Do Vouchers Improve Educational Outcomes?

Do vouchers for tuition in private schools improve educational outcomes here in Pennsylvania?  Do they empower parents to make better choices for their children?  What’s driving the rapid expansion of the voucher system in Pennsylvania?

Susan Spicka, Executive Director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, addressed these and other questions on Wednesday evening, March 6 in the community room at the Gettysburg YWCA.  The program was hosted by Gettysburg Democracy for America as part of its regular monthly series of Community Conversations.  Spicka was assisted by DFA Education Task Force member Tony McNevin who opened the program with a brief account of the history of the voucher movement in the United States.

Many Pennsylvanians first became aware of vouchers back in the summer of 2023 with Governor Josh Shapiro’s on and off support for an expansion of the program.  But the voucher system has been up and running for quite a while and had grown quite large even before the recent controversy. In the 2023-2024 fiscal year, for example, the two tax credit programs through which vouchers are delivered will provide $470 million to the private scholarship organizations that administer the system and award tuition vouchers to families whose children attend private and religious schools.  Since their inception in 2001, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) have provided more than $2 billion in taxpayer-funded support for school vouchers, according to Spicka.

Supporters of vouchers argue that they give parents the means of choosing better options for the education of their children.  But this freedom of choice argument conceals a number of significant problems, according to a recent study and report by Education Voters that Spicka referred to in her presentation.  These include a lack of transparency and accountability built into the program and a lack of safeguards against discrimination of various kinds. In addition, tax revenue lost through support of the vouchers means less money for public schools, some of which are significantly underfunded. A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision in February 2023, in fact, declared Pennsylvania’s approach to funding unconstitutional and sent state legislators scrambling to create an alternative.

As for transparency and accountability, the law that created the voucher system actually prohibits the collection of information about the socioeconomic status of recipients. State law also prohibits gathering data about the academic performance of these students. It is therefore impossible to assess whether vouchers are meeting the goals their boosters claim for them. Since private schools are exempt from most of the regulations and public scrutiny associated with public schools, it is also impossible to know much about the quality of the education these students are receiving.

But it is possible to know quite a bit, Spicka continued, about the discrimination practiced by many of the private and religious schools that receive voucher support.  Their websites, she said, are often quite open about the kinds of students who  will or will not be permitted to attend. LGBTQ+ students are often prohibited and students with disabilities are advised to attend public schools.  Religious schools often require religious commitments of various kinds. In addition, many of these schools also reserve the right to reject students who do not “fit in” without explaining the reasons for the rejection.

Though the voucher program claims that it allows parents and students greater choice, what we really have, Spicka concluded, is a program that allows schools to hand pick students and a system that promotes the flow of public money into private pockets and damages public education in the process.

To address these problems, Spicka advocated three important steps.  First, make sure that all public schools are adequately funded in compliance with the recent court decision, and move back to an approach with greater reliance on state funding and a reduced dependence on local property taxes. Secondly, include antidiscrimination safeguards in the program. And thirdly, mandate the collection of information on the economic status and educational outcomes associated with students who receive vouchers, so it is possible for the public to evaluate the success or failure of the program.

More information on the recent study and report by Education Voters of PA is available on the website at https://edvoterspa.org/tax-payer-funded-vouchers/

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Will Lane, a founding member of Green Gettysburg and the Green Gettysburg Book Club, is a Lecturer in English and Affiliated Faculty Member with Environmental Studies at Gettysburg College.

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Elmer M Shelton
Elmer M Shelton
2 months ago

It’s interesting to me that programs such as these are funded, and taxpayers are quiet. And those same taxpayers will complain about the poor state and quality of public education. That $470 million is most likely being taken from the public education system. And why are these vouchers not seen as discriminatory, as DEI and affirmative action have been ruled? As this well written article reports, there are populations of students that may conclude these vouchers are not for them.

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