In a blog entry last week, “I’m rethinking my opposition to school vouchers. Convince me,” Nicole Stockdale, the assistant editorial page editor at the Dallas Morning News, said she is grappling with whether to support school vouchers.
What stimulated Nicole’s dilemma is a bill in the Texas Legislature to allow low-income families to use tax credit scholarships (often referred to as school vouchers) to pay private school tuition and fees. She deserves a serious reply to her challenge, and, given I am president of a Florida nonprofit that administers the country’s largest tax credit scholarship program for low-income children, I thought I’d try.
Nicole identified three traditional anti- school vouchers arguments she wanted help refuting:
By allowing low-income students to have the same schooling options as more affluent students aren’t we delaying the process of improving ineffective district schools?
This is not an either-or proposition. All schools should be engaged in continual improvement, but this is not a rationale for denying low-income families access to additional schooling options.
Researchers studying Florida’s tax credit scholarship program found urban district schools improved when our program was first introduced. They hypothesized that the possibility of losing students caused these district schools to focus more attention on meeting the needs of low-income students. This same study also found the district schools most impacted by the loss of scholarship students – Florida now has about 51,000 high-poverty students on scholarship – had proportionally higher test score gains among their own low-income students.
So in Florida we’ve found that both the low-income students on scholarship and the low-income students who remain in district schools are improving at the same time. This finding confirms that different students are successful in different environments, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for helping students learn. The relationship between the school and the child is the key. That’s why allowing all parents – including low-income parents – to match their children with the schools that best meet their needs is so necessary.
What about students who don’t choose to attend magnet, charter or private schools? Will we end up with non-magnet district schools comprised only of students from apathetic families?
Researchers have found Florida’s tax credit scholarships attract some of the state’s highest poverty and lowest-performing students. In essence, our program does the opposite of creaming.
Many of the students we attract have been suspended repeatedly for misbehaving and are several years below grade level academically. These are students who are causing trouble for their teachers and school administrators, and this is why their caregivers are seeking alternatives. Low-income parents whose children are being successful in their assigned district school don’t go to the trouble of applying for tax credit scholarships and finding new schools.
If Texas school boards and teacher associations cared about keeping highly-engaged families in neighborhood schools, they would be fighting to close magnet schools since these are the programs most likely to cause highly-engaged families to leave their assigned schools. But magnet schools don’t adversely impact the market share of school districts or teacher associations, and protecting their market share is the primary reason they don’t want low-income families to have the same school choice options as affluent families.
When low-income families use a voucher or tax credit scholarship to attend a private school, their assigned neighborhood school loses the funding to educate their child. Doesn’t this hurt their assigned school?
Whenever children leave their assigned neighborhood schools to attend magnet schools, charter schools, home schools or private schools, their neighborhood schools lose the funding associated with educating them. The only way to end this is to eliminate school choice and require all children to attend their assigned neighborhood school. This is never going to happen, nor should it. But if Texas school boards and teacher associations can pass a law mandating that affluent children attend their assigned district school, then I’ll reconsider my support for tax credit scholarships for low-income children.
I support tax credit scholarships for low-income families because I am a liberal Democrat who believes in equal opportunity. All children, regardless of family income, should have access to the schools that best meet their needs.
Tax credit scholarships for low-income students won’t eliminate the inequalities that permeate public education, but they help. And this is why these scholarships deserve your support Nicole.