Legislators in at least 30 states introduced school voucher bills this year that would allow students to take the public money set aside for their public education and “spend” it in private schools. It’s the largest rush of such policy proposals ever, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, the AP reported. The surge was enabled in part by new Republican majorities that have taken hold of state legislatures in the past year.
In 2010, just nine voucher bills were debated in state legislatures, less than a third of this year’s volume. As of July, 28 states had also considered offering tax breaks to students who enroll in private schools.
Indiana’s voucher law, passed this year, is the most notable—and it offers both vouchers and tax breaks for private education. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels aggressively pushed for the law, which would allow families who qualify to receive up to $4,500 a year if they send their child to a private school. It will allow 7,500 students in its first year, 15,000 the second and an unlimited number of students in its third to take advantage of the program.
While school vouchers have been traditionally promoted as a tool for low-income students, Indiana’s new law enables students from middle class backgrounds to take advantage of the vouchers. The law is estimated to eventually allow 60 percent of Indiana families to spend public dollars on private education.
“What we’re seeing now is building momentum in preparation for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind,” said Karen Hunter Quartz, an education professor at UCLA. The educational philosophy embedded within No Child Left Behind asserts that we can improve public education by expanding the role of private entities like charter schools and voucher-supported private schools.
“There’s an idea that something’s wrong with public schools and that they shouldn’t have a monopoly on young people’s education and therefore families should be able to opt out,” Quartz said. “This has been the larger political aim of NCLB all along.”
School vouchers are a reflection of a particular approach to thinking about education, in which parents and students are consumers and schools are marketplaces, and they’re just one of the many popular market-based policy options being pushed by the mainstream school reform movement. Vouchers are similar to policies that weaken teacher tenure and tie teachers’ job security to their students’ test scores and encourage the creation of charter schools in that they borrow ideas from the business world with the stated intent of bettering public education. With vouchers, the idea is that families can exercise their power as consumers by taking their cash to the best schools and that this competitiveness will force underperforming schools to improve.
“The metaphor is really flawed,” Quartz said. “School is a public institution. It’s a public good, so when we’re trying to figure out how to talk about improving public education, I don’t think the comparison to financial markets helps very well or very much.”
Still, Quartz acknowledged that school vouchers have a particular allure to them, especially for parents who’ve been taken in by education films like “Waiting for Superman,” which pitch a market-based reform philosophy as the solution to the U.S.’s struggling system.
“There’s a large majority of proponents for vouchers who are just at the end of their rope,” Quartz said. “They see these films, or see public media attention against teacher unions and the cultural dialogue against public schooling and they don’t know what to do.”
Still, school vouchers have been found to lead to no measurable improvement on student achievement when compared to students who don’t use vouchers. The most recent (roundup of research) was released by the Center for Education Policy in July. Part of the difficulty of measuring the impact of school vouchers comes from the difficulty of isolating variables when many of the schools and students that are impacted are also the target of other school reform efforts. Still, the CEP said there isn’t conclusive evidence that shows vouchers actually improve educational outcomes. The CEP highlighted a voucher program in Milwaukee for low-income students, where test score gains over the course of three years were about the same for those who used vouchers and for those who didn’t. And yet, states are increasingly pushing for these policies in their states.