Are Voucher Students Altering Private Schools?

Published May 4, 2013

Private schools often attract parents by offering a unique school culture, often based on a particular religion or philosophy. Because school transfers are often difficult for students, they could be even more so when the new school is quite different.


About 9 percent of school-aged children attend U.S. private schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s a 55-year enrollment low, says the Census Bureau. Many private schools feel fiscal and demographic pressure more keenly than do public schools, because they typically spend half what public schools do per student and have no automatic enrollment. Realities like this mean only three private schools of nearly 300 in Indiana do not use vouchers, although the state’s program is just two years old. As more kids enter private schools through choice programs, how are vouchers affecting private schools?


If private schools don’t prepare new students both academically and socially, the schools’ quality will suffer, said Tom Cathey, legal director for the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI). ACSI is surveying voucher schools across the nation to see how they have dealt with an influx of new students. Cathey mentioned that private schools in Ohio have been preparing new students socially with orientation programs and academically by bringing them into classrooms early. Ohio private schools have also given teachers extra training to deal with the influx of new, more diverse students.


Some students bring public school culture into the private school their parents have chosen, Cathey said, which means private schools that want to preserve what distinguishes them from others must do so deliberately, even as they enjoy an influx of students attracted by their uniqueness.


In 2012-2013, more than 1.1 million children participated in voucher or education tax credit programs in 22 states and DC, and more than twice that many will be eligible for such programs this fall, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.


Parents in the Driver’s Seat

Although vouchers mean students can escape from a bad schooling environment, they can bring some of that residual dysfunction with them. In Indiana schools, it may be too soon to tell whether much has changed, but Ohio has had 13 more years of experience with vouchers. Ohio’s voucher programs have increasingly diversified private schools. Students from various backgrounds and religions can now attend private schools because of the state’s expanding voucher programs, noted Jason Warner, the legislative director at School Choice Ohio.


“There have been efforts to stop expansion” from the outset, he said, but Ohio parents are begging for more opportunities to get their kids into better schools. In April, 2,000 people, including students, from “all walks of life” attended a rally supporting a proposed voucher expansion that would reach more rural areas in the state.


School culture is one important factor parents consider when looking at schools, said Alan Simpson, a spokesman for school information sharing network GreatSchools. Parents need to ask themselves, “What am I looking for in a school?” he said, to discern what type of school would be an academic and climate fit for their child. Each child is an individual, Simpson emphasized: some schools that work well for some children do not for others.

 Opportunity to Serve the Needy

Catholic schools are among the religious schools known for seeking to reach disadvantaged children because of the importance their church places on serving the poor.

“School choice is human compassion,” said Candi Cushman, an education analyst for family advocate nonprofit Citizen Link. It is wrong to essentially trap kids in failing public schools when their parents would much rather they attend private schools, she said. This holds the failing school responsible.

Without school choice, Cushman said, society would be giving the government full responsibility for children’s educations. Because children are not the property of the state, families should be equipped with school choice, she said.

Because Indianapolis Catholic schools have retained their admission policies, which Indiana’s voucher program allows, they have been able to maintain their academic, spiritual, and social standards in schools, said Gina Fleming, an assistant superintendent for the Indianapolis Archdiocese. During the admissions process, each school decides whether applicants are academically able to keep up with the school, she said.

Fleming said increased racial diversity has been the only cultural change her schools have encountered. This change is “very healthy and welcomed,” she said.


Culture Shock

Vouchers offer students a chance at a better education, but private schools that don’t prepare for addressing the needs of new voucher students may end up giving returning students less attention, Cathey said. Returning students are already used to the academic level and culture of the school, so shouldn’t be shortchanged while others get up to speed.


Private schools often consist of suburban kids and public schools of inner-city kids, Cathey pointed out. When these two groups come together, there is a culture shock on both sides, he said. Eventually, one culture has to stabilize as the dominant school culture, he said.


Vouchers provide families with more opportunities and are simply another form of the financial aid many private schools already offer, Cushman said. Vouchers mean kids and parents can reach for a better life and school environment.


“When parents are involved in their child’s schooling, that child becomes a better student,” Cushman said.


Image by U.S. Embassy-Tel Aviv.