Today, the AHA joined with 50 members of the National Coalition for Public Education in denouncing a Department of Education plan to prioritize access to private school vouchers.
Read the letter below, or download a PDF version with footnotes here.
November 13, 2017
Attn: Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Ave. SW, Room 6W231
Washington, DC 20202
RE: Secretary’s Proposed Supplemental Priorities and Definitions for Discretionary Grant Programs RIN 1894–AA09/ Docket ID ED–2017–OS–0078
The 50 undersigned organizations write to voice opposition to Proposed Priority 1 of the Secretary’s Proposed Supplemental Priorities for Discretionary Grant Programs. Specifically, we are concerned that the Secretary’s first priority is to “maximize” “educational choice,” for students, which includes enabling access to private educational programs—otherwise known as vouchers. Prioritizing access to private school vouchers would run counter to evidence-based models, would conflict with the Department’s core mission, and would harm, rather than help, the groups of students targeted by Priority 1 itself.
The Department should not reward states for adopting voucher programs that do not serve all students, fail to improve academic achievement, undermine public education funding, harm religious freedom and lack critical accountability for taxpayers. Instead, the Department of Education’s first priority should be funding, supporting, and strengthening our public schools, where 90% of our students attend.
Evidence-based Models Do Not Support Private School Vouchers
The Secretary’s Proposed Priorities state that the Department intends to support States and districts offering “innovative and, where possible, evidence-based models of educational choice.” Evidence-based models, however, demonstrate that private school vouchers fail students, parents, and taxpayers.
As defined by the Every Student Succeeds Act “evidence-based” activities, strategies and interventions are those that demonstrate “a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes or other relevant outcomes based on strong . . . , moderate . . . , or promising evidence” from at least one well-designed and well-implemented experimental or quasi-experimental study, or a rationale based on high-quality research findings or a positive evaluation that suggests the intervention is likely to improve outcomes.
Yet, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that private school vouchers fail to improve educational outcomes. Instead, access to private school voucher programs leads to declines in student achievement. Recent studies of the Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and the District of Columbia voucher programs have revealed that students in voucher programs perform worse academically than their peers. In addition, studies of long – standing voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland found that students offered vouchers showed no improvement in reading or math over those not in the program. It is clear that private school voucher programs do not comport with the Department’s priority of promoting evidence-based outcomes.
The Department’s Core Mission Does Not Align with this Priority
The Secretary’s Proposed Priorities state that the Department “will place a renewed focus on our core mission: serving the most vulnerable students, ensuring equal access for all students, protecting their path to a world class education, and empowering local educators to deliver for our students.” The most vulnerable students, as enumerated in Proposed Policy 1, include: students living in rural communities, students with disabilities, students in poverty, students attending schools identified for comprehensive or targeted support, students who are academically far below grade level, English language learners, students from military-connected families, and American Indian students. Unfortunately, decades of reporting and analysis of private school voucher programs across the United States demonstrate that voucher programs do not actually serve these students or ensure them equal access.
Private School Vouchers Do Not Ensure Equal Access
Private school voucher programs, by design, do not provide equal access for all students. Unlike public schools, private schools accepting vouchers can reject students for a variety of reasons, including that a student has disabilities, is an English Learner (EL), is not academically performing at grade-level, identifies as LGBT, practices a different religion, or needs transportation due to large distances between home and school.
A 2016 report conducted by the Government Accountability Office found that of all the voucher programs across the country, only four required private schools to accept all students using vouchers, space permitting. The other programs allowed private schools to deny students admission or grant preference to certain students for many reasons including disciplinary history, academic achievement, and religious affiliation. This is clearly not equal access.
In the end, it is the private schools, and not the parents or students, who have the real choice.
Private School Vouchers Do Not Adequately Serve the Most Vulnerable Students
Even if private schools accepting vouchers choose to accept all students, they often fail to serve students who are the most vulnerable, including students in poverty, students of color, students with disabilities, English-learners, and students in underperforming public schools. Awarding grants to states to encourage private school voucher schemes will not increase the likelihood that students will receive a better education or more educational resources; rather, private school vouchers will harm the very same population of students Proposed Priority 1 is intended to benefit.
Students Living in Rural Areas
Private school vouchers do not provide an actual choice for students living in rural areas, including students living on American Indian reservations, who have few, if any, access points to schools other than their local public schools. If students are able to use a voucher, they are generally required to endure long, costly commutes. In 2011-2012, only 8% of students in rural communities were able to enroll in a private school voucher program and only 21% had access to another public school option in their district. Because private schools located in more rural communities cannot frequently cover the cost of long bus rides, parents are responsible for transportation to and from school for children. If a parent does not have a reliable transportation method or cannot drop-off or pick-up a child due to their employment schedule, then a private school is not a viable option for the family.
Students with Disabilities
Private schools receiving vouchers do not adequately serve students with disabilities, often denying them admission or subjecting them to inappropriate or excessive suspensions or expulsions. Nor do they provide them the same quality and quantity of services available to students in public schools, including those mandated under each student’s individualized education program (IEP). As a result, students with disabilities are systematically excluded from voucher programs.
For instance, most private schools in the Milwaukee voucher program have been found to “lack the full complement of educational programs that students with disabilities are entitled to if they receive their education in the public sector,” and as a result, students with disabilities have been discouraged or excluded from participating. And, a 2010 US Department of Education report on the Washington, DC voucher program showed that a main reason why students didn’t use a voucher offered to them was that they were unable to find a participating school with services for their learning or physical disability or other special needs.
Students Who Are English Learners
Private schools are not required to offer English as a Second Language (ESL) or other services for English Learner (EL) students. As a result, these schools are more likely to lack the professionals, training, and curriculum needed to ensure a student becomes proficient in English. A Washington Post investigation, for example, found that two-thirds of the private schools participating in the DC voucher program do not provide ESL services. As a result, EL students are often unable to use a voucher even if awarded one.
Students in Schools in Need of Targeted or Comprehensive Improvement
For students attending a school in need of targeted or comprehensive improvement, accepting private school vouchers may only further decrease academic performance. Repeated studies of voucher programs across the country, including Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, and DC, show that vouchers result in worse test scores for students. Voucher programs also fail to offer participating students greater educational resources. Students in the DC voucher program, for example, were less likely to have access to key services such as ESL programs, learning supports, special education supports and services, and counselors than students who were not part of the program. Similarly, a survey of the Milwaukee voucher program conducted in 2013 found that out of 110 Milwaukee voucher schools surveyed, 39 reported having no art, music, physical education, library or technology specialist teachers.
Students Living in Poverty
Private school vouchers also do not adequately serve low-income students because the cost of tuition and fees at schools that accept vouchers generally exceeds the amount of the voucher, making private voucher schools unaffordable for most low-income families. A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found that 13 out of 22 voucher programs it surveyed did not place a cap on private school tuition, allowing private schools to charge more than the voucher award. Thus, only families with the money to cover the cost of the rest of the tuition, and additional expenditures such as uniforms, transportation, books, and other supplies can use the vouchers.
And for many low-income students, traveling outside their county or district to attend school every day – especially in rural areas – is not feasible. In the end, the families most likely to use a voucher are the ones who could already afford to send their kids to private schools.
Students of Color
Private school vouchers can also exacerbate racial segregation. Studies from across the country find that racial segregation is higher in private schools that accept vouchers than in the public schools. In addition, white students use taxpayer -funded vouchers more often than students of color. In Milwaukee in 2013-2014, more than 77% of African American students in the public schools attended “intensely segregated” schools, 20 but for African American students in the voucher program, that number rose to more than 85%. A 2010 study of Georgia’s tuition tax credit program revealed that while only 10% of white students in public schools attended “virtually segregated” schools, within the program at private schools, this rose dramatically to 53%. Furthermore, in Cleveland’s voucher program, minority students were much more likely than their peers to have never entered a voucher program or left their voucher program and returned to public schools.
Students in Military-Connected Families
Private school vouchers also do not work for military-connected students. Those school districts serving military dependent children, and the students themselves, face unique challenges such as the emotional stress that children and families face when a parent is deployed. These challenges are recognized by public school districts, which offer a complex system of support, including professional development for school counselors to ensure a safe and healthy learning environment. In fact, the Military Interstate Children’s Compact, which is an agreement among states and school districts that “addresses key educational transition issues encountered by military families including enrollment, placement, attendance, eligibility, and graduation,” does not extend to non-public schools. By using vouchers, these students would forfeit the benefits and services they would otherwise receive in public schools.
The Secretary’s Proposed Priority 1 to maximize access to private school vouchers and other “educational choice” undermines the Department’s commitment to providing high-quality education to students. Private school vouchers do not ensure equal access to education and do not serve the students most in need of educational opportunities. Instead, vouchers divert desperately-needed resources away from the public schools, which accept and serve all students.
The Department should not reward states for adopting voucher programs that fail students, parents, and the taxpayers. The government would better serve our children by using funds to make our public schools stronger.
AASA: The School Superintendents Association
African American Ministers In Action
American Association of University Women (AAUW)
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA), AFL-CIO
American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)
American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
American Humanist Association
Americans for Religious Liberty
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Association of Educational Service Agencies
Association of School Business Officials International
Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
Center for Inquiry
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Clearinghouse on Women’s Issues
Council for Exceptional Children
Council of Administrators of Special Education
Disciples Center for Public Witness
Disciples Justice Action Network
Equal Partners in Faith
Feminist Majority Foundation
Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
Learning Disabilities Association of America
National Association of Elementary School Principals
National Association of Federally Impacted Schools
National Association of Secondary School Principals
National Association of School Psychologists
National Bar Association
National Black Justice Coalition
National Center for Learning Disabilities
National Council of Jewish Women
National Disability Rights Network
National Education Association
National Organization for Women
National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition
National Rural Education Association
National School Boards Association
OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates
People For the American Way
Poverty & Race Research Action Council
School Social Work Association of America
Secular Coalition for America
Texas Freedom Network Union for Reform Judaism
Women of Reform Judaism