I was surprised to see the Douglas County proposal to use public money for private school vouchers, which has already received some commentary. Douglas County supporters seem to be selling the idea more on the possible financial savings than other possible benefits of expanded choice.
In Colorado, since the 2004 court ruling, vouchers have largely been dead, and they haven’t made much headway elsewhere, when put up for votes. At the same time, advocates have made more progress in this domain by promoting state-level tax credits for private schooling – not the same as vouchers, but with some similarities, as in Arizona, where is a case is currently up for legal review.
Interestingly, if you had to draw a line in the sand between Democrats for Education Reform’s education reform agenda and that of the Republican party, the biggest differences would be vouchers, which are not supported across-the-board by DFER types. Charters are the preferred form of choice for DFER, since they keep public monies in public schools.
I suppose that the Tea Party and the recent Republican electoral gains have and will embolden advocates to renew their push for vouchers.
As they do that, they might want to think about the distinctions between where vouchers are applied. Terry Moe, in his excellent 2001 book “Schools, Vouchers and the American Public,” which examines public opinion on school choice, found a lot of public support for using vouchers to help low-income families in urban areas with mostly terrible school options. He did not find nearly the same political support for more widespread use of vouchers.
Indeed, wider public opinion about vouchers in a place like Douglas County has tended to view the idea as meant to promote segregation by class and public subsidization of religious schooling, which are not widely popular ideas.
Personally, I support greater experimentation with vouchers for low-income students in urban areas – the DC program showed some promise. The broader research on these vouchers is actually pretty good, mainly from Paul Peterson’s Center at Harvard, and by his former graduate students – Patrick Wolf and Jay Greene.
While the findings are mixed and certainly don’t show panacea-like results from vouchers, there do seem to be some modest student achievement gains from using the vouchers (and the best studies have utilized lotteries to reduce the likely self-selection effects, though the methodology doesn’t allow us to completely rule that problem out).
But, the idea of Douglas County saving money via vouchers may be problematic. I haven’t seen any details, but the idea seems to be a voucher at 75 percent of per pupil operating revenue (a number that I assume includes some state money, a point to consider again in a minute for legal purposes). While, in a static sense, the district would obviously save 25 percent of the amount when families exercise the voucher, it is hard to see what kind of policy will prohibit current Douglas County parents who already send their child to private school from utilizing the voucher, and thus costing the district more (if memory serves, the state voucher plan from 2003 would have required families to be in public schools for one year, before exercising the voucher – something like this is possible, but only a short run solution to the “switching” problem).
If this idea does move forward, it would also re-raise some interesting legal questions. While I don‘t play a lawyer on TV, I do recall that the state decision was made on local control grounds. Not tested thoroughly was the “no public money for private religious schools” element of the state Constitution (the “Blaine amendment”), which would seem to rule vouchers out, on their face, if any state money is involved (as opposed to just local funds).
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