PA Education ‘Reform’ Hurts Poorest Schools

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story yesterday about “Voucher Sunday,” when the Philadelphia archdiocese organized students, teachers, and parents to urge their fellow parishioners to lobby the state government to pass school voucher legislation. Putting aside discussions of a spiritual institution acting as a special interest lobbying for state funding, there are serious flaws with the legislation for which the Roman Catholic Church is pushing.

A little background: the legislation in question is Senate Bill 1, which, among other assorted provisions, would provide vouchers for low income children in the 143 lowest-performing schools in Pennsylvania (and since bill numbers are often reserved for specific legislation for symbolic purposes, you can bet SB1 was meant to imply that the Senate Republicans’ main priority was education reform). The bill passed the PA Senate in October (27-22), then moved to the PA House, where it currently sits.

One of the most obvious concerns about SB1 is its constitutionality. The Pennsylvania Constitution expressly prohibits public funding of religious schools in Article III, Section 15:

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.

It would seem obvious that providing families with funds with which to pay tuition at a religious school would violate this prohibition, but the bill nevertheless cleared the Senate. Even without this constitutional ban, one could debate the wisdom of allowing public support of a religious institution — especially in light of the fact that Pennsylvania was originally colonized by religious dissidents seeking asylum from state-sponsored religion.

But putting aside these more basic questions of the proper roles of religion and government in society, SB1 is simply bad public policy. The first indication is that SB1′s funding scheme differs from that of most (if not all) other voucher programs in the country. I explained the problem in a letter to the editor published in the Inquirer in October:

In other states that use voucher schemes, the vouchers are funded out of the state’s general fund. This bill, in contrast, provides no new funds. Instead, it takes money that is already going to schools and ties it to students. So, if a student leaves a school, that school loses the funding associated with that child.

 

Some students may escape their desperate plight, but many others will not. Schools are under no obligation to accept transfer students, and will likely take only a limited number. The vast majority of poor children will then be forced to watch as crucial resources drain away from the cash-strapped, impoverished schools that need it most.

Estimates for the cost of each voucher range between $7,000 and $9,000. The problem is that public schools will not be saving this amount each time a child leaves. Much of a school’s cost is locked in: heat, electricity, water, and the cost of upkeep, for example.

With that in mind, consider also that the bill’s fiscal note assumed that only a tiny portion of eligible students will actually participate. And the bill is structured so that even if many children use vouchers, like advocates claim, the amount of voucher money each child will receive decreases as the number of children participating in the plan increases. That is, the more popular the program becomes, the less it will help children, unless the General Assembly increases funding for it.

But, at the moment, it is doubtful that many kids will participate at all.

There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, there are various costs associated with private schools that would likely rule out some low income children. For instance, the vouchers only cover tuition up until a certain dollar amount, so parents will have to pay for any tuition above that level. Also, no school is under any obligation to accept a voucher student. So, even if we were to ignore estimates of low participation rates and assume that most children would apply for a voucher, many students would be turned away (the Education Law Center estimates only 9 percent of eligible applicants would actually be able to use their voucher). After all, there are only so many desks in a classroom. This, too, would keep the number of students who would potentially benefit from SB1 low.

Additionally, the bill does not bar schools from discriminating in their voucher acceptance policies based on refusal to participate in religious ceremonies or sexual orientation. This would seem to be a large omission for a program that is trumpeted as providing equality of opportunity for all students, and, again, raises questions of whether a government should incentivize specific religious affiliations over others.

Finally, it is worth noting that the children who look likely to benefit the most are those already attending private or religious schools. The Education Law Center estimated that around 60 percent of vouchers would go to children whose families are already paying for them to have a nonpublic education. This directly contradicts the idea that these vouchers represent an ‘opportunity scholarship’ for children who would otherwise be trapped in the public schooling system — indeed, they would be little more than a subsidy for families already in private or religious schools.

To be sure, many children are trapped in underfunded, failing schools. But this bill would not remedy that. Instead, it would take public dollars away from the poorest public schools in order to subsidize children in nonpublic schools. Furthermore, it would actually keep children trapped children in those poorer schools as it drains them of resources.

All of this adds up to a situation in which an extremely small number of students benefit while the vast majority of their peers bear the cost. There are many educational reforms worth pursuing, such as those that aim to elevate the teaching profession and lure the best and the brightest into the classroom, while handing control back to schools and teachers. Unfortunately, SB1 — which defunds schools at the expense of the many, for the benefit of a few — is not one such reform.

SUGGESTED READING

U.S. v. the world in education reform,” Christopher Moraff.

Reforming education: The great schools revolution,” Economist.

Tough Choices or Tough Times,” National Center on Education and the Economy.

Voucher Proposal Raises Many Questions,” PA State Senator Daylin Leach (D-17).

PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] 2009 at a Glance,” Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Measuring Inequity in School Funding,” Center for American Progress.

The Education Law Center’s Position on Senate Bill 1,” The Education Law Center.



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