School Voucher Is a Illusory Choice

PA Education Team Co-Chair Page McCullough's guest column was featured in the Herald Sun on 8/30/15. Click to read or full text below:

Regarding North Carolina’s school voucher program, (“Moving forward with vouchers: What’s best for children”), The Herald-Sun, Aug. 18), here’s what we would like to hear our legislators say:

Vouchers are simply one more gear on the bulldozer the majority in the General Assembly is using to drive public education and the children in them over a cliff. Now that the majority has made teaching a lousy career option for the best and brightest, swept books and technology in the trash can, blown up class sizes, locked our youngest out of pre-school and sent teacher assistants packing, they pretend to care about “what’s best for students” by offering vouchers to attend private schools.

As readers may know, this program offers vouchers up to $4,200 per year for qualifying students to attend private schools. Last year, 1,216 students attended private schools using a voucher. The schools with the largest number of voucher students were Word of God Christian Academy (Raleigh) and Greensboro Islamic Academy. At least 83 voucher-eligible schools have under 10 students and only one or two teachers and 87 percent self-describe as religious.

Here are some talking points for progressive lawmakers who wish to push back on vouchers and support N.C.’s public schools:

-- Private schools can and do discriminate in whom they admit.

-- Private schools do not have to employ certified teachers or be accredited.

-- Private schools can choose curriculum that teaches that kids played with dinosaurs and that slavery was a good thing (according to a commonly used curriculum, A Beka Book).

-- Children in private schools can be expelled without any due process.

Under NC voucher law, we will not be able to know how kids fare academically; the school can select any standardized test for language arts and math and must only report aggregate scores if they have more than 25 voucher students.

The schools are not audited unless they accept at least $300,000 worth of public funding.

But, one could say: What if, in spite of all these egregious practices, the children are flourishing? Setting aside the fact that we cannot obtain information about how voucher students in North Carolina are doing, taxpayers need only look at the experiences in states with much longer-running voucher programs. In a summary of research on voucher programs in Milwaukee; Cleveland; Washington, D.C.; and Ohio, we see, across the board, no difference in achievement between voucher students and similar public school students.

So, essentially, the voucher program has served the chief purpose of the majority in the N.C. General Assembly, which is not better educating children but draining tax dollars out of public schools.

Undeterred by the evidence, these programs are expanding, as policy makers loosen the eligibility guidelines. For example, in Milwaukee, income eligibility guidelines have been expanded from 175 percent to 300 percent of federal poverty level. And this has already begun to happen in North Carolina, where the income guidelines are being loosened and lawmakers are scrambling to double or triple the budget for vouchers.

What would really make a difference for low-income children in low performing schools?

For legislators who want to lead on the issue of educating low-income children, here are some well-researched initiatives to pursue:

-- High quality pre-school for all 4-year-olds.

-- Small class sizes in the early grades.

-- Ensuring low-income children have the most qualified, experienced teachers.

-- Solid mentoring programs and tutoring programs such as Communities in Schools.

-- Early college high schools.

-- Socio-economic integration of schools.

In addition, our children’s families need to have income and housing stability, access to basic health care and food security. Instead, the same people who brought us vouchers have eliminated the EITC, cut unemployment benefits, cut pre-school slots, refused to expand Medicaid, cut stable jobs across all government sectors and talk about drug testing people who seek food stamps.

There is a deep level of harm being done to low-income families and children in our state and a faith-based school voucher program is an illusory choice that only serves to weaken one of the few community institutions that has a prayer of responding to their needs, our public schools. Without a vision, the people perish. We need our leaders to be visionaries.

Page McCullough is co-chair of the Durham People’s Alliance Education Committee. She is writing on behalf of Durham People’s Alliance

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