This is our latest post in “The Looming Financial Crisis?” series. Read the rest here.
In August, I wrote for Education Next about how the pandemic was affecting private schools — especially those dedicated to serving high-need students — and the factors that can influence whether a school is able to pivot during uncertain and disruptive times.
But as state budgets tighten, private schools that rely on vouchers or tax-credit scholarship programs to serve high-need students are not wholly in control of their own destiny. Rather, just as school responses have varied widely, policymaker responses will vary as well.
After the 2008 recession, for instance, state school choice policies sometimes lost — and sometimes gained — significant funding. For example, funding for Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program dropped 20% after 2008 before rebounding a couple of years later. Meanwhile, funding for Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Parental Choice Program increased by 12%, and policymakers in the Sunshine State increased the ceiling on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program nearly 50%.
There are limitations on what school choice proponents can predict in uncertain times. Here are three questions they should continue to revisit as the pandemic evolves this fall and new state legislatures prepare to convene in January:
What are the projections for your state’s economy?
The more constrained the resources, the harder it will be for policymakers to preserve and expand private school choice programs. First, it will be important to understand the state tax revenues that fund state voucher programs. State revenues often come from a combination of income and sales taxes, and, as Jennifer Schiess explained, these can be hard to predict. They could be less vulnerable to downturns, since the pandemic hit low-wage workers hardest and low-wage workers make up a smaller share of income tax revenue. Internet shopping could also offset declines in sales tax revenue from brick-and-mortar retail. Continue reading →
The majority opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue from Chief Justice Roberts could not be more clear: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” With this ruling, “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions were essentially repealed. It’s an unequivocal victory for school choice advocates on the question of who can operate a school with public funding, decidedly in favor of a pluralistic approach.
Research shows that areas with more religious individuals are correlated with greater upward mobility. But the option for some students to attend religious schools is no panacea. As Espinoza forces state policy to become more agnostic on the question of who operates schools, policymakers will have to grapple with how to balance the autonomy of multiple school providers – public and non-public alike – with policies that protect the rights of families and ensure that public funding for education produces adequately educated citizens.
Catholic school mass via Flickr user dioceseofgallup
The first question policymakers need to address is that of access: which families have access to which schools through public funding? All students – regardless of where they live – ought to have equal admissions access to publicly funded schools, whether they are operated by a public school district or a religious organization. This principle should be applied to voucher-type programs and public schools alike. Schools across all sectors have a nasty history of excluding poor and Black students, whether through attendance boundaries created to protect affluent white “public” schools or “segregation academies” in the private sector.. Public and private schools alike should embrace the principle that any student is welcome to apply for a fair shot at enrollment, regardless of where they lay down their head at night.
Second, just as families deserve fair access to publicly-funded schools, they should also not be forced to enroll their children at schools they view as harmful. Accordingly, policymakers must ensure that religious schools are not the only option available to families. No family should be effectively required to enroll their child at a school that violates their family’s religious beliefs. This is of greatest concern in rural areas, where the geographic density of students may not support multiple school operators. States could consider population density minimums or market share caps for private school operators to receive public subsidy in a given area. Continue reading →
Universal vouchers, which provide government funding to families to offset the cost of private school tuition, are generally favored by market-oriented school-choice proponents. So you’d expect charter schools, which tend to enjoy more bipartisan support, to be more widely popular.
According to the latest Education Next poll, in 2019, 55% of the public indicated that they support universal vouchers, an increase of 12 percentage points since 2013. Meanwhile, charter schools only got the support of 48% of the public, a slight decline of 3 percentage points since 2013.
Source: Education Next, “Trends in the EdNext Survey: Question wording and data over time,” 2019, https://educationnext.org/files/ednext-poll-question-wording-over-time-through-2019.pdf
Here are four key lessons from the Education Next poll that might explain why universal vouchers are tracking ahead of charter schools:
I have a post up on the ExcelinEd blog today (co-authored with Victoria Bell), applying the takeaways from the report Bellwether released last week, “Working Toward Equitable Access and Affordability: How Private Schools and Microschools Seek to Serve Middle- and Low-Income Students.” The post explores how Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program improves access to private school education and how financial aid from private schools helps fill the gap between average scholarship amounts and average tuition. Here’s an excerpt:
As highlighted in the Bellwether report, participation in private school choice programs is one strategy to improve private school affordability. Florida’s choice programs make the state a strong example of how the private schooling sector can serve students from low- and middle-income families.
[…] Relatively low rates of tuition, combined with the support of private school choice programs, increase the likelihood that middle- and low-income families in Florida can afford a private school education if that is what they choose for their child. The average scholarship amount of $6,300 covers 84 percent of tuition at half of the private schools in Florida.
Read more at ExcelinEd here, and read our posts connected to the new report here.
Yesterday in The 74, writer Mikhail Zinshteyn summarized key findings from our recent report, “Toward Equitable Access and Affordability: How Private Schools and Microschools Seek to Serve Middle- and Low-Income Students.” Here’s an excerpt of his piece:
A new report from Bellwether Education Partners, a research and consulting nonprofit, seeks to offer a fresh look at how private K-12 schools are keeping their costs down, even as the share of students from middle-income families attending private schools has dropped by nearly 50 percent since the 1960s.
“Private school choice is probably not a 100 percent solution for providing high-quality schools to middle- and low-income families,” Squire said. “But they can help, and I think it’s worth studying them for that reason.”
Read the rest of his piece in The 74, and dive into the full report, which I co-authored with Julie Squire and Melissa King.