governor legislatively remove such obstacles?”
Good question for the PSBA and PSEA that complain about “obstacles” all the time but do little to remove them. It’s always about more money and more time to fix what ails failing public schools. And for the past 15 years-since the last substantive debate over school choice-the General Assembly has given the public school system more money and more time. Indeed, Pennsylvania now spends more than $26 billion on public education and even when other state programs got cut, the public schools got more. Yet more money and more time has only condemned another generation of children to more difficult adult livelihoods.
PSBA: “18. Should public schools be able to manage their workforce, curriculum and other cost and administrative factors the same way that private schools can?”
PSBA: “19. Does the voucher program mean that we are giving up on the failing public schools voucher students will come from? What are we going to do for the students still in those public schools?”
Maintaining a failing school may provide jobs for adults, but they perform a disservice to the children in them. Failing public schools will either respond to the exodus of children choosing another school by making improvements, or they should be reconstituted and reorganized in a manner that allows them to compete in this new environment of school choice. One way or another, the children who choose to stay in those public schools will receive a better education.
PSBA: “20. Usually, when public money is spent, there are many accountability conditions attached, so that the public can determine whether the recipient of the money spent it in the manner intended, and for legitimate public purposes. What fiscal oversight will exist over the expenditure of voucher money? Will there be any way to see the budget or spending records of a non-public school so we can be sure that voucher money is not spent on inappropriate or unlawful things, or that it does not result in personal profit?”
Private schools already comply with essential government regulations. There is no basis in educational experience or research to suggest that regulation creates better schools; even so, private schools already provide essential fire and safety protection, observe compulsory attendance requirements, and cover core mandated subjects such as history, English, math, and science.
Just as important, however, is that school choice ensures that all schools are ultimately accountable to those who matter most-parents and students. Parents who have choices in education can “vote with their feet” by sending their children to another, better school when their current one is not serving their needs. Private schools are also subject to many of the same regulations as are public schools and are routinely held to the same or higher standards of performance than are the public schools by the parents who choose them for their children.
PSBA: “21. Should voucher students have to submit to mandatory religious instruction and religious exercises as a condition of attendance at a school accepting voucher students? Should they be permitted to opt out? How will that work if, as many religious schools say, the religious message is infused throughout the curriculum and not just in courses specifically focused on religious instruction?
Do we need to answer this again? Ok: For the last 10 years, thousands of students have left traditional public schools to attend private schools all across the Commonwealth thanks to scholarships provided by the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program. For 10 years, families have been seeking other educational options for their children in the state’s private religious and non-sectarian schools. For 10 years there has been almost no problem like this. Why? Because when parents have control, they seek the school that is going to best meet their child’s individual educational needs.
PSBA: “22. Will voucher schools still be able to dismiss voucher students based on academic failure, or will they have to keep on trying as long as tuition is paid via voucher?”
This question tries to give a caricature of how the private school system operates. Indeed, there is no evidence that private schools have a record of dismissing low-achieving students. There is evidence, however, that school districts ignore academic failure, and continue to promote students-even to the extent that more than half students graduate high school despite not being proficient in reading and math. The benefit of school choice is that a wide array of options open up for students who are academically challenged. Under the current system, the academically challenged student lacks alternatives. School choice just gives them an opportunity they are currently denied. And if a private school isn’t serving the educational needs of a child, the benefit of school choice is that they can now find another school that will.
PSBA: “23. Will voucher schools still be able to expel voucher students for misconduct without any hearings or other due process? Should non-public schools have to follow the same due process rules public schools do?”
Private schools have far greater incentives to work with parents and misbehaving students than do public schools-they lose 100% of the money when a child leaves. To suggest that private schools willy-nilly expel students is ignorant and has no basis in fact. Furthermore, the benefit of school choice is that children are able to find a better school to meet their needs rather than being trapped in one that doesn’t.
PSBA: “24. Who will have to educate students the non-public schools expel for misconduct, or for academic failure? Will that obligation fall back upon the school district of residence?”
The “obligation” for the education of children will always fall on parents, as it does now, such as when public schools expel students for disciplinary reasons. There are indeed many options for students expelled for disciplinary reasons-such as enrolling in another public or private school, cyber schooling, or homeschooling. Again, the benefit of school choice is that a wide array of options open up for students who are academically challenged. Under the current system, the academically challenged student lacks alternatives. School choice just gives them an opportunity they are currently denied.
PSBA: “25. Since non-public schools do not have to participate in free and reduced school lunch programs, will voucher students have to give that up?”
Here we go again: For the last 10 years, thousands of students have left traditional public schools to attend private schools all across the Commonwealth thanks to scholarships provided by the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program. For 10 years, low-income families have been seeking other educational options for their children in the state’s private religious and non-sectarian schools. For 10 years there has been almost no problem like this. Why? Because when parents have control, they seek the school that is going to best meet their child’s individual educational needs.
PSBA: “26. Will voucher students have to give up their rights under FERPA to confidentiality of their education records, and the right to review and seek correction of those records?”
Private schools also respect the privacy and ownership of student records.
PSBA: “27. We hear vouchers described as a “civil rights” issue. Weren’t vouchers used by southern states in the 1960s as a strategy to get around forced desegregation and forced busing? Isn’t it true that voucher advocates acknowledge that privatization of education is likely to result in increased segregation?”
Uh…no. In fact, voucher advocates, and researchers, believe vouchers will reduce segregation. Why? Because all the empirical evidence indicates so. Seven empirical studies on voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., found that participating private schools were much less segregated than public school districts. Rather, it is the public school system, assigning students to a school based on their zip code, which has resulted in increased segregation, trapping students in failing schools.
PSBA: “28. What about the civil rights that voucher students would have to give up in order to use a voucher, such as due-process, confidentiality, free speech, equal protection, disability accommodation and other rights? How does the legislation protect those things?
Private schools are currently required to follow the same laws and preserve individual rights to the same degree as public schools. And giving parents choice is among the best, if not only way, to ensure students’ and families’ rights are not infringed upon.
Schools are failing in the suburbs and rural areas as well. Don’t these children also deserve immediate relief?
An overlooked fact has been that SB 1 also expands the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) to $75 million for the scholarship portion (vs. about $46 million in FY 2010-11). The eligibility would be $60,000 + $12,000 per child and for anywhere in the state. That is, a family with four kids could receive an EITC scholarship with an income up to $108,000-that covers many Pennsylvania families.
Additionally, the scholarship program would be expanded to all low-income families beginning in year three, which represents about 30% of public school students statewide, and no fewer than 15% of students even in the most affluent counties of Pennsylvania. Further, the money saved on state education spending as and the benefits of competition will be felt in all income brackets and regions of the state.
Why should school choice be limited? Why can’t we get universal school choice for all families?
Many of the bill sponsors support full school choice, and want to see the dollars follow the child. But calls by parents for greater choice for their children are being drowned out by calls from professional lobbyists the public school employees union (PSEA) and the school boards association (PSBA). That is not to say that broader school choice could not pass. Changes to SB 1 could include a broader voucher program, a greater expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, or personal tax credits for parental expenses, like homeschooling.
The good news is that school choice programs have almost always expanded after they were initially created. The EITC program, for instance, grew under both Democrat and Republican control of both the legislative and executive branches.
What relief do parents of home school children receive? Zero – why?
Under SB 1, currently, there is no provision for home school families. This could be changed in the process, including a parental tax credit for educational expenses.
Does SB 1 force private schools to follow all the mandates imposed on public schools and No Child Left Behind?
No. SB 1 does not impose new mandates on private schools-though they would not be allowed administer academic exams for admission of scholarship students-and since no federal funding is involved, No Child Left Behind mandates and regulations do not apply.
Private schools would have to be “in full compliance with all federal and state laws” to participate. But this only applies the laws currently applying to non-public schools, and all places of business, such as health and safety rules. This does not impose the public school code or federal regulations on non-public schools.
Is SB 1 constitutional?
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will have jurisdiction over any legal issues or concerns of constitutionality, though voucher programs have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Pennsylvania case law permits the transfer of funds to parents for the purposes of exercising school choice. In other words, because scholarships are given to parents who then makes school choices, this money is not being given directly to private schools.
The Pennsylvania State Constitution states, “No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.” State General Fund revenue does not meet this definition as it is not raised for the purposes of funding public education. School district property taxes are raised for this purpose and that is why Senate Bill 1 involves only state funding for private schools, and not local tax property revenue.
Pennsylvania’s General Fund already includes line items directly funding private school students.
Isn’t SB 1 simply redistribution of wealth?
The current system of public school spending is already wealth redistribution, in particular when talking about state aid (and as mentioned above Senate Bill 1 scholarships are only state aid). State funding for public schools currently flows into areas based on district wealth and income, taxes, and (primarily) based on how much school districts received in past years.
The question is not whether we “redistribute wealth” but how best to provide a thorough system of education. Do we want to continue to prop up the existing public school system, or move to a system that delivers better education at lower costs to taxpayers. By giving parents greater control, SB 1 will improve the quality of education delivered-as nearly every study of school choice would indicate. And SB 1 improves the efficiency of our how we spend taxpayer dollars, as vouchers and EITC scholarship education children for substantially less than the $13,000 per pupil our school districts spend today.
Not only does SB1 allow kids to use a voucher to find a better school, it costs on a fraction of what taxpayers are currently paying for failure. In Harrisburg, where the taxpayers are paying $17,675 per kid for failure, the voucher would be worth $8,828. So a kid uses only half as much taxpayer money to attend a better school. This is good news for the taxpayer. Of course, it is now incumbent on the Harrisburg school board to return the remaining $8,847 to its rightful owners-the taxpayers. And there is a much better chance of getting nine school board members to return that money to its citizens than there is in getting the 253 members of the General Assembly to do it.
Will SB1 increase private school tuition?
Children using vouchers in private schools will make up only a fraction of the student body. This means that many more parents will be paying some level of tuition. Any “reactionary increase” would drive out paying customers-many of whom are already subsidizing others who may be getting tuition assistance. Indeed, if low-income students use vouchers-and are no longer in need of receiving subsidized tuition by those paying the full tuition rate-tuition could actually go down, rather than up.
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For more on School Choice, visit CommonwealthFoundation.org/SchoolChoice
The Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org) is an independent, non-profit research and educational institute.