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Are School Vouchers A Fit in Pennsylvania?

This week is National School Choice week, and with events from California to New York, the debate over school vouchers is still hard fought.

School vouchers, or "Opportunity Scholarships" as supporters call them, are tuition certificates issued by the government to a family allowing students to apply that money towards private schooling.

Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), believes vouchers are unpopular, unaffordable, and unproven.

He said vouchers take money that could be going to struggling public schools and instead gives it to private institutions.

“With the amount of cuts that public education has seen over the years, (and) the economy, now is not the time to consider any large investment in an unpopular voucher system.”

Public Opinion on Vouchers

Robinson said a September 2011 Terry Madonna Opinion Research poll showed 65 percent of Pennsylvanians strongly or somewhat opposes use of tax dollars on vouchers.

Other polls, though, show public opinion is more split on the issue. In a 2004 Gallup Poll only 44% of Americans said they very or somewhat closely followed news about school vouchers. In the same poll 22 percent of Americans favored vouchers while 16 percent opposed it.

And, in a December 2011 Muhlenberg College Poll, 50 percent of Pennsylvanians questioned supported school vouchers with 44 percent opposed.

Priya Abraham, Senior Policy Analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank, said many urban area schools are doing poor jobs at educating children.

She said taxpayers should expect the money they pay to be put towards educating their kids.

“If we’re in a situation where a school, or several schools, are persistently failing to do that then I don’t see a problem with the public education dollars going elsewhere so that the kid ends up with the education that we promised he or she would get.”

Do Vouchers Improve Achievement?

Abraham said there is evidence that vouchers improve a child’s chance at success. She said there are 10 “gold standard studies” on the subject, and at least 9 of them point to children doing better in a voucher program.

One of those nine is a June 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Education on the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first federally funded private school voucher program in the U.S.

It found no conclusive evidence the program affected student achievement, but it did find the program did slightly improve students’ chances of graduating high school.

Other non-partisan reports have been less certain about school vouchers.

An August 2009 report by the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program found no statistically significant differences in any grade level between students in public schools and those in the program. The report did discover “slightly” higher scores from eighth graders in 2007-2008.

And a March 2003 evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program by the Indiana Center for Evaluation found no consistent difference in achievement between those enrolled in the program and those in public schools.

PA's Version of Vouchers

Pennsylvania has in place voucher-like programs such as the Equal Improvement Tax Credit Program (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (OSTC).

The EITC provides tax credits to businesses for contributing to a Scholarship Organization, an Educational Improvement Organization, or a Pre-Kindergarten Scholarship Organization.

And the OSTC provides tax credits to businesses who contribute to an Opportunity Scholarship Organization. That money is then used by an Opportunity Scholarship Organization to provide scholarships to students residing within a low-achieving school district.

Otto Banks, Executive director of the Reach Foundation (a school choice advocacy organization), said the two aren’t enough.

He said, while the programs do help those in underperforming schools, every parent should have the ability to choose what type of school their child attends.

“We encourage increased access to great public schools, to public charter schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, private schools, homeschooling, and more.”

Banks said not every child fits into the public school style of teaching. He said children are different and parents need to be able pick what works best for them.

PSBA Spokesman Steve Robinson said, since there’s little evidence vouchers work, the state’s should stay away from funding these programs and stick to improving public schools.

“If there’s no recognizable gain in voucher programs then we don’t believe that large numbers of public money should be used to fund these types of programs.”

To make informed decisions, the public must receive unbiased truth.

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