Dear Faith-Based and Private Schools: You DON’T Want Vouchers!

For quite some time now, parents have been lobbying lawmakers to use the tax money which they pay to fund educational initiatives relative to where they want their children to be educated.  The rationale is that the public education system in some parts of this country is “broken,” since children are, in their opinion, not offered the opportunity to excel academically, nor is the educational environment particularly a safe and caring one.  Therefore, a parent is entitled to have the opportunity to choose a different educational environment for their children by virtue of the fact that they pay taxes which support those educational constructs.

In other words, parents should have the right to choose, and the local public school is a monopoly when it comes to educational choice.

As a wise person once said, ‘Be careful what you wish for, for someday you may get it.”

Several states have passed legislation allowing vouchers for alternative educational environments, including faith-based and private schools, to be issued to families of children in poorly performing schools in public school districts.  Once a faith-based or private school has made it know that they will accept these vouchers, parents are open to enroll their children there, so long as they qualify, until the school is at its enrollment capacity.

What has this done:

In Florida, schools that were performing well-above average yearly progress (AYP) benchmarks could accept students from school districts that were performing below AYP benchmarks.  The result: the well-above average schools AYP declined, making it eligible for less government funding.

In Ohio, faith-based elementary schools have rejoiced at the ability to serve the people they were founded to serve – the poor and the marginalized – and some have been able to raise their tuition to the point that they are able to take full advantage of the entire amount of the voucher.  Unfortunately, there have been 3 unintended consequences resulting from this “achievement”:

1) Parents that have the ability to pay the full cost of tuition and do not qualify for vouchers just received a substantial tuition increase, causing them to withdraw their children from the school;

2) Parents of children who qualify for vouchers do not have to participate in fundraising activities for the school, and cannot be charged additional fees as tuition-paying families could be charged if they chose not to sell scrip, candy, fruit, or any other fundraising activities that might help to defray the increased tuition rates; and

3) While faith-based elementary schools have benefitted from the program, faith-based high schools are suffering, since they must accept the voucher as payment in full, and the amount of the voucher is usually well below the usual tuition charged at a private or faith-based high school, let alone the cost of education.  There is no possible way to generate the additional revenue needed from voucher-qualifying families vis-a-vis from a “tuition” payment to cover the shortfall, so the school must further increase tuition or require additional fundraising support (which will upset those families that do not qualify for vouchers), simply not accept vouchers (which will upset those families that have had the advantage of a faith-based or private school education in the primary grades), or raise additional funds through fundraising, development and advancement activities, thereby increasing the amount of work necessary to engage alumni, businesses, community members and other donors that wish to see the school continue to be a beacon of hope in the community, when it was thought that vouchers would help to decrease the amount of work in raising money.

Learning:  It’s not all about the money.

Just as an awareness of systems thinking is necessary to see that all things can and must work together for good, an awareness of systems thinking can also allow one to see the systemic destructive attributes of State-funded vouchers.  As one colleague once said, “With government money comes government strings.”

Is there a solution?  Yes.

Tax-credit scholarships.  Why?  Voucher money is distributed by the state government.  It consists of funds that have come from people and businesses via taxation, pass through the state treasury, and are distributed according to the guidelines approved by state governments.

Tax credits are different.  The money does not touch the state treasury.  Monies come in the form of contributions to scholarship organizations which then distribute the money to schools as tuition payments for qualifying families.  The donors then receive a tax credit for the contribution.  The advantages:

1) It’s a scholarship.  Recipients can be required to maintain a certain level of academic achievement to continue the scholarship;

2) It can be need-based.  Parents are still charged tuition, but the scholarships defray the tuition charged to the families in accordance with school policy.  Parents can still be expected to participate in fundraising and/or development activities too.  It makes everyone part of the community which must be supported;

3) Scholarship Organizations are approved by the state government, and the amount of tax-credits are also approved by the state government, allowing for supervision and reporting;

4) Tax credits can be awarded to individuals and businesses who make contributions to scholarship organizations, and, if the scholarship organization is set up as a non-profit 501(c)3 for educational purposes, charitable contributions may be tax-deductible to help offset the donor’s federal tax liability; and

5) In states where tax credit programs have been enacted, it provides great examples of the residents of the community, businesses and government working together create learning centers of excellence and innovation based on a parent or guardian’s choice of educational environment, their continued engagement with the school community, and the student’s commitment to achieving to the fullest of their potential.