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Lawmakers debate school vouchers

By Christina Lane
Nov. 24, 2012 at 10 p.m.


Last year, Louisiana legislators adopted what education experts describe as the nation's most expansive laws regarding school choice and vouchers.

Louisiana became the ninth state to adopt a school voucher program - a debate that promises to take the forefront of the 83rd Texas legislative session that starts in January.

The issue is already picking up steam. State Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, has introduced a proposal for a constitutional amendment to prohibit funding elementary or secondary education through a voucher program. Opponents argue vouchers will take money away from public schools which need the funds to educate all students.

Proponents of school vouchers, such as Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who is the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee, argue parents have a right to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income.

"To me, school choice is the photo ID bill of this session," Patrick told the Associated Press in August. "Our base has wanted us to pass photo voter ID for years, and we did it. They've been wanting us to pass school choice for years. This is the year to do it, in my view. That issue will do more to impact the future of Texas and the quality of education than anything else we could do."

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, is on record - repeatedly - saying he is opposed to a voucher program because he is "in favor of public money going to public purposes."

<strong>What are vouchers?</strong>

In a state-funded voucher system, the state gives money - usually in the form of grants or scholarships - directly to families so they can send their children to private schools rather than public schools.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, private schools must meet standards established by state lawmakers to accept vouchers. Legislators also set rules regarding student eligibility for vouchers.

For example, a state legislature could start a school choice system specifically for low-income families, or one for students who attend low-performing schools, or a student choice program aimed at students with disabilities.

In a system that targets low-income families, the legislature would set income thresholds to qualify for a voucher whereas in a system targeting low-performing schools, the legislature might set standards so that if a campus under-performs for a certain number of years, students who attend the school would qualify for a voucher to go elsewhere.

According to the national conference, private school standards can include several requirements but typically involve legislators requiring participating private schools to be accredited and to administer state assessments.

In Texas, public school students must take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. Private schools currently do not have to use this assessment. If a private school were to accept vouchers, the Texas Legislature could require them to implement STAAR testing.

<strong>A history of vouchers</strong>

In Vermont, a 143-year-old law requires towns that do not operate their own schools to pay for students in their zone to attend a school of their choice - whether public or private - in another town, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The system - referred to in Vermont as "Town Tuitioning" - is the oldest known form of state support for private school education in the nation's history, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The state of Maine also has a "tuitioning" law that has been on the books for the past 139 years. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 176 towns in Maine today that do not have a high school and must, therefore, use the "tuitioning" process to provide an education to students in their areas.

However, while laws in Maine and Vermont have existed for more than a century, they aren't the same as the modern voucher program.

The first modern voucher program was started in 1990 after the Wisconsin legislature passed a program in its 1989 session targeting students from low-income households in Milwaukee.

The program, called the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, allows students who qualify under certain income guidelines to attend private schools - whether religious or nonreligious - at no charge as long as they are located in the City of Milwaukee, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The department reported the school choice program served 23,198 students in 2011-12.

Since then, 15 other school voucher programs have been created in eight other states, in Washington D.C., and in a county in Colorado. They collectively served 81,590 students in 2011-12. According to the American Federation for Children, the programs are:

<strong>Florida:</strong> John M. McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program provides private school vouchers to assist children with special needs in Florida. This state, in 2001, was the first to offer vouchers targeting students with disabilities.

<strong>Georgia:</strong> Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program provides private school vouchers to assist children with special needs in Georgia.

<strong>Indiana:</strong> Choice Scholarship Program provides private school vouchers to assist children from low and middle-income families in Indiana. In 2011, Indiana created the nation's first statewide voucher program for low-income students.

<strong>Louisiana:</strong> Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program provides private school vouchers to assist children from low-income families in failing schools in Louisiana.

<strong>Louisiana:</strong> School Choice Pilot Program for Certain Students with Exceptionalities provides private school vouchers to assist children with special needs in Louisiana.

<strong>Mississippi:</strong> Mississippi Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship for Students with Dyslexia Program provides private school vouchers to assist children with dyslexia in Mississippi.

<strong>Ohio:</strong> Autism Scholarship Program provides private school vouchers to assist children with autism in Ohio.

<strong>Ohio:</strong> Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program provides private school vouchers to assist children from low-income families in Cleveland, Ohio.

<strong>Ohio:</strong> Educational Choice Scholarship Program provides private school vouchers to assist children in failing schools in Ohio.

<strong>Ohio:</strong> Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program provides private school vouchers to assist children with special needs in Ohio.

<strong>Oklahoma:</strong> Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program provides private school vouchers to assist children with special needs in Oklahoma.

<strong>Utah:</strong> Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship provides private school vouchers to assist children with special needs in Utah. This was the first statewide school voucher program, meaning it was available to any student in the state with no limits on disabled students' eligibility.

<strong>Washington, D.C.:</strong> D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program provides private school vouchers to assist children from low-income families in Washington, D.C. This was the first federally-funded and administered voucher program, enacted by Congress in 2004.

<strong>Wisconsin:</strong> Racine Parental Choice Program provides private school vouchers to assist children from low-income families in Racine, Wisconsin.

<strong>Douglas County, Colo.:</strong> Douglas County Choice Scholarship Program provides private school vouchers to assist children living in the Douglas County School District in Colorado. This program is not running because of a court injunction in 2011 that halted it.

<strong>Tuition tax credits</strong>

Different from vouchers but still a school choice option, many states are jumping on the bandwagon of exploring tuition tax credit programs.

The programs, also known as scholarship tax credit programs, allow individuals and corporations to allocate a portion of their owed state taxes to private nonprofit school tuition organizations that issue scholarships to students in kindergarten through 12th grades, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The scholarship allows a student to choose from a list of private and public schools to attend. The scholarship pays tuition, fees and other expenses.

In 2012, 14 tuition tax credit programs existed in 11 states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

<strong>Louisiana</strong>

The Louisiana legislature created the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program and the School Choice Pilot Program for Certain Students with Exceptionalities.

On Wednesday, the voucher program will go to court as two statewide teacher unions and dozens of school boards argue that the voucher program that is using tax dollars to send children to private schools is unconstitutional.

They argue that it is illegal to pay for the voucher program, as well as home school programs and other initiatives, through the public school funding formula. They are also arguing that Louisiana lawmakers didn't follow requirements for filing and passing the programs and their funding.

The state's superintendent of education is defending the constitutionality of each.

The scholarship program established by the state calls for all students to be administered the state's assessment tests and for the results to be publicly reported, according to the Louisiana Federation for Children.

Private schools must be approved by the state to participate in the program, must comply with state requirements for health, safety and nondiscrimination, and must submit an audit to the state each year.

Also, private schools that have operated for less than two years cannot have more than 20 percent of students receiving scholarships, the federation said.

Scholarships are funded at 90 percent of the per-pupil funding levels provided by the state and local government for public school students (which equaled $7,617 in the 2011-12 school year) or the cost of tuition, fees, and state testing - whichever is less. The average scholarship award in 2011-12 was $4,595, according to the state federation.

The School Choice Pilot Program for Certain Students, enacted in 2010, gives families with special needs children in six parishes of the state the opportunity to choose a school that best fits their child's needs. In 2011-12, 186 students in kindergarten through eighth grades received scholarships through the program, according to the state federation.

<strong>The arguments</strong>

Proponents of school vouchers argue that parents should be allowed to choose where their child attends school, regardless of income.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, contenders argue that if parents have the opportunity to choose where to send their child to school, they will choose high-performing schools. Should parents send their children to higher performing schools, it will force low-performing schools to either improve or risk losing state funding, according to the national organization.

They argue that families have different needs that might not be met by the public education system, and that because those parents pay taxes, they have a right to decide how it is spent in educating their children.

Those who oppose school vouchers see them as taking money away from public schools -- that suffered a $5.4 billion in funding cuts from the legislature in 2011.

Officials in Longview ISD argue that vouchers are only another step toward privatizing education and reducing public school funding further.

Opponents also argue that vouchers do not benefit all students equally; would result in private schools increasing their tuition to make more money and would result in low-quality private schools popping up around the area trying to capitalize on families with vouchers. Some also see vouchers as violating the separation of church and state if vouchers support private, religious-affiliated schools.

<strong>Texas</strong>

Texas lawmakers have debated school vouchers since the 1990s.

And, even though voucher proposals have been defeated numerous times during the past decade, the debate has reappeared during almost every legislative session.

In the most recent push for vouchers, Sen. Dan Patrick publicly argued that vouchers save tax dollars. Former Rep. Jim Dunnam, who left office in 2011, said one proposal for vouchers might consider the actual cost of educating a student in public school, then offer a voucher that accounts for 60 percent of that cost so a student can go to private school.

He calculated the move would save the state 40 percent on funding that student.

"This would effectively create the largest cut in public education spending ever," Dunnam wrote in October.

In the past few months, Patrick has held pre-session meetings regarding vouchers. On Nov. 12, state Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, introduced a proposal for a constitutional amendment to prohibit funding elementary or secondary education through a voucher program, except if the state was paying for part of the cost of a special needs student to attend a school for special education.

"The legislature may not appropriate money for or authorize a voucher program under which state or local public revenue is used to pay all or any part of the costs of a student's attendance at a private school," Raymond wrote in the proposed bill.

No legislators have currently filed bills proposing a voucher system - yet. The 83rd legislature convenes on Jan. 8.

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