WASHINGTON — There was good news and bad news last month for advocates of school choice, which allows low-income families to choose private schools for their children and receive public funding.
The good news came in Indiana, whose state Supreme Court resoundingly upheld a 2011 voucher law that supported 9,300 students in private schools state wide, including 3,919 in Catholic parochial schools.
The bad news came in the U.S. Senate, where every Democrat and six Republicans voted down an amendment to a spending bill that would have earmarked $14.5 billion in federal money for poor parents to pay private-school tuition for their children.
On March 26, the Supreme Court of Indiana unanimously upheld a constitutional challenge to a two-year-old law providing up to $4,500 per student per year towards private elementary-school tuition — and more for high school.
It ruled that the state constitutional bans on public funding of religious schools did not apply to vouchers because the students were the primary beneficiaries, not the schools, and that the ban was intended for seminaries, not schools engaged in general education.
“The reasoning they followed was very interesting,” commented John Schoenig, the director of the University of Notre Dame’s Program for Educational Access. “It could be followed by legislators in other states seeking to draft laws that would pass judicial scrutiny.”
The decision, said Schoenig, matches “what state legislators have been realizing over the past five years: that the best thing you can do for underachieving and disadvantaged children is provide as many educational choices as possible, both within the public system and outside it.”
Catholic schools comprise a big proportion of private schools with tuitions low enough to be covered by school-choice programs. Schoenig said Notre Dame’s program currently has 180 teachers in place in Catholic schools, earning master's deegrees in education while specializing in the teaching of underachieving children.
“As Catholics, we support school choice because of our solidarity with the poor and because the Church believes so strongly in parental choice,” said Schoenig.
Sixteen states now have at least one school-choice program, while several have two or more; nearly 250,000 students — an all-time high — were enrolled in schools through such programs for the 2012-2013 school year, according to the Alliance for School Choice.
Though widely supported in the African-American community, other key Democratic constituencies such as public-school teachers' unions and advocates of secularism, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, oppose vouchers vehemently.
There are two main reasons for rejecting school choice, according to Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and co-chair of the National Coalition for Public Education.
First, she said, “They don’t work.” She claimed that studies about the cities of Washington and Milwaukee’s voucher programs indicated “voucher students did no better than public-school peers in English and math for five years running.”
Second, “80% of voucher money goes to religious schools.” A practicing Lutheran herself, Garrett explained, “A lot of people don’t want their tax money paying to teach a religion they don’t believe in. If people want an alternative ideology taught to their children, there is no reason why the public should pay for it.”
The Indiana Supreme Court obviously disagreed with Garrett’s second argument, but courts in some other states have ruled differently. In Florida, for example, a successful voucher program was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2006, but that state has remained a leader in providing school choice because proponents put their efforts behind a replacement tax-credit scholarship program that now supports 50,000 students, half of them below or near the poverty line.
John East, the vice president of Step Up for Students, the organization running the tax-credit program, said that, while his own program was too young to have measurable outcomes to boast about, the results from school-choice programs, including those in Milwaukee and Washington, are actually positive, contrary to Garrett’s claims.
According to the Alliance for School Choice, New York City “choice” students were 24% more likely to enroll in college, Washington students had a 20% higher high-school graduation rate, and Milwaukee participants had a 6% higher rate of graduation.
“The proof is not so much how they do in achievement tests, but in graduation rates,” said East.
In Florida, as in many other states, support for school choice is increasingly bipartisan and non-partisan, as African-American pastors' associations and ad-hoc parents-rights groups line up behind the legislation.
That kind of broadening support at the state level gives continued hope at the national level, despite the latest congressional setback.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee senator who spearheaded the defeated amendment that would have let the parents of 11 million poor children decide where $14.5 billion in educational funding should go, isn’t giving up on the idea.
The Republican plan would have made available up to $1,300 per student in Title 1 money, directed by the federal government to public-school systems for the benefit of low-income children, to be spent at their parents’ schools of choice.
According to a source at Alexander’s office, he still hopes to pass a school-choice measure sometime this year.
That won’t be an easy objective to achieve. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives should be supportive of such a Senate move, but, along with making inroads among Democratic senators, any federal school-choice funding initiative must overcome strong resistance to the concept within the Obama administration and among important Democratic political constituencies, such as the powerful teachers’ unions.
Still, according to John Schilling, the chief operating officer of the Alliance for School Choice, it was encouraging that so many Republican senators proved willing to openly challenge the existing Title 1 funding formula. Though ostensibly aimed at low-income students, critics say Title 1 money gets absorbed by unresponsive public-school systems that spend the federal funds in ways that fail many of the children they are supposed to assist.
“What happened was disappointing,” Schilling acknowledged of the late March setback in the Senate. “But heck, yeah, we expect the bipartisan support at the grassroots to spread to the Democrats in the Senate too.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.