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Julia Steiny: Get Creative with Private School Vouchers

Thursday, September 27, 2012

 

Surely the worst part of the recent Chicago Teachers strike is the ravaged landscape such battles leave behind.

Both sides in Chicago were fighting for stupid, last-century ideas like protecting seniority (union) and merit pay (management). Headlines brayed; unions fought back: politicians ranted. Most importantly, everyone modeled really ugly behavior for the kids.

A distinct image of what it looks like when we've got it wrong.

It might look better if we all took a deep breath and opened our hearts to the potential virtues of private-school vouchers.

Forget the current debate. Here's the driving question: "How can we give more students and families what they believe will work for them?"

Consider that private and parochial schools offer a menu of proven options that parents have been gladly willing to pay for.

Vouchers offer public money to help low-income parents pay private-school tuition. And while I have three huge caveats -- which I'll get to -- vouchers succeed at helping parents send their kids to schools of their choice.

Imagine how quickly some of the existing public money could bring life-blood back to a large number of desirable private and parochial schools now starving to death in this hideous economy. Educational diversity is dying. Steadier funding would strengthen these badly-needed community assets.

A terrific example of a system that got it right is the Edmonton School District, in Alberta, Canada. Among the most highly-acclaimed in the world, this district has a dazzlingly-diverse menu of school options -- private, parochial, charter and district schools. Some schools are unionized, while others are full-on Catholic -- if you don’t like Catholicism, don’t go. But it's your choice, not the government's.

Yes, I know, Canada is not us. They’re socialists (as is, by the way, the whole notion of public education), so Canada doesn’t count. But let's consider the opinion of 30 Delaware educators who visited Edmonton together. They were so impressed, they used it as the model for the state's educational strategic plan, “ Vision 2015 Delaware.” Delaware was one of only two grand-prize winners of the first round of Race to the Top. (Tennessee was the other.)

The Delaware “Visionaries” write, “Students can choose from school programs that are bilingual, religious, cultural, subject-specific, pedagogical or single-gender.

Let many flowers bloom.

In 1995, Edmonton was faced with a new regional law permitting both charter schools and what we would call private-school vouchers. Edmonton could have done nothing and watched its students leave. Instead, the district created conditions to encourage the coexistence of all sorts of schools. To entice the privates and charters into the fold, the district ceded control of curriculum, budget, hiring and school management. But in exchange, Edmonton provides all schools with equitable public funding, including extras for special education and such. They do the work of helping parents navigate the system, enrollment, transportation and what they call "continuity across schools," or data-driven accountability.

So in the end, the tuition payments to the participating private schools weren't exactly vouchers, but the local per-pupil expenditure paid to a private school.

So, Caveat #1: Equity of funding.

Milwaukee has the oldest American voucher program dating back to the early 1990s, now serving about 20,000 students. Their vouchers are only worth $6,500. Nationally, the average per-pupil expenditure is $10,500, but in Wisconsin it's over $11,000. Milwaukee families living at or below 300 percent of poverty are eligible for the vouchers. Where do really poor families get the extra money?

Fancy private schools aggressively raise money for scholarship programs specifically to diversify their student bodies. Instead, these schools might prefer to make some of their seat available for a public lottery for income-eligible families. The school would just have to make due with the local per-pupil expenditure, no matter what the tuition.

So, like charters schools, participating private schools should get the full per-pupil expenditure (ppe).

Caveat #2: Equity of access.

Also like charter schools, students opting for available private school seats should be chosen by lottery. No creaming off "easy" students.

Actually, Edmonton has some specialized schools that require entrance exams or auditions. But given the district's extremely high parent satisfaction, they're clearly managing to provide equity of access.

Finally, Caveat #3: Equity of accountability.

An equitable system would insist that all participating schools share their data publically. Edmonton has few requirements of their schools, but those include collecting and reporting demographics, finances, test scores and the like.

American voucher systems have always been terribly unfair. The state accountability systems scrutinize public schools, deem some failures, but give vouchers to private schools not held accountable by or to anyone.

These days many private schools could probably learn to live with accepting kids by lottery, in exchange for steady funding. The real deal-breaker might be cooperating with the data-and-reporting requirements. Private schools take their own achievement tests that are specifically non-comparable with those in public schools.

We've long heard how much better the private schools are than the publics. I challenge them to prove it. Show me the data. Honestly, I hope the privates are as good as they say and that they have lots more seats for low-income kids like Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts, and President Barack Obama, both of whom were plucked from rough circumstances and given good educations. That's the point. Make more such opportunities possible.

But do it in an equitable way. Edmonton is a fabulous model of adults cooperating on behalf of the kids.

Chicago is not.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

 

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