Statewide Voucher (tuition tax credit scholarship) Program: Diverting Funds from failing Traditional Public Schools

A statewide voucher or tuition tax credit scholarship program providing a tuition grant of $10,000 annually to any student attending a failing local public school district, which can be applied to any private religious or independent school, lacks educational equity and does not provide an equal educational opportunity for all students. Asymmetric information would adversely affect voucher users. Not all students have equal knowledge of or access to desirable private religious or independent schools. Private religious or independent schools may not be equitably available within a 20 mile radius. Tax credits disproportionately benefit the affluent and would result in the public subsidizing the voucher program. The voucher program provides an unequal opportunity for students to attend a private or religious school potentially providing a higher quality education. Moreover, state subsidies of religious schools violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

The voucher plan would divert scarce state funds from failing TPSs to private and religious schools. Failing districts are often found in poor urban areas. The failing schools, from which the voucher students would transfer, would lose enrollment based state and federal aid. These failing districts may be poor performing districts because they were traditionally under-resourced districts. These districts may have become failing because they lacked the property tax base with which to generate the revenues necessary to provide an educational quality commensurate with affluent districts. State and federal governments may have contributed to the under-resourcing by providing aid that neither funded all students’ needs nor accounted for the lack of a proper tax base.

A $10,000 tuition grant is inequitable. A $10,000 grant may be less than the per pupil cost for religious schools and independent schools’ tuition. If private religious or independent schools cannot reject potential voucher students even for lack of capacity, who pays the difference between the $10,000 tuition grant and religious schools’ per pupil cost or independent schools’ tuition creates inequities. Affluent parents could more easily afford to pay the delta while requiring all parents to pay the delta would disenfranchise low income and poor parents.

If private religious or independent schools are given no discretion on whether they can afford to accept voucher students, these schools might be forced to close, expand even if expansion was uneconomical, or create a two-tiered tuition scenario within the school with non-voucher students paying higher tuition to offset the voucher deficit. Should private independent schools have discretion, they might admit only voucher students whose parents were willing to pay the delta, fail undesirable voucher students (e.g., disciplinary records), or refuse voucher students that were more expensive to educate such as special education, ELL, and free-and-reduced-price lunch creating more inequities. Moreover, many religious schools are already financially distressed while others are closing due to budgetary pressures (see Baker, 2010).

Copying a practice common to professional sports, the voucher program would create student “free agents” who would have an opportunity to attend a private or religious school potentially providing a higher quality education. If the program did not require voucher students to attend their chosen school for the full academic year, these free agents could use their vouchers to transfer to another school midyear. Private or religious schools losing free agent voucher students during the year would lose voucher revenue. These schools would experience increased costs especially if they had hired additional personnel or built more classrooms and other facilities to accommodate voucher students.

If no deadline exists by which voucher students must enroll such as by April before the upcoming school year, enrollment would be difficult to forecast exposing operating budgets to greater risk. If private religious or independent schools are given no discretion on accepting vouchers students, the more desirable of these schools could suffer overcrowding and congestion. These problems could cause free agent voucher and more mobile non-voucher students to depart during the year exacerbating operating and financial problems. Housing values might plummet commensurate with increased school overcrowding. Also, enrollment increases stemming from vouchers might not be equally distributed among schools or by grade level.

If no provision is made to provide equally accessible and affordable transportation, vouchers would disproportionately benefit the affluent who can more easily afford transportation. Not all students would have equal access to private or public transportation including public light rail. If the failing school district was required to provide or pay for voucher student transportation, failing school costs would increase especially if transportation expenses were not capped.

Failing school neighborhoods or districts depress housing values because poor school quality is negatively capitalized in housing values. Low assessed housing values keep district property values low. Those who can vote with their feet move to districts providing housing and schools that better meet their preferences. White or middle class flight exacerbates the decline of neighborhoods as jobs and capital exit with them. Taxpayers are investors who want their major asset, their home, to appreciate in value. Home owners or catchment area residents have a vested interest in the success of their local TPSs because they strive to offset the risks posed by vouchers to their community-specific social capital and property values which cannot be easily diversified.

The voucher plan subsidizes private religious or independent schools at the expense of traditionally under resourced failing TPSs. The voucher plan is not a means for improving failing schools. On the contrary, the voucher plan creates a triple assault on failing TPSs. First, the voucher plan diverts essential funds away from needy TPSs. Second, the voucher plan causes failing TPSs losing voucher students to lose state and federal enrollment based aid. Third, failing TPSs’ costs increase because costs do not decrease proportionately with lost enrollment. The more mobile and affluent voucher students may be more likely to use vouchers. Losing voucher students increases the proportions of those more expensive to educate remaining in the failing TPSs increasing costs.

If vouchers were used to their logical extreme perhaps with full funding and transportation, large high poverty urban areas could lose students to the extent that the traditional public education system would close leaving a skeletal district. Lacking true TPSs, housing values might plummet further eroding the tax base and increasing the exodus of the remaining relatively more mobile and affluent taxpayers. Neighborhood erosion would accelerate driving out businesses and employment. If taken to the extreme, an unfettered voucher plan could culminate in the demise of urban areas with a preponderance of failing schools.

The provision of education through local public school districts in which students who live in the district attend its TPSs enables community members to get to know and understand one another. Fischel (2002) argues this “reduces the transaction costs of citizen provision of true local public goods” such as public education (p. 1). The public benefit of children attending their local schools rather than schools in more remote areas accrues to the families living in the catchment areas. This “network of adult acquaintances,” that Fischel (2002) defines as “community-specific social capital,” would be reduced to the extent voucher students left their residential district.

The publicness of local public schools is an argument against vouchers in the following sense. By enabling parents to select schools outside their communities and outside of local public supervision, vouchers work against the neighborhood and community networks that facilitate the bottom-up provision of local public goods. Community-specific social capital is more difficult to form if members of the community send their children to schools in other communities. (p. 1)

Vouchers erode community-specific social capital and, thereby, the public support necessary for proper public funding of public education.

References

Baker, B. D. (2010, March 23). Would $8,000 scholarships help sustain NJ private schools? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/3/23/would_$8,000_scholarships_help_sustain_NJ_private_schools?

Fischel, W. A. (2002). An economic case against vouchers:  Why local public schools are a local public good. Dartmouth Economics Department Working Paper:  Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH.

 

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