Voucher and Charter Schools, a Slight of Hand or the Key to Better Education?

As Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, plots and plans the future funding of our public schools, we should take a look at the system she wants to install, vouchers and charter schools.  

Currently, there are 14 states, and the District of Columbia, that have voucher systems. They include: Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi,  North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont and Wisconsin. Each state has adopted it’s own standards for eligibility with some targeting funding for students with disabilities and all targeting students from lower-income households.

The motivation for states to turn to the voucher program has been driven by the idea that providing parents with a “choice” outside the public school system will enable students to recieve a better suited education, and thus a better turn out of test scores. Proponents of this system believed this would foster competition to motivate public schools to improve their curriculum and render a better education for all students through choice and competition.

After analyzing 25 years of research, Stanford professor Martin Carnoy found the voucher programs do not show signs of a significant improvement in test scores.  According to Carnoy, “In the few cases in which test scores increased, other factors, namely increased public accountability, not private school competition, seem to be more likely drivers. “ Carnoy took at look at the Milwaukee area, with it’s large and long-standing voucher program, and found that it showed no evidence of increased scores in either the private or the public school sectors. Carnoy noted, “ Milwaukee has been a totally “choice” school district for almost 20 years—students can select among traditional public schools, public magnet schools, charter schools (if places are available), and, if eligible, private voucher schools.”

With only one in four students attending their assigned neighborhood school, Carnoy concluded, “If choice has a significant positive impact on student achievement, Milwaukee should be among the highest scoring urban school districts in the nation where private out-perform the public and public, due to competition, have increased scores.“ However,  data on test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows black eighth-graders in 13 urban school districts of Milwaukee who received 70 percent of all the vouchers had lower math scores than students in all the cities within the study except Detroit, which also has a high level of “school choice”.  In cases where improvements did occur, Carnoy attributed the increase to public accountability, not vouchers. Why? Prior to private schools being required to test and publicly post scores, no significant increase appeared among voucher students. Researchers concluded that private schools were motivated to alter instruction toward material that might appear on the test.

Charter schools aren’t proving to be any better than the voucher program. Along with a lack of improvement in student test scores, charter schools across the country are ripe with fraudulent practices. Three non-profit groups, the Center for Popular Democracy, The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Institute and Public Advocates Inc, issued a report in 2015 on the California charter school system, one of the largest in the country. California’s Financial Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) revealed a wide range of inappropriate self-dealing by charter school staff of thousands of public dollars. Without regulator-level audits that show whether public dollars are spent properly, FCMAT determined that California’s charter school operators have cost the public $81,400,000 in fraud, waste and abuse. Because a majority of charter schools are authorized by local districts that lack adequate funding, detecting fraud and maintaining oversight cannot be effectively monitored, and without further mandates for better auditing practices, it is unlikely this problem will go away anytime soon.

Which leads us to some of the hidden costs of voucher programs and charter schools. Along with increased costs due to charter school fraud, they have created segregation, caused a loss of funding for public schools, increased costs to accommodate additional students due to school closures,  added additional record-keeping expenses, increased costs for transportation, and increased expenses for resolving disputes. The cost increases associated with just voucher programs are estimated to impact the educational system by 25% or more.

Research has shown there are far better methods for improving schools than trying to establish competition through voucher programs and charter schools. Early childhood education (Pre-K), after school and summer programs for teacher training, improvements in students health and nutrition are all areas shown to strengthen public schools. The voucher programs or charter schools appear more and more to be a diversion from solving the program of better public school for all of our children.