The issue of big money in education can be viewed in two ways: first, individuals and corporations use large contributions to legislators and other state officials to lobby for laws and statutes that will benefit themselves; and second, individuals and corporations find ways to take advantage of the large amounts of state and federal money tied up in education. The first post of this series on big money in education addressed the first issue, relationships between wealthy individuals, corporations and legislators. The second post, on charter schools, and this post on school vouchers examine the second type of money’s influence in education.
School voucher programs are different from charter schools because a) charters are limited and must be approved by the state, whereas vouchers can be used with any private school; b) charter schools are paid at the same rate per pupil as regular public schools, as opposed to vouchers which give parents a specified amount of money or a tax credit to be used toward private school tuition, with the parents making up any difference; and c) charter schools are technically public schools, so their funding is clearly constitutional, while school voucher programs have been struck down by many state supreme courts for unconstitutionality because they use state money set aside for public schools.
A school voucher may be used with any private school, many times even those that are religiously based. In Washington, D.C., more than half of vouchers in the 2011-2012 school year went to Catholic schools – a potential violation of First Amendment separation of church and state. During the 2011-2012 school year in Florida, the Miami New Times reported that there were 1,013 schools, 65 percent of them religious, collecting McKay vouchers (a special program for disabled children) from 22,198 children with disabilities at an average of $7,144 per year.
In many states, private schools that receive vouchers do not have to be accredited or hire teachers with any particular education or license. Oversight of private schools is limited in most cases, although standardized testing may be required. Because there are few requirements in most states, almost anyone can set up a private school and collect voucher money. The St. Petersburg Times found that schools in Florida have “popped up overnight by the lure of easy money” and found “outdated text books, unqualified teachers, physical abuse, lack of specialized services, and schools that cash voucher checks for students who are no longer enrolled.” Like the proliferation of charter schools in states such as Texas, creation of new private schools is often motivated by the enormous amount of money funneled into the school system.
Washington D.C. and some states with voucher programs, such as Indiana, Louisiana, and Wisconsin, require means testing to ensure that the neediest students receive voucher money first. Several states have programs specifically developed for special needs students. According to the National Council on Disability, private schools are not required to offer the same specialized services that public schools offer, such as speech, occupational (fine motor skills), and physical therapy and assistive technology (such as FM systems for the hearing impaired).
The Palm Beach Post has reported many instances of misuse of state education funds via vouchers. In 2004, school officials at one private Florida school stole $200,000 in voucher and other state education money. A Tampa school named in a federal terrorism indictment received $350,000 in voucher money. Also, a 2011 Florida investigation turned up the story of Christopher Vaughn who used voucher money to enroll in a school his grandmother heard about at church. He attended the school for 2 years, but in 2010 when he decided to transfer to a public school for his senior year, no school would accept his records. His poor education meant as an 18-year-old, he had to return to public school as a sophomore.
The Washington, D.C. school reforms, including a voucher program which served up to 1700 low-income and special needs students, were hailed during the 2000’s as an example for states to follow when they wrote their own laws to improve education. However, later research published by the Department of Education revealed that the D.C. school voucher program had no statistically significant impact on overall student achievement in math or reading. Some parents reported feeling that their children were safer in the private schools, but entry into the D.C. school voucher program decreased student access to key services.
Clearly, voucher programs, like charter schools, can be open invitations to greedy individuals and corporations. Some states have more requirements than others for charter schools and private schools participating in voucher programs. However, the situation in all cases could be greatly improved if state laws required close oversight of charter schools and schools in voucher programs. If state legislators are going to take money away from traditional public schools and, instead, use taxpayer money for alternatives to public education, they must enact appropriate oversight laws and give them “teeth” by funding agencies to enforce them.
The final post in this series will examine the topic of dark money as well as big money in post-secondary education.