Will the Proposed SB1 School Voucher Program Further Erode Failing-School Communities?

The Following op-ed article by Larry Feinberg appeared in Monday’s issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer. http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20110221_Pa__s_unaccountable_voucher_bill.html

Lawrence A. Feinberg is a school board member in Haverford Township, the chairman of the Delaware County School Boards Legislative Council, and a co-chairman of the Keystone State Education Coalition.

In the past, Larry has contributed comments to Community Matters. As we know (and as Larry reminds us), in its present state, the SB1 school voucher bill does not require accountability from private or parochial schools.  Our understanding is that Sen. Andy Dinniman is addressing that aspect of the bill and suggests that accountability needs to be included as an amendment.  As I have previously stated, I am unclear how student testing and accountability will be possible in a private school setting. 

In his opinion article, Larry speaks of the failing-school community . . .  

“S.B. 1 would dismantle neighborhood schools by siphoning off motivated students and parents, leaving behind a truly concentrated population of failing students, including those who are less motivated, “hard to educate,” disabled, troubled, and able to speak little English. S.B. 1 offers absolutely nothing to help those students or improve their schools.”

Larry makes an important, and often over-looked point, that may be inherent in the proposed school voucher program. . . the erosion or the ‘dismantling’ of a failing-school community when families and students opt out of the local public school.  Isn’t there a real possibility that a school voucher program  could cause further deterioration in a failing-school community, even beyond the walls of the local public school?

PA’s Unaccountable School Voucher Bill
By Lawrence A. Feinberg
In support of Pennsylvania’s Senate Bill 1, which would provide taxpayer-funded vouchers to private schools, voucher evangelists have been citing a report by the Foundation for Educational Choice, “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on How Vouchers Affect Public Schools.” However, a review of the report by the National Education Policy Center finds no credible evidence that vouchers have improved student achievement.

Located at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the National Education Policy Center aims to provide high-quality information on education policy. Its review found that the “Win-Win” report, “based on a review of 17 studies, selectively reads the evidence in some of those studies, the majority of which were produced by voucher advocacy organizations.

“Moreover, the report can’t decide whether or not to acknowledge the impact of factors other than vouchers on public schools. It attempts to show that public school gains were caused by the presence of vouchers alone, but then argues that the lack of overall gains for districts with vouchers should be ignored because too many other factors are at play.” The review goes on to note that “existing research provides little reliable information about the competitive effects of vouchers, and this report does little to help answer the question.”

Voucher proponents tout the supposed benefits of competition, but the playing field is not even close to level. The state’s public schools operate under the bureaucratic weight of the Pennsylvania School Code’s thousand pages (also created by the legislature) and another thousand pages of No Child Left Behind requirements. They face a virtual army of special-education attorneys with another thousand pages of laws. They are subject to right-to-know and sunshine laws. And they must bear the costs of complying with all of them.

Religious and other private schools are relatively unaffected by any of this red tape, rendering the notion of fair competition ludicrous.

Public schools are required to accept and expected to educate every student who shows up, regardless of economic status, English proficiency, disabilities, or behavioral problems. It’s the law.

Here’s where “choice” really comes in: Private schools can choose to accept or reject any prospective student, and they can choose which students they retain or expel.

S.B. 1 demands accountability, but only from traditional public schools. While voucher proponents hold the accountability banner high, accusing high-poverty public schools of failing, there is no accountability whatsoever imposed under this bill’s voucher scheme. It would allow private schools to receive tax dollars without being accountable for students’ academic performance, requiring no standardized tests and making no scores available to the public.

Nor does the bill impose any accountability for how private schools spend tax dollars. There would be no transparency, public budgets, or right to know.

Meanwhile, S.B. 1 would dismantle neighborhood schools by siphoning off motivated students and parents, leaving behind a truly concentrated population of failing students, including those who are less motivated, “hard to educate,” disabled, troubled, and able to speak little English. S.B. 1 offers absolutely nothing to help those students or improve their schools.

Ultimately, S.B. 1 and its so-called opportunity scholarships would provide our state legislators with an opportunity to wash their hands of their responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education for all.

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  1. I don’t get it: Charter schools unfairly take the best students, and yet they should be burdened by the laws and rules that cause public schools to fail? Is anybody seriously concerned that parents are going to elect to send kids to “unaccountable” private schools where they might secretly receive a worse education than in public schools?

    In any event, yes, the whole idea is to get as much tax money as possible out of the public education system that has been destroyed through a combination of union and political corruption and incompetence.

    I don’t have any trouble with the idea that in the end the super-regulated, hamstrung “public education system” exists only to meet our minimal constitutional obligations to the most troubled, difficult, and neglected children. Let everyone with the means and initiative to seek a better education elsewhere — with less of our tax money per student — do so.

    1. Absolutely. A good education for those with both the means and initiative. And a minimal constitutionally required education for everyone else. Perhaps the 18th century could provide some guidance for what a minimal constitutional obligation would be.

      Then we can have government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy, just as god intended, and we won’t have to concern ourselves with those troubled, difficult and neglected children.

      I think you’ve explained the point of SB1 very well. Thanks for making it this clear.

      1. Richard, your argument is unclear. The “wealthy” already send their children to private schools. SB1 offers vouchers to all students, thereby expanding the set of children who have the option currently enjoyed only by the “wealthy.” I see two possible outcomes from this:

        1. Children who previously had the initiative but not the means to pursue a better education in the private sector now have the means to do so. I.e., more children get the same choices as the “wealthy” already have.

        2. The public institutions become better, so that some of those with the means and initiative to seek the best education opt for the public instead of private option.

        In either case the public institutions continue to serve those troubled, difficult, and neglected children. All the existing laws, rules, and regs, still apply. So if you’re happy with the way those children are served by the current system, why would you be less happy under SB1?

        If anything I would assume that with a higher concentration of difficult children in the public system — and more money per student — the services to them could actually improve under SB1. I.e., the public institutions wouldn’t have to try to cover the spectrum of education from elite to disabled children, so they could specialize and concentrate more attention and resources on the “troubled” end of the spectrum.

        1. I don’t know why you say the public institutions will have more money per student. As each student abandons the public school system under SB1, there will be less money because they take their public funding with them. And, as as in all endeavors, the smaller size means higher overhead. The result is less money per difficult student.

          You were very clear about what this means to you in your first posting. There is no need to muddle the facts about what it means to those whom, as you clearly stated. you have no trouble leaving behind.

        2. Frtizson says, “As each student abandons the public school system under SB1, there will be less money because they take their public funding with them.

          Actually, the student moving to a private school takes only the state portion of the money along. The local portion stays with the school. If I remember the numbers correctly, the value of a Phila voucher is $9,000 in state money. The Local portion $6,000 stays with the public schools. Thus, there is more money per student in the public schools when a voucher is used.

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