State Representative Valarie Hodges was furious. The Louisiana lawmaker had enthusiastically backed Governor Bobby Jindal’s bill to give state funds to private religious schools. But then somebody dropped the bomb: religious schools meant all religious schools, including ones teaching about Islam.
“Unfortunately it (vouchers) will not be limited to the Founders’ religion… We need to insure[sic] that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam[sic] schools,” she told a local newspaper. Rep. Hodges withdrew her support for the bill, and other lawmakers followed. The bill passed anyways, 51-49.
Although obvious to many, Rep. Hodges’ surprise at one of the unexpected consequences of the program means more await, not only for the growing voucher supporters, but anyone concerned about trying to reform the nation’s schools.
Vouchers as a solution to failing schools is gaining steam. 26 states have or are planning to expand their current programs. The intent of vouchers is to use state funds to provide scholarship money that would allow students to opt out of public schools and into private ones. Each state will set its own standards in terms of qualifying family income, public schools they currently attend, disabilities, and other factors they consider worthy of a voucher.
The states will also be responsible for auditing private schools accepting funding, and here a number of problems have already arisen. Louisiana provides examples: In-state public schools allows voucher students but these schools must prove high rankings; private schools do not. 97 percent of private schools have not kept adequate funding records. 30 percent of the schools have overcharged the state by accepting funds over normal tuition, and some schools accepted students that were not financially eligible for a subsidy.
Some schools accept almost nothing but voucher students, meaning they are relying on state funding to stay in business. Vouchers were supposed to bring students out of failing schools and into high performing ones but if the money is only used to keep the lights on the promise of excellence in education likely becomes secondary.
These are only some of the consequences. Others await. If education is subordinate to financial realities, and the state cannot get involved in standards, pretty much anything goes; schools can teach whatever they want. Supporters have long argued this is the point. But few would argue a well-educated populace is necessary to the growing health and prosperity on the nation. Unfortunately, there seems to be no consensus what “well-educated” means.
According to Politico, 14 states have spent almost $1 billion in state funds to subsidize schools teaching some form of creationism or an entirely Bible-based curriculum. Not to suggest religious schools cannot provide a good education, but plenty can’t and fail to prepare students to pass standardized tests and move on to higher education. Supporters have complained their children are subjected to information counter to their beliefs. But only learning what a student or family wants them to know as opposed to what they need to know is helping no one. Of course, what they need to know up for debate.
Nobody would deny public education has major problems. Many schools have inadequate teachers or teachers that have to spend their time keeping order instead of teaching. Schools are underfunded, use their funds badly, are hampered by standardization rules, or are paralyzed by powerful teacher’s unions that are losing support.
But in many cases the voucher program will exacerbate the problems. It will take away even more funding from districts that need the money. It will leave public schools to deal only with problem students or ones that can’t academically qualify for vouchers. And it will likely siphon away much of the best teaching talent. Private schools can’t serve all the students; until someone finds the way for for-profit schools to handle the needs of the entire educational system, public school are still necessary.
Still, the greatest repercussion for the support movement may have been voiced by Rep. Hodges. If vouchers are going to be the law of the land, and public money is given to private schools, it has to go to them all. We start excluding ones we don’t like- Islamic schools, Hindu schools, Gaia-worshiping schools- an entirely new world of trouble awaits. School vouchers are here and the idea is growing in popularity. Those opposed have their reasons; advocates must also understand there will be unexpected consequences.
Opinion by Andrew Elfenbein
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyelf