Despite Changes, Senate Voucher Plan Deeply Flawed

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Next week, the Pennsylvania Senate may take up an amended plan to create the largest-in-the nation private school vouchers program.

While Senate Bill 1 was amended last week, the bill remains deeply flawed.

Despite capping part of the cost, the program will be expensive, with costs approaching half a billion dollars within three years.

The amended bill places a $250 million cap on the cost of vouchers going to low-income students outside the attendance boundaries of the 144 initially targeted (“lowest-achieving”) schools. Even with this cap, the total cost (including the cost of vouchers for students within the targeted areas) would range from $400 million to $500 million in Year 3 and beyond. The biggest uncertainty in this estimate is the number of low-income public-school students within the boundaries of the targeted schools who will choose to transition to private schools.

Most of the $250 million set aside for vouchers to students outside the 144 targeted schools would likely go to low-income students already enrolled in private schools.

The Senate Democratic Appropriations Committee estimates that between 52,500 and 65,000 low-income students already enrolled in private schools would be eligible for vouchers — which would cost $320 million to $420 million. These students and their parents will be particularly motivated to seek out vouchers, and their schools will be motivated to help them. Since the state currently pays nothing towards the education of these students, their vouchers would amount to an entirely new cost to the state. Providing these vouchers would not reduce the demands on the public school system or the cost of serving existing students.

While an amendment to the bill would require private schools to assess voucher student progress in grades, 3, 5, 8, and 11, this provision provides the appearance, but not the substance, of educational accountability.

Private schools would have the option of administering their own customized assessment or picking from a list of at least eight national achievement tests. Parents would be unable to make apples-to-apples comparisons of student progress to evaluate school quality. Researchers would also be unable to rigorously compare the progress of voucher students and comparable public school students. In sum, this provision amounts to “faux accountability.”

Overall, the changes to SB 1 do not address the flaws of the bill:

  • It remains an expensive new program that would have little impact in nearly the 60% of Pennsylvania counties that have very few private schools.
  • It diverts money from the most financially strapped public schools at a time they can ill afford it.
  • The bill still does not establish meaningful financial or educational accountability that goes beyond the lack of accountability in the state’s existing EITC voucher program. (On the lack of accountability in the EITC program, see Keystone Research Center's recent report on this topic.)
  • Vouchers and competition are not the key to educational achievement. U.S. research shows that vouchers do not improve educational achievement (for details, see Appendix A of the KRC report). Additional international rankings of student achievement show that the highest-performing countries are distinguished not by reliance on vouchers but rather by (a) adequate and equitable funding for students in all geographical areas, (b) significant investment in early childhood education, and (c) well developed systems of mentoring and peer learning that help all students become more effective in the classroom.

One of the reasons that the achievement of Pennsylvania school students has improved substantially in the last decade is because the state has increased state support of the lowest-income districts as well as investment in evidence-based programs such as early childhood education. That is the recipe for continued progress going forward.

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