Private school voucher program: hope or all hype?

By Kameko Thomas

With Congress recently reinstating Washington DC’s school voucher program, the issue of providing state-funded private school vouchers for public, low-income, and mostly Black students in low-performing schools is once again on the national radar.

The renewed interest has found its way back into the Louisiana State Capitol, where advocacy groups including the Black Alliance for Educational Options are urging legislators to continue the $8 million program for next year and assisting parents in their push to expand the private school voucher program for East Baton Rouge Parish.

Known as the Student Scholarship for Educational Excellence, or SSEE, the program became active for the 2008-2009 school year for nearly 2,000 New Orleans students and has received $25 million in state funds. Another $8 million is appropriated in House Bill 1 but is being challenged by budget strains.

While it is true that inequity in education is still a source of concern, the notion that private school vouchers are an answer for what ails public education raises many questions, including: are private school vouchers the answer? what additional opportunities, if any, do students who utilize the voucher program have of being academically successful? what guarantees are there that they will graduate, transition into college and lead successful, productive lives? and, what role does accountability have in the education equation?

According to former Louisiana BAEO state director Shree Medlock, the alliance has been active in Louisiana since 2007 and was “instrumental” in establishing the private voucher program in New Orleans.

Medlock, who is now national advocacy director, said parents in East Baton Rouge Parish heard of the voucher program’s success in New Orleans and asked BAEO to help expand the program during a community forum last month.

What exactly are these parents expecting from the vouchers program and are those expectations realistic were not discussed during the forum. However, Medlock said that the BAEO’s objective is to “just [provide] the option”.

“Not everyone will take it,” she said. “But it is [there] to provide the option. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and they would like to have the option.” Her answer fits directly with BAEO’s written mission: to “increase access to high-quality educational options for Black children by actively supporting parental choice policies and programs that empower low-income and working-class Black families”.

However, there isn’t empirical evidence suggesting that voucher policies or programs will empower low-income students or Black students. But for BAEO, Medlock said it’s just important that parents have the option.

BAEO offers little answers to questions like: if resources for public school system in Louisiana are completely dismantled under the guise of parental choice, and African-American children drop out of private schools because of the lack of adequate and appropriate social and cultural support, where will they go? What are their options then? What will they become? Who stands to benefit the most from their failures? And, is this all really the parent’s choice?
BAEO itself is not so much an organization as it is a “project” of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, headquartered at Marquette University in Wisconsin, the very state whose governor has publicly questioned the viability and necessity of the exact program that BAEO works so hard to promote.

In Louisiana, students participating in the voucher program are required to take the LEAP test as a measurement of the program’s success. These scores are compared to the scores of the students of the schools they left.

Of the 135 fourth grade SSEE students who took the LEAP test last year (2009-2010), 34 percent scored basic or above on the English portion of the test, whereas 85 percent of public school students in Orleans Parish scored basic or above during the same year.

Can this experience be considered a gain for the students even with the lower scores or is it simply a gain for the spirit of competitiveness which education reformist attest?
Louisiana’s student results are similar to a national trend.
Diane Ravitich, former national assistant secretary of education, found “there were relatively small achievement gains for students offered educational vouchers, most of which were not statistically different from zero.”

Similarly, the National Coalition for Public Education, found “the use of a voucher had no statistically significant impact on overall student achievement in math or reading.”

Their 2009 report revealed that students in schools in need of improvement have “shown no improvement in reading or math due to the voucher program.” They found that many voucher schools lack the high quality programs and resources found in public schools; that voters do not support the voucher program; and the DC voucher program does not ensure parental choice.

While many people believe that private school vouchers are the academic be-all end-all for Black students, others disagree.

In his article, “False Choice: How private school vouchers might harm minority students”, The New Republic writer Matthew McKnight argues “there are problems with education in America that are so deeply rooted that not even private and independent schools escape them, which renders the notion of school vouchers out of touch with the nuanced problem of the achievement gap that it attempts to solve.”

A 2007 research report concluded by psychologists Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen showed the same. “In academic and professional settings, members of socially stigmatized groups are more uncertain of the quality of their social bonds and thus more sensitive to the issues of social belonging. We call this ‘belonging uncertainty’, and suggest that it contributes to racial disparities in achievement.” A similar study conducted by Barnard College Professor Steven Stroessner stated that in “performance-based situations in which a person actually expects to be ‘the single representative of a stereotyped group,’ lowered performance results most often occur.”

These are valid, and often ignored, points.

So, why the hard push for private school vouchers and tax breaks for that matter? The answer to that question lies within the origins of BAEO which is funded by free-market-oriented foundations and think tanks.

In 2001 – the year it permanently shut down operations – the John M. Olin Foundation gave BAEO $100,000.

In 2009, BAEO received $900,000 according to a Foundation Center IRS report from the Walton Family Foundation. BAEO also received $200,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, as well as an additional $425,000 over a three-year period from the Jaquelin Hume Foundation.

These foundations are known to support conservative and neoconservative political policies and ideologies.

Most of them, it is believed, are dedicated toward the eradication of public schools because of their connections and involvement with other policies.

For example, Hume Foundation Founder Jaquelin “Jack” Hume also founded the Citizens for America, an organization created to promote President Ronald Reagan’s political agenda by “selling” the public on Reagan’s pet projects, among them the Strategic Defense Initiative and the Contra war.
The momentum of education reform is maintained by Foundations like these and states where public education needs major overhaul fall victim to rhetoric.

No one who’s seen the statistics on the reading comprehension levels of the state’s African-American students (91 percent are rated “below proficient”) can deny that our children are in great peril, and that steps must be taken to address it.
Private school vouchers, however, are reactive in nature, and Louisiana schools and districts statewide need to be more proactive.

To assume that an African-American child, having been plunked down into a completely unfamiliar and potentially hostile environment from one that—even if not academically sound—was understanding and considerate of his social and psychological needs, will suddenly “swim” in this new environment presumes much of this private school voucher program.

It also presumes much of students’ and parents’ mindsets—and that of the private school systems.

Kameko Thomas is a Shreveport-based freelance writer covering education, politics, business, and economic development. Thomas is a contributing writer and columnist for Jozef Syndicate. She can be reached at Candace J. Semien contributed to this article.

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