Currently eighteen states have enacted laws which provide scholarships for students from low income families so they can attend private school. These scholarships are generally referred to as vouchers. Do private school vouchers give parents' choices while at the same time sacrificing private schools' most cherished feature, namely their independence? In my opinion they do not. With one condition: the state or local government must pay the scholarship directly to the parents.
Most voucher programs have good intentions. But if a private school which is not subject to very many controls accepts public funds, then the voucher program could become a two edged sword. On the other hand if the school merely accepts students without being concerned as to the source of their funding, the school should not have to sacrifice any of its independence. After all, being mostly free of regulations concerning what they can teach and how they teach is what private schools are all about. For the sake of our discussion I am defining a private or independent school which receives its income from tuition and endowments as opposed to a grant from public funds.
In a typical voucher scenario the family lives in a neighborhood with underperforming public schools. There are a couple of private schools in the area which they would like to send their children to but really cannot afford to do so without some financial assistance. The state or local government provides a modest amount of financial assistance to a limited number of low income families in order to allow them to send their children to private school. Typically to qualify, families must meet federal poverty guidelines, have a child in an underperforming school or already be in the state or local government voucher program. The precise eligibility requirements vary from state to state.
When the state awards the scholarships, those awards are made directly to the parents. Not the school. The awards are made only to schools which have registered to accept students with vouchers.
Ohio, for example, has had its voucher program in place since 2005. It has been so popular over the past seven years that it currently offers 60,000 scholarships. But the way in which the Ohio statutes have been written gives the awards to the parents. The schools do have to register with the state department of education. If they don't, they will not be eligible to accept students who have been awarded vouchers.
Another reason why private schools do not sacrifice their independence by accepting students with vouchers is that the voucher principle is essentially the same principle as that which is enshrined in the GI Bill. With the GI Bill, educational benefits are awarded to service people with the stipulation that these awards are for educational purposes only.
As long as the vouchers are paid to individuals as opposed to the private, parochial or independent (non-public) schools directly, I believe that the schools are not sacrificing any control to state, local and federal government.
But wait! There's more. The 800 pound gorilla in the room is really school reform. You wouldn't have states and local governments offering vouchers in the first place if public education in those localities were in fact doing their job. As long as we continue to have stonewalling and resistance to educational reform, concerned parents are going to continue to demand that their legislators come up with solutions which give parents choices.
Parents want their children to be prepared for life and careers in the 21st century workplaces. They want their children to be educated in schools where learning takes place. The teachers unions see vouchers as a threat to their funding. In truth vouchers ought to be seen as recurring evidence that school reform is needed. Vouchers give parents choices. That's not a threat. That's competition.
Robert Kennedy is a former private school teacher and administrator who has written extensively about private K-12 education.
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