School choice seems like a quick fix, but does more harm than good for families in the U.S.

Cyrus Driver, Senior Director
Mary González, Associate Director
Partnership for the Future of Learning

Still from CRE Stories film “Race Conversations in the Classroom” via NYU Metro Center and MediaSutra

Right now, a lot of people claim to have the answer to solving the problem of equity in our education system. It seems that equity in education is a value many of us share, regardless of political leaning. There are a number of roads that people think will take us there, but not all roads are clear on the reality that education is a public good and a key ingredient in a healthy democracy.

Our government is responsible for protecting, strengthening, and advancing our education system, and specifically, our public education system. It’s one of the most important functions of government — “to maintain a high-quality public education system. In many states, however, this objective is being undermined by tax policies that redirect public dollars for K–12 education toward private schools.” (Public Loss Private Gain, 2017)

Schools are a vital infrastructure, like roads, libraries, and the postal service. Educational policies and change efforts must not weaken or erode public education systems. That’s why we need our legislators to think beyond “school choice.” Solutions are available. Change is possible.

That change needs to start with real investment in public education. We need to strengthen local schools, not spend our tax dollars on private schools. Instead of taking resources away from the neighborhoods and districts where schools are located, we should be funding and staffing public schools to better serve their students and communities. Renovating our education system will protect the investments we have already made in it and ensure it becomes more and more equitable.

When we see cuts to Title I funding, cuts to budgets for crucial afterschool and arts programs, and the elimination of funding for school climate and anti-bullying programs, we know it’s going to hurt students and families. School choice curbs access to high-quality options because it doesn’t actually distribute educational resources more equitably. This means fewer high-quality local options and less access to opportunity. When funding is drained from public districts, their ability to provide adequate educational resources to the majority of students who remain in public schools is undermined.

Vouchers can’t solve those problems and are not a proven strategy for improving student achievement. Vouchers reduce the amount of money available to public schools. Public schools do not earn federal funds for students they do not have. Seventeen states currently divert a total of over $1 billion per year toward private schools via tax credits.

In 2008, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation establishing the Georgia Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Reporting shows most of Georgia’s Tax-Funded Scholarships have gone to higher income families, and students from poor families in Georgia are the least likely to receive a tax-funded scholarship to attend a private school. There is no information about students’ gender, race, school district of residence, or grade level, and there’s no data on eligibility criteria. There’s no data on students’ learning outcomes, no data on participating private schools, and no mechanism to remove schools based on poor student achievement track record.

In Pennsylvania, reporting shows that of 151 schools that administer their own tax credit scholarship programs, “57 — more than a third — report enrolling zero low-income students or said they couldn’t determine how many low-income students they have. Another 15 schools told the state that less than five percent of their student body was low-income.”

Even though Indiana sets accountability standards for voucher programs through state assessments and sanctions on persistently low-performing private schools, an evaluation of the state’s programs confirmed that diverting taxpayer dollars away from the state’s public education system, in to lower-performing private religious schools, was likely to lower student achievement in the state over time. More than half of students receiving vouchers in Indiana have never attended Indiana public schools.

In Wisconsin, 75% of students who applied for the statewide voucher program already attended private schools.

In Arizona, the state’s tax credit programs that pay for vouchers designate only about 3% of voucher money to special-needs students, and barely a third goes to children of low-income families.

Is this what we want to see happen across the U.S.?

No one wants students or parents to have difficulties at school. But, if parents know best, let’s listen to what parents are actually saying instead of only listening to a vocal, small (and often, wealthy) group. Polling shows that neighborhood public schools are the preference for parents, as long as we invest in those schools to help them be safe, high quality learning communities.

Community schools are a great example of how this kind of investment can happen. There are alternatives to vouchers that are far more equitable, that really engage communities where they live. Community schools show how youth, parents, and educators can lead together to bring high quality public education, each and every child is better able to pursue their dreams and achieve their fullest potential.

Real school “choice” can only exist if all public schools have the resources they need to provide an excellent education for all children. Any educational policy change should contribute to strengthening and renovating public education systems, and ensuring that each and every child has access to a high-quality public school — today and in the future.

It is never adequate or just to deliver some common experiences to all, while selecting just a few to advance. We must ensure improvements to education are equally distributed — happening everywhere, and benefitting all of us.

The Partnership for the Future of Learning is a network of more than 200 organizations and 20 foundations that protects, strengthens, and advances education equity and meaningful learning — and supports the policies and practices that get us there.

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