The emerging landscape of school vouchers

By OSV Newsweekly

As parents have the right to make certain decisions about their children’s education, many states have enacted laws allowing for voucher programs to help parents send their children to private schools.

But voucher programs remain controversial. Essentially, voucher programs use government funds — tax dollars — to allow parents to move their children from public to private schools.

The question is one of school choice, which has been a thorny issue for some time. In 1925, a case came before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the Oregon Compulsory Education Act, which required all children between the ages of 8 and 16 to attend public school. While some exceptions were enumerated, an amended version of the law eliminated an exception for private schools. The case, Pierce v. Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, ended with the court unanimously ruling in favor of school choice and the rights of parents or guardians to make that choice.

Local benefits

Supporters of voucher programs provide examples of the way the programs have blessed lower-income families.

The Diocese of Tucson participates in a program in Arizona called Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA), begun in 2011 to give parents of disabled students an option of enrolling their children in a private school. Since that time, the program has been expanded to include more eligible students, such as those with active-duty military parents, children who are or ever have been in foster care, children who live on tribal lands and more.

“What I have seen both the ESA and tax-credit programs do is make our Catholic schools more available, accessible and affordable to more parents who otherwise couldn’t afford to send their children to a Catholic school,” said Sheri Dahl, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the diocese. Dahl said the ESA has helped the state of Arizona tackle a social-justice issue, resulting in an increase in enrollment, allowing the diocese to serve students of varied backgrounds and abilities, resulting in a rich, diverse demographic.

As of last fall, approximately 70 percent of students in the diocese receive either tax credit or ESA scholarship assistance, Dahl said. “Our Catholic schools depend on this scholarship assistance; without it, most would be at risk of closing, especially our schools that serve a majority low-income population.”

In Indiana, the program is referred to as the Indiana Choice Scholarship program to avoid a negative connotation that is sometimes associated with vouchers, according to Amy Johns, associate superintendent of the Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Johns and Marsha Jordan, superintendent, have noted an increase in diversity within the diocese’s schools thanks to the scholarship. They also have taken on challenges such as adding additional personnel to ensure accurate completion of paperwork, understanding and following the state regulations, and attending workshops to stay up to date on the law and guidelines of the program, Johns said via email.

Research continues

In an effort to get at the effects vouchers have on the communities that accept them, Daniel Hungerman, associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, was part of a team that conducted extensive research on the issue of school vouchers. The research looked at the financial situation of Catholic churches with attached elementary schools around Milwaukee, a city that was selected as it has the oldest voucher program in the country, going back 27 years.

The team was able to gain insights into how the voucher program affected these churches with schools by examining the churches’ finances as well as the Milwaukee voucher program’s changes.

“My own research ... has shown that vouchers help keep churches open,” preventing closures and mergers, Hungerman said. But he tempered that positive point with the concern that vouchers may end up changing the character of the schools for which they are being used.

“Our work has shown that vouchers may cause a decrease in certain religious financial activities,” he said. The expansion of vouchers in Milwaukee, according to the researchers, resulted in notable declines in church donations and church spending on noneducational religious purposes.

And, notably, for the average church tracked in the team’s research, vouchers became a greater source of revenue than any other source, including worshippers.

As the team’s paper on their research states, “The meteoric growth of vouchers appears to offer financial stability for congregations while at the same time diminishing their religious activities.” There is no clear reasoning for this decline, which speaks to the fact that the voucher question is by no means answered.

It is possible that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is atypical, as the vouchers go directly to the schools rather than to the parents first. Studies focusing on other dioceses may yield different results.

Other considerations

The voucher debate also often touches on the question of whether they can improve educational attainment, specifically test scores, Hungerman said. In fact, according to a report published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, students who utilize vouchers to attend private schools “fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.”

Economically, Hungerman warns of some potential dangers of voucher programs. “Imagine the federal government creates a large voucher program,” he said, “and then in 20 years that program gets eliminated or ruled unconstitutional — so the money disappears overnight.”

Beyond economics, other dangers include a certain loss of identity that can result from the increased government oversight that comes as a term of accepting vouchers. “Churches must already decide whether they are willing to face extra regulations in order to take on vouchers, but I think there is a concern there that such regulations could, over time, create a lot of tough decisions for church leaders and churchgoers.”

In Indiana, Jordan remains enthusiastic about the program and the blessings it can bring. And as they look to the future, she hopes for “a greater understanding that the intent of this program is truly about allowing parents to choose the school that best fits the needs of their child.”

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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