By Lawrence A. Feinberg
In support of Pennsylvania's Senate Bill 1, which would provide taxpayer-funded vouchers to private schools, voucher evangelists have been citing a report by the Foundation for Educational Choice, "A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on How Vouchers Affect Public Schools." However, a review of the report by the National Education Policy Center finds no credible evidence that vouchers have improved student achievement.
Located at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the National Education Policy Center aims to provide high-quality information on education policy. Its review found that the "Win-Win" report, "based on a review of 17 studies, selectively reads the evidence in some of those studies, the majority of which were produced by voucher advocacy organizations.
"Moreover, the report can't decide whether or not to acknowledge the impact of factors other than vouchers on public schools. It attempts to show that public school gains were caused by the presence of vouchers alone, but then argues that the lack of overall gains for districts with vouchers should be ignored because too many other factors are at play." The review goes on to note that "existing research provides little reliable information about the competitive effects of vouchers, and this report does little to help answer the question."
Voucher proponents tout the supposed benefits of competition, but the playing field is not even close to level. The state's public schools operate under the bureaucratic weight of the Pennsylvania School Code's thousand pages (also created by the legislature) and another thousand pages of No Child Left Behind requirements. They face a virtual army of special-education attorneys with another thousand pages of laws. They are subject to right-to-know and sunshine laws. And they must bear the costs of complying with all of them.
Religious and other private schools are relatively unaffected by any of this red tape, rendering the notion of fair competition ludicrous.
Public schools are required to accept and expected to educate every student who shows up, regardless of economic status, English proficiency, disabilities, or behavioral problems. It's the law.
Here's where "choice" really comes in: Private schools can choose to accept or reject any prospective student, and they can choose which students they retain or expel.
S.B. 1 demands accountability, but only from traditional public schools. While voucher proponents hold the accountability banner high, accusing high-poverty public schools of failing, there is no accountability whatsoever imposed under this bill's voucher scheme. It would allow private schools to receive tax dollars without being accountable for students' academic performance, requiring no standardized tests and making no scores available to the public.
Nor does the bill impose any accountability for how private schools spend tax dollars. There would be no transparency, public budgets, or right to know.
Meanwhile, S.B. 1 would dismantle neighborhood schools by siphoning off motivated students and parents, leaving behind a truly concentrated population of failing students, including those who are less motivated, "hard to educate," disabled, troubled, and able to speak little English. S.B. 1 offers absolutely nothing to help those students or improve their schools.
Ultimately, S.B. 1 and its so-called opportunity scholarships would provide our state legislators with an opportunity to wash their hands of their responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education for all.