Thanks in part to redistricting, Georgia Republicans have hopes of achieving super-majorities in the state House and Senate in the next election cycle, meaning Democrats could no longer block changes to the state constitution.
Among other things, that’s almost certain to mean a renewed push to introduce a broad school-voucher program in the state.
The question is why.
Last month, Florida released the latest results of its school-voucher program for low-income students. More than 22,000 students took part in the program last school year, accounting for $148.5 million in state tax money diverted to private schools.
(Technically, the Florida program is funded by private donors, which in turn are given credits to lower their state tax bills. A $500 donation reduces your taxes by $500. Georgia has a relatively new program modeled closely after Florida’s.)
According to researcher David Figlio, an economist at Northwestern University, test results for voucher students last year showed modest to no gain. “In other words,” Figlio writes, “the typical student participating in the program tended to maintain his or her relative position in comparison with others nationwide.”
That has also been the result every year the test comparison has been conducted in Florida.
Figlio’s analysis does offer some interesting nuggets. For example, almost 50 percent of the students who joined the Florida voucher program last year came not from “failing schools,” but from schools rated as A by the Florida Department of Education. Only 9 percent of new voucher students came from schools rated D or F.
The test results out of Florida echo those in Milwaukee, which also has a long-standing voucher program. Students using vouchers there have performed no better and perhaps even worse than their peers who have remained in public schools.
Performance data, in other words, doesn’t seem to justify a dismantling of the public-school system in favor of a broad voucher system. It’s not the answer.
In fact, the whole concept seems more than a little strange. For example, in recent years state legislators and state and federal officials have imposed more and more restrictions on local school districts, dictating testing regimens, curriculum, training and how and where money is spent.
Yet in many cases, those same officials turn around and champion voucher programs that have few if any restrictions on how public money would be spent. They laud private schools for a flexibility that they themselves deny public-school counterparts. Oversight of the taxpayer dollar, used to justify strict regulation of public schools, is minimal by design under vouchers.
There’s also the matter of assimilation. Driven in part by immigration concerns, some Americans have become increasingly alarmed at the prospect of a multicultural America in which various ethnic and religious groups retreat into enclaves and don’t “melt” into the melting pot.
Traditionally, public schools have been the engine that ensured assimilation by taking children of all backgrounds and giving them the same general education. A broadly based voucher program dismantles that assimilation engine in favor of a system that subsidizes cultural separation. It’s not an accident that almost two-thirds of the private schools that participate in the Florida program are religious.
Of course, if voucher programs were producing the clearly superior results that its advocates try to claim, you could argue that whatever their other merits, public schools aren’t worth preserving and improving.
But clearly, that’s not the case.
– Jay Bookman