Using taxpayer dollars to fund charter schools and subsidize voucher programs is on every state’s legislative agenda. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia now offer a range of public and private school choice programs. Communities look to school leaders as “experts” who can clearly explain education topics. Here is a guide for secondary principals on how to answer stakeholders’ questions about school choice.
Question: What’s the fuss about school choice and vouchers?
Answer: School choice advocates want to give parents more options about how and where to educate their children using taxpayer dollars. By contrast, critics say charter schools and voucher programs do not have good academic outcomes and undermine public schools.
Question: What are charter schools?
Answer: Charter schools are public schools that receive a specific amount of taxpayer funding for each student. Charters claim to offer more innovation and higher performance than traditional public schools in exchange for taxpayer dollars and less regulation and oversight. School districts, nonprofits, or for-profit companies run charters.
Question: How popular are charter schools?
Answer: The United States has more than 6,700 charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia, enrolling more than 7 percent of K–12 students.
Question: How effective are charter schools at fostering student achievement and managing funds?
Answer: Research on charter schools’ effectiveness finds:
- Charter schools have wide state-by-state (and city-by-city) differences in student achievement.
- Many charter students are not achieving as well as their peers in traditional public schools; many are performing worse.
- States with higher accountability standards and enforcement tend to generate higher charter student achievement.
- Privately run charters have high risks of financial mismanagement.
Although individual charters and certain charter networks have been very effective in advancing high student achievement, most charter schools are performing no better—and many much worse—than traditional public schools. High school graduation rates, years of postsecondary schooling, and measures of parental satisfaction may be stronger indicators of student success than academic achievement.
Question: What are vouchers?
Answer: Vouchers—sometimes called “funded scholarships”—are certificates for a fixed amount of public subsidy that parents use to enroll their child in any private, religious, or virtual school that accepts vouchers. The voucher amount—valued between $2,500 and $7,500—is part of what the state spends per pupil for a particular school district. Currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia operate one or more voucher programs.
Question: How successful are vouchers in helping students achieve?
Answer: Extensive research over 25 years shows that vouchers do little to increase student achievement. Recent voucher studies show students learning less and performing lower than their traditional public-school peers.
Question: Why are vouchers so controversial?
- Private schools that enroll voucher students lack fiscal or academic accountability.
- Since many states’ constitutions prohibit funding religious institutions, voucher programs face legal challenges in state courts.
- Because tuition at many private schools is higher than the voucher amount, many moderate and low-income parents cannot afford to use them.
- Many vouchers subsidize families that can already afford private school tuition, a situation that often increases social, economic, and racial stratification.
- Many rural families cannot use vouchers because few education options exist apart from public schools.
Question: If vouchers are so unpopular (or even unconstitutional), how are states able to keep using taxpayer dollars to fund private-school tuition?
Answer: Voucher innovations—education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, and portability—allow legislators to skirt these controversies. Education savings accounts (ESAs, also known as education scholarship accounts or individualized education accounts) are fiscal programs into which the state sets aside taxpayer money—usually all or nearly all of the state’s per pupil dollars—into individual (bank) accounts for participating K–12 students. Parents can withdraw these dollars to spend on approved educational expenses, including private and parochial school tuition, home schooling, curriculum materials, standardized-test fees, transportation, or educational therapy. Parents can roll over unused ESA funds for future education costs. Five states have ESA programs.
Tax-credit scholarships (TCS)—also called education tax credits, tuition tax-credit programs, or “neo-vouchers”—allow individuals or corporations (or both) to receive state income-tax credits for making donations to nonprofit tuition organizations that issue K–12 scholarships to attend approved private schools. Donors deduct their contribution’s value—in some cases the full amount—from their taxable incomes. In this way, would-be tax dollars avoid going into state treasuries altogether. Seventeen states have TCS programs.
Question: Who gets to use these voucher alternatives?
Answer: Each state sets its own eligibility standards. Some ESAs and TCSs are geared toward low- or middle-income families or students living in “low-achieving” school zones. Others come without income restrictions or strictly enforced eligibility. ESAs and TCSs often underwrite families with the means to pay private-school tuition.
Question: Are ESAs and TCSs popular?
Answer: They have their proponents and critics. Legally, state courts have ruled neo-vouchers constitutional because public monies go directly to parents, only indirectly to religious schools. By contrast, ESA and TCS critics point to the low transparency and accountability for academic and fiscal performance of private schools accepting taxpayer funds; the resources diverted from public schools; and the increased socioeconomic and racial segregation.
Question: What is “portability,” and how does it affect students and schools?
Answer: Portability refers to federal legislation that allows states to use Title I or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grants as vouchers to follow eligible low-income students or students with disabilities, respectively, to their public or private schools of choice.
Portability of Title I or IDEA funds can hurt students. Currently, school districts can concentrate Title I funds in high-poverty schools, magnifying their impact. Portability, by contrast, is “Robin Hood in reverse”—removing the extra academic resources and supports from children who need them to succeed academically and sending the dollars to low-poverty schools. Under existing law, students with disabilities who attend private schools lose a range of legal protections and services—from having IEPs written to limiting out-of-school suspensions. If the child needs extra services beyond the voucher amount, parents pay out of pocket. This helps explain why just over 1 percent of students with disabilities—as compared with 10 percent of school-aged children overall—attend private schools.
Question: How do charters and vouchers (by whatever name) impact communities and public schools?
Answer: Charters and vouchers divert limited resources away from essential public services. Thirty TCS programs across 20 states currently redirect a total of over $1 billion per year away from state treasuries and toward private schools, making them unavailable for police, firefighters, or infrastructure. Voucher programs in Indiana and Milwaukee have caused multimillion-dollar deficits and tax increases. In Georgia, the average TCS distributed to private schools has cost the state more than two times what it would spend per pupil to attend public school. School choice also harms public schools’ fiscal health. Salaries, curriculum materials, and facilities maintenance are fixed costs, to a point. As students leave for charter or private schools, costs per students remaining rise. As public school enrollments drop, districts may have to reduce excess capacity by dismissing teachers and administrative staff, increasing class sizes, and consolidating or closing schools. This impels a downward cycle of cost cutting that weakens their academic programs, jeopardizes districts’ creditworthiness, and prompts families to leave. The public schools’ share of special-needs students—who cost more to educate (without adequate reimbursement)—tend to stay. A 2015 study found that districts had a difficult time keeping the public schools solvent as the charter enrollment threshold increased from 5 percent to 25 percent of resident students.
Question: Why should we care about public schools?
Answer: One of government’s most important functions is to maintain an infrastructure of high-quality public education. Taxpayer dollars invested in preK–12 public education prepare young people with the knowledge and skills they need for economic and civic participation. Public education ensures every child’s fair access to educational opportunities, rewards efforts and talents, and helps each move beyond his or her circumstances. Education is a public good; it is not a business. Prioritizing effective public schools—not privatizing education—is in our children’s and communities’ best interests.
Leslie S. Kaplan, EdD, is a former NASSP Virginia Assistant Principal of the Year, retired secondary school assistant principal, and current education writer. William A. Owings, EdD, is a former high school principal, assistant superintendent, and district superintendent of schools. He is currently professor of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.