• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 1998 • Dr. Albert Cortez

In a news conference in late April, a San Antonio-based non-profit organization announced its new 10-year $50 million initiative to provide vouchers for students to attend private schools. The Children’s Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation initiative exclusively targets students in the historic Edgewood Independent School District (ISD) – the playing field of the state’s school finance reform battles. The CEO Foundation plan promises that the 14,000 students in the district will have the opportunity to apply for and possibly attend other public schools or private schools in the San Antonio area.

Surprised educators, families, politicians and reporters are delving into the details of the plan (more on that below) as San Antonio is thrust into the spotlight of the national voucher debate. Only two school systems in the country are experimenting with publicly funded voucher programs, and a handful of cities have privately funded programs. Because of the size of the CEO Foundation’s program (reportedly the largest project ever to push school vouchers) and because of its strategic targeting of Edgewood ISD students (the first time a single school district has been targeted), San Antonio will be watched closely by the nation. What people see will have significant implications on state and federal proposals to use public money for private schooling.

Framing the Debate

Voucher programs have become part of the discussion of how public schools can be improved. Proponents of public funding for private schooling have attempted to frame certain policy questions, such as whether parents should have the option to receive state subsidies for their decision to enroll their children in private schools. Proponents also suggest that public schools can be improved by the introduction of competition for the public monies used to finance public schools.

While it is understandable that proponents of vouchers would want to frame questions in ways that benefit their agendas, it is IDRA’s view that the use of public monies for private schooling raises more fundamental questions about the future of public education, religion and accountability in this country. The fundamental questions are (1) whether or not it is legal to use public monies to subsidize private and religious education and (2) whether or not use of public monies offers all students opportunities to equally access high quality education in their communities.

Unconstitutional Measures

Many lawyers who have studied the legal aspects of this issue have long contended that such actions violate the constitutional provision of separation of church and state. Regardless of how the issue is positioned (tax credits, school choice, vouchers for families or students, parental choice, etc.), the bottom-line question remains the same: Is it constitutionally permissible for public tax money to be used to fund private or religious education?

Public accountability for the expenditure of public monies is assured through direct election of school board members in local communities or trough appointment of board members by publicly elected officials. Private and religious schools do not have public elections for their governing boards. Such boards are not held accountable by the community for the use of tax dollars. The lack of such publicly elected boards and accountability systems in private schools raises serious constitutional questions about the legality of subsidizing such operations from public tax sources. In fact, the publicly funded voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland have been successfully challenged in the courts as a violation of the separation of church and state and are currently under appeal.

Inequitable Measures

If the formidable legal questions could somehow be addressed, other fundamental questions still surround voucher plans. These questions can be clustered into three key areas: equitable student access, school improvement and equal accountability.

Concerns about Equitable Student Access

Proponents of publicly funded vouchers propose that diverting public tax monies from public schools will somehow give students more options. They claim to finally give students “choices” – as if students currently have no choice other than to attend their local public school.

However, reviews of state public school operations across the country clearly show that many students already have choices. For example, communities that are striving to better serve students who have specialized interests are operating publicly funded magnet schools and local academies that specialize in the arts, technology and similar high interest areas. Also, many states now allow public charter schools that have more freedom to try new ideas. In addition to offering public and independent charter schools, several states (including Texas) give families the opportunity to transfer their children out of low performing schools into nearby higher performing public schools and, in some states, into other districts.

Thus, many children already have several options available to them. If these options are not being utilized sufficiently, it may be necessary to strengthen the communication and outreach efforts to ensure that all students have equal access to such alternatives.

So the issue is not really about providing options. It is about including private and religious schools among those who receive public tax revenue. This in turn raises the question of whether or not all students have equal access to the alternatives.

People familiar with existing private school operations know that the vast majority of private schools reserve the prerogative to enroll only those students the school chooses to accept. Many private schools use screening tests to determine whether or not pupils meet school-determined criteria for acceptance. Others may choose to weigh entrance criteria so that brothers and sisters of students already enrolled are given preference. As private enterprises, private schools can reject students. Thus, school staff – rather than students or parents – have the ultimate “choice” of who gets to enroll in private schools.

Unless the mechanism used involves a lottery approach (where all participating private schools agree to accept all applying students), the chances for school discrimination increase dramatically. While still subject to federal prohibitions against discrimination based on race or religion, private schools can exclude students on the basis of grades, test scores or “special needs.”

Concerns about Improved Schools

Voucher proponents often contend that introducing competition for public school funds will somehow improve all local public schools. Before rushing to open the public tax coffers, the community at-large should take a step back and ask for evidence that supports such contentions.

Private schools have competed for local community students for more than 100 years. So the notion of public vs. private competition is certainly not new. Yet there is a striking absence of data to substantiate claims that local public schools benefit from the diversion of public money for private operations.

Emerging research in communities that are experimenting with voucher plans suggests that local public schools are not helped but, in many cases, are damaged. For example, a study of the impact of one voucher plan documents the loss of more academically successful and non-minority populations from central city schools. Other studies have determined that performance levels of local schools did not improve and in most cases actually declined as a result of lost resources. Most studies related to the contention that local schools benefit from the loss of pupils and money to publicly financed private schooling either reveal that the opposite is true or cannot draw a conclusion due to small samples, etc.

As voucher advocates continue to disregard the lack of supporting data and insist that their proposals are beneficial to local public schools, it is reasonable for parents and other concerned citizens to want to see proof. Student advocates should set aside “trust me” assurances and references to business-based market competition theories. We should insist that voucher advocates show evidence that the threat or reality of losing some students somehow improves local public school performance. Without evidence, public officials should be hard-pressed to approve transfers of public monies to untested alternatives.

Concerns about Diminished Access and Lowered Accountability

Public schools that receive state and federal funding are subject to strict civil rights requirements, extensive public review and high levels of public accountability. Proponents of using public monies for private schooling historically have requested full access to public funds accompanied by partial or full exclusion from federal and state civil rights access requirements and state accountability requirements. This raises the question of whether or not the entities that receive public funds should have similar accountabilities.

  • Should all schools be equal, or can some be accepted as more or less equal than others?
  • If a non-public school receives public funds should it be subject to open record requirements?
  • Should the school be required (like all public schools) to serve all students within its jurisdictional area, including children with “special needs”?
  • Should schools that receive public money be required to comply with federal laws?
  • Will all schools that receive state funding be subjected to identical state accountability and reporting requirements, or will private schools be exempted?

IDRA contends that anyone who receives public funds should be subject to the same high levels of public scrutiny and public accountability. In the case of private schools, however, who can be held accountable by the public, particularly if the public has no role in selecting the school leadership or the governing board?

Key Questions

The concerns raised above pose serious legal and practical challenges to the concept of providing public monies to subsidize private school operations. It will not matter whether the state provides 100 percent or 1 percent of individual student funding for private schooling. The provision of public monies for private schools itself raises a tremendous number of public policy questions and concerns for students that simply will not go away regardless of how sophisticated the rhetoric becomes. Implementing or expanding public funding for private schooling before these major issues are resolved is poor public policy.

Regarding any voucher proposal (publicly or privately funded), the following questions should be raised and answered.

How many students will be subsidized annually through the program? What criteria will be used to make the selections?

  • What provisions will be made to assure that students (rather than schools) have real options? For example, what guarantees will parents and students have that they will not be denied admission to any school they apply to because of characteristics that require adaptation of instruction?
  • What guarantees do students have that they will not be required to pass an achievement or other academic skills admission or screening test as a condition of their enrollment or re-enrollment?
  • What support will be provided for transportation for those students whose parents do not have cars or the money to cover daily bus or subway fares?
  • What guarantees will be provided to assure future applicants that preferences will not be given to family members or previous voucher recipients?

Concerns in Edgewood ISD

Reaction in San Antonio to the CEO Foundation announcement has been mixed. Some members of the Edgewood community were understandably excited about the prospects of getting “scholarships” to support their child’s enrollment in private schools. Some expressed reservations about the proposal and perceived hidden agendas. Some came to the defense of the school district’s improvements in student achievement during the last several years. Others raised critical questions regarding the impact that the foundation’s plan would have on the quality of schooling available to the majority of students who would remain in the district’s schools.

There are questions circulating about the number of students the program can actually accommodate. On average, Edgewood ISD students who apply for enrollment at some of the city’s more upscale private schools would require a $4,000 subsidy per year. The CEO program could only support 1,250 of Edgewood ISD’s 14,000 students in a single year. Assuming that these 1,250 pupils are evenly distributed across grades (96 pupils at each grade level) and that the only students who do not renew their scholarships are graduating seniors, only 96 new slots would be open each year.

Even if the average scholarship is $2,000 (half the average actual tuition charged), no more than 2,500 students could participate, and only 192 new slots would be open in each year after the first year.

Other questions relate to (a) the criteria that would be used to decide which students receive money and which are denied, (b) who would make those decisions (the foundation or the schools where the pupils are applying), and (c) where parental choice fits in such a scenario.

Proponents of the program have publicly claimed that almost all Edgewood students would be eligible to apply for the scholarships. What has not been stated is that students would have a one in 11 chance of actually receiving support (assuming students are selected by lottery). If any form of testing or grades becomes a criteria, only those students meeting the designated screening criteria would get the monies that have been promised. Those students who are ultimately chosen to receive vouchers must still be accepted by the school.

While seemingly impressive and charitable on its surface, the foundation’s proposal will do little to help most students in Edgewood schools have access to a better education. It may help a few, but it will not help the great majority of students.

As higher achieving students (and parents) opt out of public education, and as district resources decline, the performance ratings of Edgewood ISD will probably decline as well.

However, more than anything else, the situation points to the need for all students to have access to high quality publicly funded public schools in their own communities. This is a public trust that is best addressed in a publicly controlled and publicly funded enterprise.

Quality Schools for All Children

Those who fought for decades to achieve equitable school funding did so to enable all students in all communities to have access to high quality educational programs. This was a departure from the old systems that provided high quality schools for some children, while relegating the majority of students to less than adequate schools or none at all. After many courts have ruled that equitable access to funding is legally required in publicly funded schools, it is noteworthy that some people would argue it is not possible or desirable to have this universal quality across all public schools.

Some skeptics observe that the cry for public funding for private schooling did not emerge until many states outlawed the operation of grossly unequal public schools. These skeptics propose that the voucher movement is little more than a ruse for giving more options to a few select students and communities, restoring the privilege and funding lost by the elite as a result of court-mandated reform.

Instead of abandoning some schools in order to attend others, why not concentrate on improving poor performing schools located in some communities. Are they not worth improving? Does the community not deserve excellent public schools?

Private support for private schools has been and should remain an alternative for proponents of religiously affiliated and non-sectarian private education. Providing scholarships to a few students in low performing schools, however, will contribute little to the improvement of educational opportunities for the overwhelming number of students who will not benefit from such programs.

Gerald Terrozi, assistant secretary of education, observes that in many instances proponents of voucher plans give answers to questions that were never asked by local communities and avoid critical questions that focus on the real issues at hand.

Can public schools provide both excellence and equity for all pupils? IDRA believes they can. While it has long been a critic of the quality of public schooling available to too many of our children, IDRA continues to believe in the need for, viability of, and potential of public education. Like our democracy, public education is neither easy to implement, nor easy to sustain. But compared to the elitist, exclusionary systems that have evolved in many other countries, it is – like our democracy – a far better option for children.

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is division director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]