Voucher Critics are Misleading the Public

Published October 30, 2011

The usual suspects have again begun loudly denouncing Gov. Tom Corbett’s push for a second chance at passing education vouchers for poor students in Pennsylvania’s worst 5 percent of public schools.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has pointed to high reported rates of Pennsylvanians’ satisfaction with government schools as a reason not to offer vouchers. A look at the data on potential voucher schools and students, however, reveals the PSBA’s callous disregard for the most needy and oppressed in Pennsylvania.

Vouchers offer a ticket to hope for children stuck in despicably bad schools. How do we know? Let’s look at the 141 mostly urban schools whose students would qualify.

On average, one of three students at these schools manages to test “proficient” in reading and math on the state assessment. One of three. Academic achievement is essential to a prosperous life. These children are being denied any plausible chance at a good future.

The schools in question averaged 32 criminal acts apiece over the past school year — one incident of assault, rape, weapons possession or the like each week, according to a Commonwealth Foundation analysis. Many of these schools do much worse than the average: Wilkinsburg middle and high schools, the two most violent, suffered 166 and 128 violent incidents per 100 students last year. Wilkinsburg School District spends approximately $20,000 per student each year and its students score in the bottom fifth of Pennsylvania students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Most Pennsylvania students do not attend schools this horrific, to be sure. But then again, most Pennsylvania students would not get a voucher. Not only would voucher recipients have to come from one of these Halloween horror houses, their family income would have to be below 130 percent of the federal poverty line — $29,000 for a family of four. They are the neediest of the needy.

Critics like to contend the data on vouchers are incomplete or inconclusive. “No data proves this is any better than what we have now,” says Frederick Johnston, superintendent of Souderton School District. Yet most vouchers analyses conclude their impact is difficult to tease out because programs are so small and the competing monopoly, traditional public schools, so intractable, notes Jay Greene, one of the nation’s foremost education researchers.

Of the nine best studies — those using the research “gold standard” of random assignment — all but one demonstrate significant positive academic benefits from vouchers. (The 10th did not find any difference.)

“I don’t want money shifted from public schools to fund (vouchers),” said Central Bucks Superintendent Robert Laws, though voucher programs in every state where they have been tried have saved taxpayer money because the voucher amount is always much lower than state per-pupil spending — often by half.

PSBA President Thomas Gentzel worries that vouchers leave nonvoucher students “in a building that is still underperforming and now also underfunded because tax dollars have been siphoned to the private, parochial or public school where the student moves.”

His solution — preventing anybody from leaving — is astonishingly perverse. And sending less tax money to schools that have fewer students — because they’re not doing their job — is only common sense.

The real answer to Gentzel’s complaint is not to stop vouchers but to expand them so every student trapped in Pennsylvania’s worst schools gets a chance to leave for something better.

Sick and twisted systems don’t deserve taxpayer support, especially systems that cannot get more than a third of their students performing at grade level for $20,000 a year. Taxes belong to taxpayers and most taxpayers informed of this situation would reasonably conclude it’s time to change.

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow in education and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute (heartland.org).