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School Vouchers May Make It Into Pennsylvania’s Budget. What Would They Really Do?

by Katie Meyer of Spotlight PA

Photo courtesy of Nate Smallwood / For Spotlight PA

School choice vouchers could be part of the budget being negotiated in Pennsylvania. They’re controversial, and decades of studies show they have mixed results.

This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

Few arguments in Harrisburg are as fraught as the one happening now over school choice vouchers, and it features a lot of spin from lawmakers and lobbyists.

Still, as budget talks speed toward a resolution that may include them, there is also a substantial body of research from decades of voucher use in multiple states that can offer some clarity.

Broadly, voucher programs route public funding into private schools, generally in the form of scholarships, to give students additional options. The first statewide program launched in Florida in 1999, and since then, sixteen states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have created some form of voucher initiative.

Here’s a rundown of studies of the programs, their results, and lessons Pennsylvania could take from existing research:

Program design shapes voucher outcomes

Peer-reviewed studies on vouchers’ effects began in the early 2000s.

According to Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas who has led such studies for years and written extensively about factors that make school choice programs work, those early analyses showed fairly consistent results.

“What we see in the patterns in the data, first-year effects, often, are somewhat negative. By the second year, students have pretty much squared their performance up with the control group students. And then by the third and fourth year, they show small test score gains,” he said.

However, those early voucher studies focused mostly on small pilot programs in urban districts, according to Wolf. In those days, programs tended to be narrowly targeted at low-income students or low-performing schools.

That’s no longer always the case. Several previously narrow programs are now open to any family who wants to use them, and large, statewide programs are growing in popularity.

More recent research has shown much more mixed results on these broader versions of vouchers. Studies on Louisiana’s program from 2018 and 2019 are among the most frequently cited: They showed a consistent trend of declining test scores among participating students.

University of Wisconsin-Madison education policy professor Joshua Cowen, who has written a book on the research case against vouchers, cites those Louisiana studies to argue that the programs are counterproductive. The results highlight a problem he believes is common: The schools students were sent to with vouchers weren’t very good.

Cowen thinks early studies showed promising results because they featured a “handful of schools carefully selected by the research team to participate. They have the infrastructure to participate in the scientific studies. They have the capacity to absorb 15 low-income kids and work with them.”

But things don’t work that way at a larger scale, he argued.

“When we’re talking about statewide systems on the order of 10,000 kids or 20,000 kids,” he said, there aren’t enough quality private schools to send them to. “We’re only talking about a handful of private schools that are any good and can actually absorb those kinds of burdens.”

Wolf agrees that the Louisiana program routed students to subpar schools. But he believes it’s more due to flaws in the program than a fundamental issue with vouchers.

The program offered relatively small scholarships and didn’t allow schools to charge more than that, he said, which led to struggling private schools being the only ones that accepted such low tuition.

“A lot of private schools looked at that deal and said, ‘We’re out, we’re not going to accept these terms.’”

Pennsylvania’s program, if passed with the same language that is currently before the state Senate, would avoid some of the pitfalls Wolf and Cowen point to in other states. The same language was also part of budget talks last year, but ultimately did not pass.

Like Louisiana’s voucher law, Pennsylvania’s bill language would create a small program — $100 million overall. However, it wouldn’t include many of the restrictions of Louisiana’s bill. Parents would be able to supplement tuition with their own money or with other scholarships, for instance.

The program also would be available only to students from relatively low-income families — those that make less than 250% of the federal poverty guidelines or less than $78,000 annually for a family of four.

Students would also have to attend “low-achieving” schools in order to qualify, though The Inquirer recently noted that the current language would also allow some to receive vouchers if they attend the high-achieving Philadelphia schools that accept kids from across the city.

Cowen noted, “If they do pass a bill in Pennsylvania [with income limits], that would be one of the first in a very long time.”

Positive culture or open discrimination?

Still, there are other reasons Cowen and other voucher opponents remain staunchly skeptical of the proposal. One is school culture.

Many private schools are built around religious doctrine, and critics of those institutions note that this means a student who is openly LGBTQ or becomes pregnant could face discrimination or expulsion.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act bars discrimination based on race, religion, and disability but explicitly doesn’t apply to private schools. Federal law prevents such schools from discriminating based on race, but further protections have been a point of contention for the schools in the past, and have led them to argue such protections infringe on their religious liberty.

This issue came up frequently during last year’s budget-season debates over vouchers.

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center who helped argue the successful lawsuit that ended in Pennsylvania’s school funding system being declared inequitable, told Spotlight PA at the time that the law allows religious schools to “say, sorry, we don’t take gay kids at this school.”

He added he believes Pennsylvania “should in no way use public funds to allow discrimination against children.”

Wolf acknowledged concerns about school culture in his conversation with Spotlight PA and noted that each school has different values and still must follow federal civil rights laws during the admission process.

However, he argued that state protections against such expulsions would lead to schools not joining the program, further restricting students’ options.

“You have to let their culture and their values endure because otherwise, you’re asking them to become something different, something that they’re not,” Wolf told Spotlight PA.

He added that studies have also shown that private schools’ cultures can have positive effects on students in the form of civic values like political tolerance and participation.

“These are strong culture communities where there’s a shared set of expectations regarding behavior,” Wolf said.

The pie is only so big

The other side of the argument over vouchers has more to do with public schools: namely, whether the programs damage them by routing away money and students.

Again, Wolf and Cowen’s arguments differ. Wolf points to studies that show that in public school districts where voucher programs were introduced, students who stayed in the districts showed neutral to marginally positive changes in achievement.

“The test score effects are modest in size,” he said, but added, “it suggests that when faced with competition from choice, public schools are able to improve their performance and their academic offerings.”

Cowen focuses more on the impacts on state budgets. Voucher programs, he said, tend to grow significantly over time.

“Florida, Ohio, and Arizona, the biggest universal programs, are well over a billion dollars in spending each year,” he said. “A billion dollars is hard to find money for in any state budget, even in a state as big as Florida or as big as Arizona.”

Many voucher advocates have noted that the $100 million for the most recently proposed Pennsylvania program would be a drop in the bucket of the commonwealth’s more than $45 billion budget and that it would come from a completely separate line item from public school funding.

Cowen doesn’t think that matters.

“Those are new costs to the state, so the state budget has to find ways to absorb them,” he said. “Where the defunding public schools comes in is, at some point, this crowds out real, meaningful increases in public school spending.”

Ultimately, he said, “there’s only so much of the pie to go around.”

Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso contributed to reporting for this story

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