Unity Group Concerned About Possible Use Of School Vouchers

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Officials of the Unity Group said during the last several weeks, the group "has grown increasingly concerned that the fate of a free, fair and appropriate public education for all children is extremely at risk of being undone as the State Legislature is currently debating bills related to school vouchers and neo-vouchers."


The statement said, "Throughout the course of the last decade, there has been a burgeoning movement to privatize public schools through an expansion of charter schools, vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and most recently through the granting of education savings accounts by groups often associated with the PIE Network, which is a consortium of 98 reform groups and 22 national policy partners in 35 states and  Washington D.

C. Indeed, in February one of these groups, the American Federation for Children, lauded a recent poll conducted by Mason Dixon which stated that 78% of Tennesseans supported ESAs, this despite a polling sample of only 625 registered voters and a lack of information that details whether the methodology used included diverse populations and socioeconomic variables.  Notwithstanding, the mass propagation and proliferation of school privatization through the form of vouchers and neo-vouchers will serve to endanger equal educational opportunity for students in Tennessee and across the nation.


"Many groups have meticulously researched this most recent wave of school privatization.  The National Coalition for Public Education defines education savings accounts as, “simply vouchers by another name" that the government redirects from  taxpayer funds that are slated for each student, (up to 90% of per pupil spending), and then places them into savings accounts  that can be used for numerous education related purposes regardless of if the school is charter, private or parochial. In one of the most voluminous studies on the impact of vouchers, Keeping Informed about School Vouchers: A Review of Major Developments and Research (2011), the Center on Education Policy reasoned that most available data on the subject concluded that vouchers do not have a strong effect on student achievement, and that many achievement gains for voucher students was similar to their public school peers.


"The National Education Policy Center is another agency that has conducted analysis of school privatization in the report, The State of Education Savings Account Programs in the United States by Castellanos, Mathis, and Welner (2018). They note that ESAs, “work around state constitutional prohibitions preventing using public money to fund private schools". Likewise, since 2017, 13 states have introduced various ESA bills with measures passing in 6 of those States including Tennessee, though this was limited to special needs students. The two most frequent ESA approaches detailed are the targeted approach, such as the Tennessee measure,  while in most instances states have attempted to expand ESAs universally to all students. Due to the major concerns that they identified over the use of ESAs such as, "the lack of accountability, their potential effects on social and economic stratification in schools and society, and the fiscal impact on school districts and States," many pertinent questions were raised, three of which are: (1) Will the program increase or decrease democratic participation and equality? (2) Will the program increase or decrease segregation by race, income, disability, or otherwise affect specific groups of students? (3) Will the rights of children with special needs be protected? One of the more telling quotes the authors provide is, "ESA programs embrace privatization and non-transparency by design. Accountability systems are absent, and data are limited; the lack of data and reporting will impede research on how these policies affect students, schools, and states."


"Barbara Michelman has also provided an extensive account on recent school privatization developments in the study, Vouchers, Privatization and the Threat to Public Education (2017). She forewarns that the word choice is merely an umbrella term that, "covers a wide range of education options that include publicly funded charter schools, homeschooling, magnet schools, and individual tax deductions (for approved educational expenses)". Michelman describes ESAs as "next-generation vouchers", and contends that of the available data, such as with the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, Louisiana's Scholarship Program, and with thousands of children in Ohio and Indiana, students actually performed worse in reading and math than their public school contemporaries. 


"Fraud, accountability and transparency have been persistent negative problems associated with the implementation of ESA programs. As reported in the Arizona Republic, an October 2018 audit by the Arizona Attorney General found that more than $700,000 was misspent on any number unrelated items such as beauty supplies, sports apparel, computer technical needs, and unwarranted spending outside of the needs of students. Fraud has grown so rampant in Florida that for the last two years the Orlando Sentinel has run a series entitled, Schools Without Rules, where they have documented the effects of unlicensed and untrained educators, mismanagement of funds, failure to pay teachers and pecuniary expenses, and inadequate services provided to special needs students along with a wide assortment of unmet and unfulfilled assurances.


"In Milwaukee, home to the nation's first school privatization model, more than 50 schools have closed in the Parental Choice Program, test scores have failed to yield superior results than traditional schools, and administrators used school resources to lease Cadillacs, purchase real estate, and keep their inner circle gainfully employed. Unfortunately, these types of stories regarding school privatization have become the norm, not the exception.


"Similarly, in a joint publication, the Schott Foundation and The Network for Public Education has developed a national report card that looks at each state’s democratic commitment to public education. Some of the more poignant concerns are the abandonment of civil rights protections, transparency, accountability and adequate funding. The authors disagree with the notion that school privatization is more effective than public schools run by locally elected school boards. Some of the more important aspects of the report is diversity in schools that fosters cultural understanding, civic development, and inclusivity. In grading each state, the report examines the following variables: (1) Types and Extent of Privatization;  (2.) Civil Rights Protections; (3.) Accountability, Regulations and Oversight; (4.) Transparency; (5). Other Factors (charter schools). Notwithstanding, Tennessee earned an overall grade of D on this report.


"There are other concerns over privatization. The Center for Media and Democracy calculated that nearly 2500 charter schools ceased to operate between 2001-2013 while the failure rate was higher than that for traditional schools. This affected nearly 290,000 children. Also, a 2017 study conducted by the AP News shined light on the fact that as of the 2014-2015 academic calendar year, more than 1,000 of the nearly 6,800 charter schools had a minority population of 99 percent which has raised concerns about segregation and racial isolation. In addition. the Department of Education's Office of Inspector General released an audit in 2018 that found that there must be greater guidance and directives given to States when charter schools close in order to better track Title I and federal monies that have been granted, and also protect student records and data. The burdens placed on SEAs, students and families is another challenge that arises as students must weigh other enrollment and graduation program options.

"The Southern Education Foundation, one of  the nation's oldest educational advocacy groups committed to ensuring equity in schools, has issued several legislative positions for 2019. Several of the positions we strongly concur with  are: (1) Limiting control of public education to the government closest and most responsive to the taxpayers and parents of the children being educated; (2) The implementation of a community schools approach or the provision of comprehensive  wraparound supports for all students, but especially low-income students or students who have experienced childhood trauma; (3) charter school networks that are inclusive, evidence-based, transparent, and publicly accountable for serving all students despite disability status, academic history, race/ethnicity or any other student characteristic.

"The Unity Group agrees with a recent policy statement adopted by the National Educators Association  in reaffirming, “public education is the cornerstone of our social, economic, and political structure.” It is our firm belief that the passage of vouchers and neo- vouchers would undermine this basic right,  and for this and the reasons we have listed we must oppose the proposed legislation currently being considered in the Tennessee General Assembly."


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