A Pennsylvania state senator from the Philadelphia area has introduced a bill which is now up for debate in the state senate that would provide eduational vouchers for students from low income families who live in “poor performing” school districts to attend any school outside of their district, including private, parochial schools. It is not the first time that Pennsylvania has considered some form of eduational assistance for students to attend private, faith-based schools, but the odds of it passing are considered to be much higher this time. As a result, the rhetoric is getting shrill and the misinformation is spreading.
There is a reason that private, Christian schools are being included in the current voucher bill. In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, the way education is being measured shows that the publicly funded, government operated school system is making very little, if any, progress in providing students with an effective education. Those measurements mainly include test scores on a standardized test designed around the state-approved curriculum and scores on the two major college entrance exams. And while the faith-based schools, mainly Catholic and Evangelical Christian schools, along with private, academic institutions, don’t always give the state curriculum exam, students in those schools who take them, along with the ACT and SAT college entrance tests and nationally normed tests like the Stanford Achievement Test and the Iowa Test of basic skills, generally do significantly better than their public school counterparts. Pennsylvania, like many other states, has tried alternative programming in the schools to help raise the test scores, including setting money aside for experimental schools, charter schools and the new trend, cyber schools. None of the alternatives have worked to improve the quality of public education, and in fact, some of the charter and cyber schools have lower scores than the rest of the public system.
Hence, we have a renewed push for a voucher program. The current bill, PA Senate Bill #1, would provide vouchers for students from qualified low income families who live in school districts with ratings that classify them as “poor performing” to attend schools of their choice. That would include neighboring public schools that are not labelled “poor performing” as well as charter schools or private schools that have seats available. The bill is designed to expand over a three year period, eventually offering vouchers to any students in poor performing districts, and to low income students in any district.
There are two main objections to the bill, surprisingly, few objections related to the fact that Christian oriented schools will receive the money. One is the fact that this will increase the cost of public education in Pennsylvania at a time when the legislature is seeking ways to cut the budget in order to account for major shortfalls. The second is that private schools are essentially unregulated, and not accountable to the state department of education, but will be receiving “state” funds.
In fact, the cost of education in Pennsylvania will not increase as a result of this bill, if it is handled properly. Vouchers will be given in the exact dollar amount it now costs the state to provide public education per student per year, approximately $10,000. But most private schools, especially the religious-based ones, charge less than that in tuition and fees for a year, the average is about $8,200. Christian schools could only receive vouchers in the amount of their maximum tuition, registration and fee schedule for a school year. The average savings per student, calculated by the proponents of this bill, would be $1,800, multiplied by approximately 100,000 students who are estimated to take advantage of this program in its first year of operation. And while the public schools would lose these state dollars from their budget, their operating costs would decrease proportionately with the loss of students. To cut their expenses, they would simply make adjustments in their budget to reflect the decreased enrollment. They’ll holler about whether they can do this. The alternative would be to improve the quality of the education they deliver in order to avoid being classified as “poor performing.”
Perhaps one of the main reasons private, Christian schools enjoy the academic success that they do is because they are almost completely free from government regulation and interference. They are not accountable to the state, or to the U.S. Department of Education, they are accountable to the parents who pay the tuition and fees and send their students to them. That creates a unique partnership, and a strong support system for students. The end result of that is a level of academic success which, when measured by the state applied standards, shows up in higher test scores. The bottom line, though, is that for private, Christian schools, test scores are not the “product” that is considered the end result of the educational experience and that factor in and of itself is a key to academic achievement.
And while the naysayers and opponents of vouchers continue to say that they don’t work with regard to producing the achievement levels the state departments of education are seeking, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that when students enter a private, Christian school, regardless of the grade level, over a period of time, their test scores and personal academic achievement measureably increase. In most cases, they will work their way into the grade level averages with their peers.
For the faith-based schools, the end result goes way beyond test scores. But if, in this particular way, they are able to get positive results, shouldn’t the state be willing to give it a try, and keep their regulatory hands off?