Cynthia Howell at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this morning on a school development I’ve been watching with great interest: The arrival of school vouchers in Arkansas.
This is another Walton Family Foundation initiative. It has been spending heavily through a supported affiliate on promoting the availability of about 100 vouchers. The program has been given over by the state to be overseen by The Reform Alliance, an organization Walton money funds. The alliance is run by a former employee of another organization the Waltons finance, the misleadingly named Arkansas Public School Resource Center. The Walton machine is not friendly to conventional public school districts.
The “Success Scholarship” program is, the headline says, for “special needs” kids. This is a broad spectrum of students who currently qualify in public school districts for “individual education plans.” This could include hyperactivity, dyslexia, autism and other conditions that, while needing special attention, sometimes don’t prevent participation in regular classrooms most of the day.
Some points to note:
* For a parent to qualify for a $6,600 annual subsidy in public money to attend a private school, there need be no showing that the existing public school lacks adequate services for a child or that the private school is more proficient. (Some of these schools even rely on local public school districts for certain special ed needs.) The private school must have a special ed teacher and their teachers must have bachelor’s degrees.
* As it stands, tax dollars will be going only to religious institutions, the only private schools to sign up so far.
* There’s no income qualification for parents to receive the money. The state payment isn’t enough to cover the tuition at some private schools.
* Will the state provide a comprehensive accounting of how the program is used. That is:
* How many students.
* Racial breakdown.
* Economic breakdown.
* The type of individual education program of each child and some means of judging whether that need was served in both the public school left behind and the private school.
* The number of children with profound needs being served, such as those who spend little or no time each day in ordinary classrooms.
* If a Walton organization is being used as a pass-through of the money and enabler, will its work be subject to accountability under the Freedom of Information Act?
* Experience in other states.
The D-G article failed to dip into some of the experience of other states with similar programs. Take Louisiana.
Better ( worse) still is the crashing failure of a broader voucher program in Louisiana, which you may be sure is the goal for the “reformers” of Arkansas.
MIT found a voucher program for kids from poor schools actually harmed kids. Diane Ravitch observed:
In brief, the students who attended voucher schools lost ground academically. Attendance at a voucher private school lowered math scores by 0.4 standard deviation and increased the likelihood of a failing score by 50 percent. Voucher effects for reading, science, and social studies were also “negative and large.” The negative impacts of vouchers were consistent across all income groups. Apparently the voucher schools were the weakest private schools and were not as good as the so-called “failing public schools.”
Arkansas school administrators are wary. They were able to insert some modest protections in the “pilot’ voucher bill passed in 2015. This included a testing provision. But we know how this works. Sone testing was included when the legislature opened the door to home schooling. That’s gone now. The prevailing mantra is this: Where does the state get off second-guessing a parent’s decision or performance on a child’s education.The answer is that there is a constitutional requirement that state money be spent on suitable and equal education. The state may decide how that command is defined. A parent, in his or her wisdom, may disagree. But they also may put their own money where their mouth is when that happens.
Billionaires pushing “school reform” began by pushing school vouchers. Vouchers ran into political resistance, That gave rise to charter schools — private schools run, often for profit or at least in profitable ways for employees of management companies, with public money. As the “choice” gospel has spread through oiling of politicians, vouchers have returned.
Prediction: This first-year program will be judged a success before the school year is finished and the 2017 legislature will be asked to expand on its success with more ways to send public money to private church schools.