The End of Public Education As We Know it?

A number of state governors and legislatures are changing the way that public education is being funded.  They are  funneling public money directly to families, who would be free to choose the kind of schooling they believe is best for their children, be it public, charter, private, religious, online or at home.

This has already happened in Indiana, Alabama, New Jersey and Arizona. In Indiana, the Supreme Court upheld the state’s voucher program as constitutional. In Alabama, Governor Robert Bentley signed tax-credit legislation that allowed families to take their children out of failing public schools and enroll them in private schools, or at least in better-performing public schools. And in New Jersey, Governor Chris Chrisite inserted $2 million into his budget so low-income children can obtain private school vouchers.

Proponents say tax-credit and voucher programs offer families a way to escape failing public schools. But critics warn that by drawing money away from public schools, such programs weaken a system left vulnerable after years of crippling state budget cuts — while showing little evidence that students actually benefit.

“This movement is doing more than threaten the core of our traditional public school system,” said Timothy Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. “It’s pushing a national policy agenda embraced by conservatives across states that are receptive to conservative ideas.”

Currently, 17 states offer 33 programs that allow parents to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools, according to the American Federation for Children, a nonprofit advocate for school vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs that give individuals or corporations tax reductions if they donate to state-run scholarship funds.

The Arizona Legislature last May expanded the eligibility criteria for education savings accounts, which are private bank accounts into which the state deposits public money for certain students to use for private school tuition, books, tutoring and other educational services. Open only to special-needs students at first, the program has been expanded to include children in failing schools, those whose parents are in active military duty and those who are being adopted. One in five public school students — roughly 220,000 children — will be eligible in the coming school year.

Some parents of modest means are surprised to discover that the education savings accounts put private school within reach.

These state efforts come at a particularly challenging time for public schools. Their budgets suffered severely during the recession, and they are now facing pressure to conform to new curriculum standards and to evaluate teacher performance.In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that school vouchers did not violate the Constitution’s separation of church and state, even though many families use the public money to send their children to religious schools. Many states, however, still have constitutional clauses prohibiting the financing of religious institutions with public money, which is why some of the programs face legal challenges. Voucher opponents also have filed suits based on state constitutional guarantees of public education.

The Supreme Court in Louisiana heard an appeal by a group of parents who are currently using vouchers  after a lower court upheld a challenge to the state’s voucher program. They argued that children enrolled in failing public schools had the right to a high-quality education.

Critics say schools that accept vouchers or tax credit scholarships often filter out students with special needs, and that families already sending their children to private school use the public programs to subsidize their tuition. It is also not clear that students who attend private schools using vouchers get better educations, as many do not have to take the annual standardized tests that public school students do. Research tracking students in voucher programs has also not shown clear improvements in performance.In Arizona — which, over the past five years, cut more of its K-12 budget than any other state. The savings accounts have many powerful supporters, including Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer. Unlike vouchers, these accounts allow the money to follow the child from one school year to the next. (Scholarships total roughly $3,500 a year, or the state’s portion of school per-pupil funding.)

The school boards association and the state’s teachers union, among others, have challenged the savings accounts in court on the grounds that they violate a constitutional amendment banning spending public money on private schools. (Direct vouchers, begun in 2006, were deemed unconstitutional in 2009 for that reason.)