Last Thursday I attended a fascinating program hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute around the release of a report by the American Federation of Children entitled, “Private School Choice: How Do Programs Nationwide Stack Up?” The forum’s facilitator was Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute. Whitney Marcavage, AFC policy director, took the audience through the study. She explained that as of July of this year there are an astonishing 400,000 pupils across 25 states and the District of Columbia enrolled in 50 private school school programs. Her organization only included those that “give parents enough assistance to actually make a different educational choice” and “provide parents with a variety of private school options, including religious schools.”
The breakdown of private school choice programs is as follows: 23 are vouchers like the one that operates here in the nation’s capital, 20 are classified as scholarship tax credits, five count as Educational Savings Accounts, and two were defined as individual tuition tax credit plans.
The programs were then ranked on a point system against the criteria of “broad eligibility for participation,” “high scholarship amounts and enrollment growth,” and “transparency and accountability.”
To end the suspense the private school choice program in the United States that scored highest against these three measures was Florida’s tax credit scholarship. The Opportunity Scholarship Program in D.C. was tied for 13, marked down for the restrictive income limits for participation, the total dollar amount of the vouchers compared to the allocation for each pupil contained in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, and for the number of children enrolled.
The most interesting part of the presentation for me was the panel discussion. Joining Mr. Petrilli and Ms. Marcavage on stage were Robert Behning, an Indiana State Representative; Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; and Derrell Bradford, vice president of 50CAN. Mr. Behning’s remarks caught my attention.
The Choice Scholarship Program in his state qualified as the number 1 voucher program in this country according to the AFC study. Mr. Behning explained that there are a couple of reasons for the success of the plan. First, the Representative detailed that a sizable number of families in his state qualify for the voucher, on a sliding scale, because of the relatively high income limit. The large participation rate generates broad support for the scholarships. Mr. Behning argued that voucher programs such as the OSP actually work against political backing because they are are targeted toward helping kids living in poverty, a population that often has the least influence at a public policy level. This line of reasoning makes a lot of sense.
In D.C. in order to increase support for the OSP we created the Three-Sector approach. This means that the funds appropriated by Congress for the vouchers also include equal amounts for traditional and charter schools. But another way to reach the same point or even to drive up community enthusiasm for the program could be to up the total number of children that qualify due to earnings.
Mr. Behning related that another component of vouchers in Indiana that has the effect of diminishing political opposition is that the scholarship level is set at 90 percent of the school system’s per pupil revenue. This means in practice that any child that receives a voucher lowers the amount of money being spent on education, providing the state’s representatives another 10 percent to allocate to other priorities.
The event provided much to consider regarding school choice in this country.