What About School Vouchers? (Guest Post)
Since we’ve been discussing the frustration of some parent who have unacceptable neighborhood schools but didn’t hit the CPS lottery, I’m posting this interesting and informative write-up from HSObsessed….
School Vouchers Coming to CPS?
The school voucher issue is going to be heating up again soon. Former mayoral candidate and Illinois state senator James Meeks is a strong proponent of getting a pilot program running in Chicago, as a testing ground for further expansion elsewhere in the state. Last spring, the Illinois Senate passed a school voucher bill, but it was voted down in the House. Now the bill has been resurrected and is heading for another look-see by our lawmakers.
Voucher Pros and Cons
Under a school voucher program, qualified public school students can opt to “take” their education money and use it to pay for private school.
Supporters say that too many public schools have failed, and that private schools do the job better, for less money. They argue that vouchers give families a chance to vote with their feet if their local school isn’t up to par, and they force public schools to compete and improve.
Opponents say that public money should not be given to private schools, especially in these tough financial times. They say that sending money to religiously affiliated schools is an endorsement of religion by the government. People have pointed out that the amount of the vouchers is too low to cover the full cost of tuition at many private schools, so it doesn’t help families who can’t afford to pay the balance. Some worry that vouchers encourage the skimming off of students away from public schools, making the situation even worse for those left behind. Finally, critics decry that vouchers do nothing to address the root problem that failing schools exist in the first place.
The Proposed Program for CPS
Since I hate talking in generalities and prefer facts and details, I downloaded the proposed bill and read it so you don’t have to. (But if you want to: IL Senate Bill 1932.) It’s 143 pages long, with 11 pages of meaty bits and rest boring stuff involving the tax code and school funding formulas.
The specifics of how it would work: This would be a voucher program for the city of Chicago only, a test program for two school years, followed by an evaluation of its status. I can’t find the voucher amount specified in the current bill, but it was reported last year that the amount would be $3,700 per child. Eligible students are those enrolled in K-8th grade at a CPS school that is either in the lowest 10 percent of performance (as measured by kids meeting or exceeding standards on the ISATs), OR those who are enrolled at a school that is considered in the 5 percent most overcrowded in Chicago and that have student populations that are 70 percent or more low income. Approximately 30,000 students would qualify. The bill mentions briefly that the eligible child’s parents or custodians will have to verify household income, so I assume there will be a cap.
The bill also says that private schools (religious and not) will have to register with the state to receive vouchers. They are not required to accept the voucher money as full payment for tuition, but they are not allowed to charge voucher students for additional tuition at a higher rate than other students. Participating schools are required to give voucher students the same annual performance measurement tests (I’m assuming the ISATs) as if they were in public school. They have to disclose the testing data and report attendance. If a child is expelled or moves out of the CPS boundaries, the school must pay back a prorated amount they received for the voucher.
There aren’t many successful voucher programs already in place in the U.S., and Chicago would be the largest school system to implement one. However, a long-running voucher program that is doing well is right across the Wisconsin border. Milwaukee’s 20-year-old program provides vouchers of $6,442 per eligible student, and it now serves 20,000 students attending 102 non-public schools. A family of four must have a HHI of less than $38,937 on entering the voucher program. Participating schools must admit all voucher students and use a random selection process if applicants exceed spaces. The law also specifies that students must be allowed to opt out of religious activity. (Neither of those last two items appear to be a part of the proposed Illinois bill at this time, but there’s plenty of time for amendments to be made.)
Supporters of vouchers point to a 2002 US Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of a Cleveland school district voucher system (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris). The court ruled narrowly (5-4) that the Cleveland vouchers did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”) The court said that even though taxpayer money was eventually given to religiously affiliated schools, enrolling their children at those schools was a decision freely made by parents participating in the voucher system, and it was one option of many; therefore, there was no endorsement of religion.
My Take (HSObsessed)
My first thought on reading the parameters about who would be eligible made me think they’re on the right track to making sure that the program would help those who need it most. These vouchers will not be something that middle class families can obtain as a way of subsidizing the private education that they had planned for their children any way.
Upon hearing the $3,700 figure, I initially scoffed that the money wouldn’t go very far in Chicago. I also wondered whether there were enough private options in the neighborhoods that have the lowest performing public schools, because traveling to a far-flung private school might create logistical barriers. However, a brief look into both issues was encouraging. An internet search revealed that there are dozens of private schools in all areas of the city, and the going tuition rate appears to be at or below $3,700. For example, Bethune is a low-performing public elementary on the west side near Douglas Park, and a child who receives a voucher could attend nearby St. Agatha Catholic Academy a few blocks away for $2,600 per year.
Finally, I don’t think this will actually cost the state or CPS any extra money. I can’t claim to fully understand the nuances of school funding in Illinois, but It seems like merely a reallocation from some CPS schools to private schools. The “voucher schools” would lose kids to the private system and would have to adjust their budgets and staff accordingly. Fixed costs like the principal’s salary and utilities would remain for a while, until school consolidations occurred over time. But since a minimum of $6,100 is currently spent per child for public education, but we would only provide $3,700 per voucher, it seems like we would have $2,400 to fund those inefficiencies until it was all sorted out.
So will you support or oppose this legislation?