School Vouchers: What They Are and Why They Are Problematic

President Trump’s support for private school vouchers has prompted a growing interest in what K-12 school vouchers are, how they work, and the issues they raise. Traditional school vouchers are directly funded by states to help parents pay tuition costs for their children to attend private school, which may include religious private schools. At first glance, it is unclear how federal policies that promote private school vouchers would work at the state level and whether Californians would support them. A recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) survey found that a majority of Californians — 60 percent — are in favor of providing parents tax-funded vouchers to send their children to K-12 private schools, including those that are religiously affiliated. However, California voters overwhelmingly rejected two state ballot measures in 1993 and 2000 that proposed state funding for vouchers to pay for education at private schools.

As Californians consider federal proposals to use public dollars to support private schools, it is important to assess the problems vouchers raise. For example:

Private School Vouchers Divert Limited Resources from Public Schools

Vouchers divert money typically allocated for K-12 public schools to fund private schools. California school districts have numerous fixed costs such as salaries for staff and accredited teachers, transportation services, and maintenance of facilities. To the extent that students leave California public schools to attend private schools, the amount of funding generated by these students for their public schools would leave with them. This would mean fewer resources available to pay for public schools unable to reduce fixed costs for their daily operations.

Private Schools Are Not Required to Follow the Same Accountability and Transparency Rules as Public Schools

California’s public schools must abide by various requirements such as enrolling all children regardless of potential disabilities, hiring accredited teachers, assessing student academic performance, and providing public reports of these assessments. In contrast, private schools are not licensed, regulated, or monitored by the state, aside from specialized schools that serve public school students with disabilities. As a result, implementing vouchers in California would mean spending public dollars on private schools that are not subject to the same accountability and transparency rules as public schools. For example, private schools are not required to:

  • admit all students,
  • hire accredited teachers,
  • assess student academic performance, or
  • provide standardized reporting of academic assessments.

Moreover, students who attend California private schools that do not accept federal funds lack certain civil rights protections. For example, such private schools are not required to provide girls with access to sports programs as federal Title IX rules require of public schools.

Private School Vouchers Would Hurt Small School Districts in Sparsely Populated Areas

Vouchers could dramatically destabilize public schools systems and communities in areas with small school districts, according to a recent publication from the Center for American Progress (CAP). This is because the departure of even a small number of students would mean lost funding that could force small districts to reduce classes and course offerings, cut activities, or reduce student supports. The CAP report noted that more than half (54 percent) of California school districts have four or fewer schools. These small school districts are located throughout the state and tend to be in sparsely populated areas away from the urban centers of Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and San Diego.

Private School Vouchers Have Negative Impacts on Student Academic Achievement

Recent research provides some disconcerting news about private school vouchers: Educational outcomes for public school students that used private school vouchers worsened in several states. In Louisiana and Ohio, public school students who received vouchers to attend private schools scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students who had stayed in public schools. The negative impacts in Louisiana were large, as they were in preliminary research findings on math scores for students who used private school vouchers in Indiana. The Brookings Institution, citing recent research to help explain improvement in public school test scores relative to private schools since the 1990s, proposed “that our historical understanding of the superior performance of private schools is no longer accurate.”

Private School Vouchers Would Likely Mean Spending Public Dollars on Religious Schools

Six in 10 private schools in California are religiously affiliated. The use of vouchers to pay for tuition at private religious schools would mean supporting religious institutions with public dollars. However, California’s Constitution prohibits spending public dollars on religious schools. As a result, California voters would need to approve changes to the Constitution to allow parents to use traditional state-funded vouchers to pay for tuition at religious schools.

The California constitutional provisions that prevent spending public dollars on private religious schools are similar to provisions in other state constitutions that bar certain types of private school vouchers. In fact, nearly 3 out of 4 state constitutions in the US include these so-called “Blaine Amendments.” However, many states have approved laws to create voucher-like programs designed to circumvent Blaine Amendment prohibitions.

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US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, in addition to being a strong supporter of traditional vouchers, has cited one such back-door voucher — Florida’s tax credit scholarship program — as one of the biggest successes of the years prior to her appointment by the President. Secretary DeVos’ positions have raised concerns that the Trump Administration will propose voucher-like programs through federal legislation, circumventing state constitutional provisions that have prevented private school vouchers in California and elsewhere. What sorts of voucher-like programs might those be and what would they mean for California if they were implemented? The answers to these questions are the subject of blog posts we will publish in the weeks to come.

— Jonathan Kaplan